This will probably be controversial, but Zero Dark Thirty is one of my biggest disappointments of the year. Considering all the critics awards the film had garnered, I was expecting something that topped the previous collaboration between screenwriter Mark Boal and director Katharine Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. But Zero Dark Thirty, which purports to be a journalistic account of one CIA agent’s long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has neither the drama, tension, character development or accuracy to the facts of their previous Best Picture effort. Worse, it seems clear to me that the main sources relied upon by the filmmakers have told their own stories in a way that distorts the truth and flatters themselves.
Yes, I’m talking about torture. This movie talks about torture throughout, and we first meet our two ostensible heroes Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) as they brutally abuse a prisoner in a CIA black site. I must strongly agree with the critics who are saying this film presents a false and irresponsible view of the torture program a.k.a. “detainee program” run by the CIA in the wake of 9/11. Because the movie opens with a title that states the events depicted are based on fact, and because those events are filmed with documentary-like style of shooting and dialogue, most people are going to walk away from this film with the inaccurate view that torture done to Al Qaida operatives was ugly, but worth it.
The reasons to mistrust this depiction of the torture are two-fold. First, all publicly-available accounts say that the torture program was a failure on all levels, producing unreliable information and causing the U.S. to lose international support when it was exposed. John McCain and two other senators who have access to the intelligence have called the movie “grossly inaccurate” and “misleading”.:
Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.
Despite what movies and TV shows often depict, torture is widely regarded to be counter-productive in gathering intelligence.
Second, if the “Maya” character is the same CIA analyst who was recently outed as someone who was reprimanded for inviting herself to the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and who failed to pass on information about the 9/11 hijackers before the fact, then this movie conveniently leaves out her role in intelligence failures, not just the one big success. The movie does hint that she is driven by some past event. Many have speculated that she had relatives die in the towers. It could be that she feels guilt over letting the 9/11 hijackers slip through her fingers. The point is, the filmmakers are too craven or bamboozled to dig into the darker side of such a person.
Meanwhile, “Maya” and whomever the “Dan” character is based upon, in providing background to the filmmakers, of course would have every reason to play up the importance of intel gathered through torture, since they were part of that program. Complicating matters is the fact that Boal and Bigelow started making the film before the raid on the Bin Laden compound. Since this provides the climax of the film, and is the one part of the film that does not conflict with other journalistic reports, it leads me to wonder. If the real Maya was truly as gung-ho about getting her superiors to strike at the compound, mightn’t she have begun talking to Boal and Bigelow as a way to increase the pressure to strike? That the movie might’ve been part of a political propaganda campaign from the beginning makes it likely that it remains so.
I always wondered how I’d fall on the Leni Riefenstahl continuum if I was around when Triumph of the Will came out. I guess my reaction to this film answers that. This is technically-excellent filmmaking in the service of a morally-reprehensible personal agenda. While it would seem Zero Dark Thirty fits in the grand tradition of factual-recreation thrillers like Battle of Algiers and The Day of Jackal, there is a key difference. Those films show you the perspectives of both cat and mouse. Here, we begin with the emotionally-loaded audio of emergency calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center towers. We do not begin with the CIA training Bin Laden during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. That training is probably one of the reasons he was able to evade the CIA for so long.
And although Bigelow and Boal have said they feel the movie presents a balanced view of torture, it never shows the many documented incidences where it lead to false intelligence. (It turns out, when you waterboard someone, they will say literally anything to get the torture to stop. They say what they think their tormentors wish to hear, not the truth.) We see an interview where Obama calls torture “immoral” through the perspective of the Maya character, and after the detainee program is shut down, she and Dan complain repeatedly that it is hampering them in their jobs. Dan says he’ll take responsibility for the program, but he seems to suffer no consequences. The next time we see him, he is involved in the high-level meetings about striking Bin Laden’s compound. The higher-ups are waffling on a risky strike. They dare to ask for solid intelligence that it is actually Bin Laden. At one point our heroes complain that they can’t question the Gitmo prisoners, because they would leak through their lawyers and tip off Bin Laden. Oh, man, the rule of law sucks!
The movie shows the CIA forward-deployed in these Muslim countries, kidnapping and torturing citizens but not falsely rounding up civilians along with bad guys. And Zero Dark Thirty makes no mention that Obama also stepped up drone strikes, which resulted in many more civilian casualties. Knowing this, the movie almost makes you sympathize with the suicide bombers and gunmen lashing out at these CIA outposts, who are defending their own homeland, after a fashion. In the film, Bin Laden cleverly lures another female agent (Jennifer Ehle) by having a Jordanian doctor pretend to be a mole. The CIA and the US military, for all their sophistication and resources, are failing to find and kill the people who are finding and killing them. “Make no mistake,” says one CIA superior (Mark Strong) in a dressing-down speech, “we are losing.” Why are they losing, when there are dedicated agents like Maya and Dan on the case? The bureaucracy is shutting them down. They care about silly things like being ethical and accurately targeting the bad guys.
After Bin Laden is killed, Maya is asked where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer, and she cries. Her whole life since high school, we are told, has been spent hunting Bin Laden. She has no time for a boyfriend. What a fearless, dedicated person, we are meant to think. But I couldn’t help thinking that the real Maya is probably not a crier. She probably did not look as queasy as Chastain did in the torture scenes. She is probably the sort of driven, career-minded agent who would have no qualms with spinning some filmmakers into mythologizing her own story, if it would help advance her career. They say the winners get to write history. Watching Zero Dark Thirty excuse torture and bad intelligence work, never has this seemed more true.
– Steve Pond interviews Jessica Chastain. She based the character on Jodie Foster from Silence of the Lambs as well as the real Maya.-
– Xeni Jardin feels even more strongly about the torture