Anyone who did not see “Zero Dark Thirty” on its opening night was smart, as it was mayhem in theaters everywhere. The film shot to #1 at the box office overnight and is there still, for the plain and simple reason that it’s a must see (no spoiler alert here because we all know at least a little about eliminating Osama bin Laden). Zero Dark features a razor sharp screenplay by Mark Boal, top form directing by Kathryn Bigelow, and higher than high stakes drama from start to finish.
This film, however, is sufficiently controversial that there may soon be Congressional hearings about it–Sen. John McCain and Sen. Diane Feinstein had it in their sites by day one. The charge is that Bigelow and Boal depict torture in a manner that glorifies it, by way of a plot that allegedly portrays the U.S. government/military eliminating OBL only via intelligence gleaned from full on, no holds barred torture. In my view they are innocent of this charge. The raging debate over the film is misdirected and could do better to be debating this country’s torture legacy rather than a film that deserves serious consideration for a best picture Oscar.
But hell hath no greater fury than the movement against this abhorrent method of gathering intelligence, which is why the debate could hardly be more fast and furious at the moment. True enough, torture is not only morally and legally wrong; it is also unreliable and rarely effective (see below). But this film is being unfairly tarred and feathered, its first casualty the denial of an Oscar nomination for Bigelow’s directing. Members of the Academy are protesting the film instead of voting for it. And critics beyond the industry are already massing, only their fire is not friendly.
What the filmmakers Bigelow and screenplay writer Mark Boal actually do is what all good artists do: present their subject in beautifully rendered form and let the viewer decide on its ultimate meaning or wider importance. They expressly do not glorify torture, which was rightfully ended by our government (at least in its harshest forms). They depict the post 9-11 torture that has been widely documented in a straightforward, fairly shuddering manner. It disturbs the viewer because it should; it is pretty unsettling stuff. Bigelow and Boal don’t shirk from showing it straight up for what it is: harsh violence intended to force uncooperative detainee combatants to offer details that will help the U.S. to roll up al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
However, for the chief charge to be true, the film’s plot would need to show an unbroken chain of intelligence, from the waterboarding and beating of detainees to the name and location of OBL’s personal courier and the location of OBL himself. But the chain in the film is broken. This is what the vast majority of viewers are missing. True enough, the name of OBL’s courier is given up by Ammar, the detainee in the film who is subjected to the most on screen torture. After being subjected to a form of the rack and being kept for an unspecified amount of time in a small wooden box, Ammar gives up three names–including OBL’s courier’s name–and immediately the scene is cut.
But Maya, the lead OBL analyst from the CIA, already had the courier’s name prior to this scene. What is more, the trail soon goes dead. Maya and her fellow analysts cannot find this guy. In the plot it doesn’t pick up again until, in flukish old-fashioned terms, another analyst digs up on old paper file that to her and Maya’s amazement had gone missing. In it are not only the courier’s name but additional information that soon allows then to start to pinpoint his location in Pakistan, crucial additional links in the chain. The pace of the film quickens from this point on, as the CIA rapidly finds him, locates OBL’s house in Pakistan, determines that he is there, and mounts the operation that eliminates him. In pure cinematography terms it is a wild ride.
As such the crucial links in the chain that lead to OBL’s elimination do not come from intelligence gleaned from torture; they come from boring, bureaucratic mistakes as well as mundane analysis and a fair amount of basic putting two and two together. So why are so many viewers of Zero Dark fully fixated in their viewpoint that it glorifies torture? Well, in a sense no one can be blamed for getting the plot wrong; it is highly complex and comes at the viewer rapid fire. The film is long and at times confusing, partly because it tries be as realistic as possible. Rashamon like, people who see the movie together tend to discuss it afterward but find themselves not only disagreeing about the meaning but also crucial plot details.
Technically speaking, torture is illegal–in violation of the U.S. Anti-Torture Act, the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention Against Torture–but is it effective? If it were, in these times it might be worth violating said law. It could lead to saving lives. That is certainly the view that the Bush Administration infamously took, from Dick Cheney’s 1% doctrine to the decisions and policies that put in place the black sites and confirmed sites where the torture of detainees took place, like Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, and Guantanamo Bay. But a vast array of non governmental experts and the new Administration took a different view, and the harshest methods were ended. Yet, without question the practice of rendition, with all its negative implications, continues. And Guantanamo Bay still exists, despite President Obama’s promise to close it down. Opponents to these ongoing policies also fault this Administration for taking the use of drones to an unprecedented level.
In effectiveness terms, torture is hit or miss at best and most of the time not very reliable. The definitive investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee remains classified, but its authors have informed the public that it finds that none of the critical intelligence that led to OBL’s elimination came from torture (former CIA Director Leon Panetta informed Sen. McCain of this very fact). As Jane Mayer and Adam Zagorin have reported, the FBI concluded that torture is ineffective and removed all their agents from any participation in or association with “enhanced interrogation.” The top lawyer in the Defense Department took great risks in his successful attempt to keep U.S. armed forces from continuing to engage in it. The original bombers of the World Trade Center were all arrested and convicted using standard law enforcement and judicial techniques in New York.
For example the CIA waterboarded al-Qaeda’s top operational commanders Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 83 and 183 times respectively, yet KSM after all that told his torturers that OBL’s courier was not important (we now know, as Zero Dark depicts, that he was the crucial link in the OBL chain). It was FBI agent Ali Soufan’s work via traditional interrogation techniques on Zubaydah that led to information about KSM and his eventual capture in the first place; yet advocates of enhanced interrogation continue to cite Zubaydah as the arch example of how effective torture is. KSM’s false testimony under torture was costly as well, leading the CIA on a series of resource consuming wild goose chases until later when OBL’s courier was identified.
The most important detainee at Guantanamo, Ibn al-Sheik al Libi, offers another case in point. At first he was being interrogated by the FBI, which was proceeding apace when top Bush Administration officials demanded the CIA take charge. The CIA tortured him in full, from transport in a small wooden box to a series of waterboardings. What happened? Al Libi coughed up bogus intelligence about the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein, subsequently used by Colin Powell in his seriously flawed and inaccurate presentation of U.S. intelligence about Iraqi WMDs at the UN. Only later, after the invasion of Iraq that it led to, did the CIA confirm that al Libi’s information was useless and costly. It subsequently ended enhanced interrogation because it feared it could constitute a war crime.
The main dynamic animating all the opposition to Zero Dark is that to this day there has been no public accounting for the ill-conceived policy of torture, no consequential reckoning or complete disavowal. For example, former CIA agent Jose Rodriguez destroyed the 80+ tapes the Agency made of its enhanced interrogations, and Rodriquez has used the advent of Zero Dark to go public with his seriously flawed view that torture is effective (neither he nor anyone else has been held accountable). In the absence of any sort of public reckoning, opponents of torture have latched onto Zero Dark to press their case.
It is a shame, because the film in fact is a testament to the inefficacy of torture. The only thing Bigelow and Boal can be rightfully accused of is being perhaps a little too subtle. For example a lot is being made of the facial expression of the CIA agent listening to President Obama speak against torture on a TV she is watching in Afghanistan; she isn’t happy and shakes her head at his words. But that is not a device in the film for advocating torture, as many of the film’s critics have alleged; in fact it’s the opposite. It shows that the CIA really did believe in the efficacy of torture, which is true; but in light of what we now know, the film depicts the Agency in a poor light. I highly doubt today’s CIA views this film as supporting its previous policy and applauding its legacy.
The latest facet of the controversy involves the comments Jessica Chastain made last week on The Daily Show. Torture and Zero Dark opponents are accusing her of lying and even a cover up for telling John Stewart that Bigelow and Boal “decided not to work in cooperation with the government,” as full cooperation would have given the film makers access to U.S. military aircraft and battlefield equipment but also given the U.S. military power over Zero Dark’s script, even a veto power. True enough, Mark Boal did get incredible access for preparing his script, including interviews of Seal Team 6. This was necessary to get the details and gist of the film right in accuracy terms. But Bigelow did not sign any agreement with the Department of Defense to enact the aforementioned exchange. She wanted to keep full creative and editorial control, and we the viewing public are the direct beneficiaries of this decision.
This is what Chastain was referring to, so again the criticism is off base. Critics are raking Bigelow over the coals for claiming her film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” They say she can’t have her cake and eat it too, or claim the film is practically a documentary but also a piece of entertainment art. She and Boal do not actually try to make a film that is 100% accurate in terms of real life, but they do succeed in making one that is accurate in meaning terms. What needs to be evaluated is the very meaning imparted by the film; this is what they are accountable for. In my view they accomplish what they set out to accomplish and should be applauded for it. As Bigelow herself said recently, “depiction is not endorsement.”
When you see this film be prepared to be hugely entertained but also prepare to pay close attention to what actually leads to the ultimate elimination of OBL. If you watch closely you’ll catch the critical nuance; if you don’t, the mishmash of plot intricacies will likely cause you to draw the wrong conclusion that so many already have. I’m betting you’ll give both the film and the filmmakers two thumbs up.