The Case Against the Case Against Zero Dark Thirty

Why are so many people completely misunderstanding Zero Dark Thirty? Because like all truly great movies, it allows them to. But it does this in a way more interesting than most complex and ambiguous movies do; it shares a quality with a famous (and famously also underappreciated in its time) film called Citizen Kane, in that it contains a great level of ambiguity and uncertainty in the developments of its story precisely because it is meant to reflect the elusiveness of certainty in real life. This is why the movie’s greatest strength is also exactly what is always going to get a film like this in trouble with a public that demands definitive answers to what a movie is “saying” or what it ultimately “means.” And if these answers are made difficult by a complicated story, then most people just go with their first impulse and rely on their immediate impressions. They form an opinion and run with it. This is totally understandable.

It’s usually yet another symptom of seeing a movie only once, especially when this one viewing is so heavily informed by ubiquitous discussions in the media about certain aspects of the movie. I can relate on a firsthand level to having this reaction to Zero Dark Thirty. For months I read the articles and op-eds by privileged folks in New York and Washington, DC who were able to see the movie in advance of the rest of us, and there was really one subject being scrutinized above all others: how the film handles torture, and morality in general. At first, the presence of torture at all was controversial, but these objections were quickly slapped away by the reminder that the United States once made torture a large part of their war interrogation efforts. So the criticism that it featured torture was quickly retracted. Then, the main arguments, the ones continuing to the present including a recent piece by Slavoj Zizek, began to form.

The crux of these objections revolve around the film’s attitude toward torture, specifically the extent to which the filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, believe torture was responsible for the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the general moral judgment of torture as a sanctioned practice. These are linked issues, to a degree. There are those who conclude that the movie unequivocally defends torture on the grounds of morality because it produced the main lead that led to Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Some argue the movie finds torture morally problematic, even completely immoral, but that it ultimately produced the crucial results in the factual history of this manhunt. These would be perfectly reasonable claims to make about the movie if we were to examine it on an entirely superficial level, leaving out key bits of contrary elements because maybe we missed them in the one viewing we had or something. Similarly, and this is a key strength of the film, people who examine the actual facts of the true Bin Laden story (not the movie version) may lead themselves to believe this exact thing, even though many others find their interpretation preposterous.

The people making these types of arguments about what the movie means to say are simply wrong. That is, they’re basing their views on how they imagine the film and its authors and not on what’s actually there, partly because they don’t recognize some of the language being used, and are unfamiliar with some more subtle and sophisticated film techniques that have emerged since the days when every movie had an obvious moral to the story. But what they’re really bothered by is giving this story a treatment complex enough for people to draw their own conclusions, particularly because it’s so easy to draw the wrong ones. In actual history, people in government positions were convinced that torture was working, even though many find this to be entirely wrongheaded. A more simplistic movie would make the pro-torture position completely baseless; Zero Dark Thirty demonstrates, through its story and fittingly through its reception, how a person could be reasonably led to this belief, but in the end exposes their fallacies. This is more realistic, more artistic, and therefore more effective than a straightforward spoonfed commentary that many would have preferred.

But the people who prefer this approach to storytelling are also guilty of the fixed certainty that this movie is examining, and I would argue is criticizing. References to certainty, confidence, knowing and not knowing are all over the place. Maya is the main subject of this criticism, although on the surface she is the film’s most heroic figure—she is stubborn, self-assured, determined to stick to this lead of Bin Laden’s courier despite information indicating it may not be as strong as she led herself to believe. This certainty results in her use of brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation tactics and general physical abuse. But it also ends up in the location of Bin Laden. In contrast, Dan initially possesses but then loses his certainty that torture is producing reliable intelligence. He becomes disillusioned by the entire program, giving a flippant explanation of seeing “too many dudes naked.” In the end, he is the least certain in the final meeting with Leon Panetta, basically selling Maya out. But he ends up being wrong. It’s further complicated by the Jessica character played by Jennifer Ehle, who is as certain as Maya about the reliability of her lead, which turns out to be wrong, and she pays the ultimate price.

So what does this all say about certainty? That if you’re going to commit to the certainty of something, then you’d better be smart enough to have done your homework? Maya is meant to be the smartest among the intelligence officers, but as Panetta points out, “We’re all smart.” How do you know if you’re smart enough that your hunches will bear out? And what are the drawbacks of acting with such commitment to something you can’t actually know for sure to be true? The one character who is mentioned as having a Ph.D, Dan, becomes the most humble about his ability to know (“We don’t know what we don’t know…it’s a tautology”), and his disillusionment with the torture program leads him to use other methods of gaining information, acquiring sources, developing a relationship, and straightforward bribery. Maya, on the other hand, is so fixated on her Bin Laden theory that she goes to some horrifying lengths, eventually becoming completely desensitized to the brutalization of detainees, and in the end, even as she is proven right and could be heralded as a national hero, she’s unsatisfied in the film’s harrowing closing shot.

Despite the attempts of numerous political writers, there is no simple answer to all the questions this film raises. There can’t be. The people who lack humility in their pursuit of knowledge possess the kind of self-righteousness that dehumanizes other people, in some cases to the point of condoning torture. Zoomed out, on the surface, it may seem like there’s a simple answer what this film is saying about torture and the treatment by the CIA of detainees and how this contributed to the search for Bin Laden. There’s a famous theme in the Antonioni film Blow Up involving the protagonist developing photographs to find definitive answers to a mystery. The photograph he examines looks grainy, and the more he enlarges it, the closer he looks, the more opaque its images become. The closer he examines it, the less simple and straightforward the answer is. It’s no accident Bigelow uses so many close-ups of screens and monitors in Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a reference I don’t expect Glenn Greenwald to appreciate. She shoots the monitors this way during the scenes in which Maya is examining the interrogations of various prisoners, trying to see the photo they’re being asked to identify. Again, in the camera images of what turns out to be the Bin Laden compound, the images are virtually unintelligible when they’re shown up close—little blobs are identified as women or children, almost like Cypher in The Matrix identified lines of code as “blonde, brunette, redhead.”

I don’t remember where I heard it, but there’s a quote that says something like great art can clarify something that seems complicated just as it can complicate something that seems clear, simple, and straightforward. The excellence of Zero Dark Thirty lies in its ability to portray the complexities of torture and methods of gathering information in American intelligence circles, and in the perception of America worldwide. The way the agency was able to locate and infiltrate the Abbottabad compound is at once amazing and disconcerting, impressive in its precision, problematic in its disregard for another nation’s sovereignty. Some of the methods used in the pursuit of acquiring this information were completely abhorrent. Not only did they tarnish the country’s moral standing, they prevented us from being able to answer the question of whether Bin Laden could have been caught without torture, because we can’t know. Torture was used. The movie shows that the softer methods, offering tabouli and hummus and a cigarette, ultimately generated a key lead, but while we would like to believe that it would have been possible without torture, we can’t know, because Ammar was tortured. And even without this lead, without any of the questions caused by the use of torture, it’s possible that the Abu Ahmed lead could have been uncovered long before any of the torture even began since he was in their files since 9/11, but we can’t know the answer to that because it wasn’t. We don’t know what we don’t know.

I don’t think there’s any question that the film condemns the use of torture. The filmmakers have stated as much. People want it to be clearer about this, but it’s not an advocacy film. It’s not in the business of spoonfeeding a message to its audience. Its ambition is far more intellectual and artistic than this, and those who want to dictate what it ought to set out to do as a work of art don’t understand how art does, and should, work. Bigelow and Boal have expertly crafted something that is less interested in the questions of whether torture works or is morally justifiable than they are in confronting the fact that the United States did torture people in its hunt for Bin Laden and now needs to figure out how to deal with that fact. As is the case in interpretations of the real life facts of this story, there are many that will argue from the information available to them that torture was vital to the success of the mission, and many others, who I find more persuasive, that say it did far more harm than good. It’s impossible to know for certain, and there are many aspects that people will misunderstand or appropriate for political purposes. It’s the same with Zero Dark Thirty. I hope more people take a closer look.

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I am an aspiring film writer in Ottawa and a former student of the York University Cinema Studies graduate program. When I'm not watching movies I'm usually stressing about not watching enough movies.

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  • Anna

    Excellent piece.