We progressives and liberals have a complicated relationship with the war on terror. We’re against the war(s), but we want to support the troops. We wanted bin Laden dead, but we didn’t like some of the methods the CIA used to try to get information about where he was hiding. We want more women involved in the military and government even though we don’t like the war(s) very much.
These conflicts, I believe, are behind the mass outcry and backlash against Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Oscar-nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty.
We’re against the war but we support the troops. One of the first characters we meet is Jason Clarke’s Dan, a CIA operative. We know that his character is a torturer because we’ve seen the trailers with him calmly threatening a detainee with torture. We go into the film expecting to see a dark, disturbed character.
Except Dan is not a mustache-twirling villain who gets off on torturing his victims. He’s straightforward and methodical in his actions and his words.
“Oh, he’s methodical – that must means he’s become so cold and inured to what he’s doing that he’s incapable of any human emotion anymore.” Nope, not exactly. Dan is a good colleague to Jessica Chastain’s Maya and respectful of her abilities, and he remains a helpful colleague to her for eight years.
“Oh, well, then…he must be a good guy deep down who’s being forced to do horrible things by the big bad government and Army. He feels morally conflicted about his role as a torturer!” Well, no. Not really. After a few years of fulfilling his assigned role as torturer, he doesn’t want to do it anymore. He wants to return to D.C. and get a job away from the place where he tortured people. But he wants to leave because he can’t take what torturing people is doing to him. He never expresses remorse or concern over his victims.
Dan, then, is a person who commits horrible, violent human rights violations, but also seems an okay guy to get a beer with after work, and a reliable colleague and sort-of friend.
We can’t handle that. We can handle an evil villain who commits torture, or a cold-hearted robotic person who commits torture, or a man who commits torture but feels really bad about it, but we cannot comprehend someone who seems like an otherwise decent guy except for the horrible human rights atrocities.
Thus, we say that the movie is pro-torture, because clearly the filmmaker is saying that if an otherwise decent guy like Dan has no moral problem with torture, than neither should the audience.
We want more women involved in the military and government even though we don’t like wars. Maya is a CIA agent who witnesses detainee torture early in the film. At first, she turns away and seems ill at the sight of watching her colleague torture another person. But when left alone with him and the victim begs for help, she responds, “You can help yourself by being truthful.”
Maya proves several times over that she is not morally opposed to torture. She uses it herself several times in the film, even without Dan’s help. She rolls her eyes along with the other CIA operatives when they watch a video of President Obama condemning the use of torture.
We want more women in the government and military because we believe in equal rights, but perhaps there’s a part of us that believes that the inclusion of women will make the government and military more humane, that women’s supposedly superior moral courage will make the CIA a kinder place.
Maya, however, is not especially kind, and she even says that she wanted to drop a bomb on bin Laden’s hiding place instead of sending in the SEALs to take him out individually.
What are we to make of Maya? Well, we want to see more women in important government positions, and we’re also told that everyone wants to see more Strong Female Characters in the media. Maya is a Strong Female Character who has a government position.
Thus, we say that the movie is pro-torture, because Maya is a Strong Female Character in a film directed by a Strong Woman, in a role of power, and she is not especially against torture. If Maya is an SFC, then her position on torture must also be the director’s, right?
We hate the war on terror and torture but we were happy when bin Laden was assassinated. Few people will say that the assassination of bin Laden was a bad thing. Even liberals with the most bleeding hearts felt a sense of catharsis and relief when the news broke that he was killed.
But we don’t like the idea that torture played a role in the search for bin Laden. It’s not a pleasant thought, that our country committed human rights atrocities in the hunt for this horrible man.
Zero Dark Thirty indicates that torture played a role in finding the right information that led to successful killing of bin Laden, a notion that has been disputed. I am not a foreign policy expert and cannot say how true these claims are. Were I to base my understanding of foreign policy entirely on this movie, I would believe that a combination of torture and mind-fucking/lying led to the real-life version of Maya learning of bin Laden’s courier – BUT, because the information about the courier’s family turned out to have been in an old CIA file all along, that torture was not the only or best way they could have found this intel.
It’s also quite telling that Dan, who committed most of this torture, is the least convinced by Maya’s theory about the location of bin Laden. The CIA agents who were removed from the detainee interrogations say that they’re 80% to 90% sure, while Dan puts it as a “soft 60%.”
Anyway, to say that Zero Dark Thirty hints that torture led to some key information into catching bin Laden is true. What people don’t often say is that the killing of bin Laden is not, in any way, presented as a victory or moment of glory.
The scene is tense, cold, and brutal when the SEALs raid the compound. They kill fathers and some mothers in front of their children, and then try to hush the children by offering the perfunctory, “It’s okay. You’ll be okay.” When they actually kill bin Laden, no one cheers or even expresses much relief. They swiftly move onto the next task of removing the body, loading the plane, and grabbing enough files as they can before their helicopter leaves.
Maya herself is almost frozen after she sees bin Laden’s body. The moment of catharsis and relief that she expects in a task well done never comes. She seems stunned, almost zombie-like, and only when she sits on a plane by herself does she start to cry.
Even the bleeding-heartiest of us believe that bin Laden’s death is a victory. We still remember 9/11, and we remember that part of us that felt relief when we heard the news on May 2, 2011. Therefore, if the film is saying that torture led to a victory, then the film is endorsing torture, and we ignore that the film does not portray the assassination as a victory at all, but something that leaves our protagonist feeling hollow.
When I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I wanted to watch the torture scenes peeking through my fingers, but I forced myself to sit through it all, in spite and because of the fact that it was extremely difficult to watch. I thought it was important for me to watch a depiction of a human rights atrocity that people in my country committed, that I may have tacitly endorsed as an American citizen, even though my heart believes and knows that torture is wrong.
I have seen my fair share of violent war movies in my lifetime, and I have never seen a less glamorized portrayal of violence than what was depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. There is nothing about the direction or the writing of the scene that allows us to enjoy watching what happens to Dan’s victim, Ammar. In fact, by beginning the film with audio recordings from 9/11 victims, and following it up with the interrogation of Ammar, Kathryn Bigelow has us relive the horror we felt on 9/11, and then immediately puts us in the strange position of feeling pity for a man who’s supposed to be our enemy.
Many people left the theater during the interrogation scene. I don’t blame them. It was difficult to watch. I saw the waterboarding and thought, “If anyone comes into this movie thinking that waterboarding isn’t torture, they’ll feel completely differently walking out of the theater.”
Imagine my surprise to learn that Bigelow apparently made a pro-torture movie that compares to Triumph of the Will in its propaganda.
I’m not someone who likes to make huge generalizations. This is a complicated film and reactions to the text are going to be different. When people say that they think the portrayal of the effectiveness of torture is problematic, and that the film has factual inaccuracies, I understand and appreciate that point of view – and even sometimes defer to that point of view, when that person has a better understanding of history and foreign policy than I do.
But when people compare Bigelow to a Nazi propagandist and claim that her film is an infomercial that glorifies the CIA and advertises torture as a something wonderful…no. Absolutely not. You are sent straight to jail, you do not pass go, and you do not collect $200.
Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that challenges our assumptions about our government, about women, and about the war on terror. What a shame that its reputation is being dragged through the mud by people who cling stubbornly to those assumptions and refuse to see what the film is actually saying.
[Recommended reading: 'Zero Dark Thirty' and the Emptiness of the War on Terror, by Alyssa Rosenberg at Thinkprogress.org.]