Last night I saw the Oscar-nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a brilliantly made work, brutal, passionate, eerie, exciting and compelling. It’s also a shameless piece of CIA propaganda. It opens on 9/11 and frames many of the successful and failed terror attacks since then as part of one, big al-Qaeda plot, which is dishonest. It offers no reason why so many Muslims loathe the West and America in particular. It’s far easier to imagine that they hate us for who we are. No mention of occupations or killing of innocents in countless Muslim nations. It indicates that torture was central in finding the location of Osama Bin Laden, something challenged by countless experts in the field.
The seductiveness of the film, if seen as a high-profile police investigation that eventually netted Bin Laden, is that millions of people will take Zero Dark Thirty as the gospel truth. So a few people needed to be tortured to get the world’s most dangerous man? A price worth paying, so the film strongly suggests. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal construct a jingoist fantasy, with Obama administration and CIA assistance, that only offers a CIA viewpoint. That’s their right but it completely ignores the vast amount of alternative views about how Bin Laden was caught and killed and what the post 9/11 US establishment has done to various countries and individuals; ignored the law and deformed justice.
One of the more eloquent comments about the film is from The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer:
At the same time that the European Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling condemning the C.I.A.’s treatment of a terror suspect during the Bush years as “torture,” a Hollywood movie about the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty”—whose creators say that they didn’t want to “judge” the interrogation program—appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?
“Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens across the country next month, is a pulse-quickening film that spends its first half hour or so depicting a fictionalized version of the Bush Administration’s secret U.S. interrogation program. In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government. The debate echoed the moral seriousness of the political dilemma once posed by slavery, a subject that is brilliantly evoked in Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln”; by contrast, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.
After some critics called Bigelow a torture apologist, she defended the fairness and historical accuracy of her movie. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience,” she told my New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who interviewed her for a Talk of the Town piece. At a Los Angeles press junket, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were “mischaracterizing” the torture sequences: “I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.