Wading into ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
I didn’t know what to expect from “Zero Dark Thirty” the new film written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Oh, I knew the ending, of course. But the controversy surrounding the film about its depiction of torture of detainees had me thinking I was going to see some “24”-like action movie with terrorists being tortured into giving up Osama Bin Laden’s email, Facebook and home address. The controversy over whether the film champions torture even shamefully cost director Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar nomination.
Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have criticized the film, claiming it mixes fact and fiction, and implies that the use of torture yielded information that helped find Osama Bin Laden. First, I hope the senators know that “Zero Dark Thirty” is a fictionalized account of the hunt for Bin Laden, not a documentary. And I hope they’ve actually seen the movie and not relied on others’ accounts.
Since when do historical movies have to be 100 percent accurate? “The King’s Speech,” “300,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Amadeus,” “The Patriot,” or “JFK,” anyone?
How come I haven’t heard the same complaints about Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln?” Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, used the N word, proposed sending blacks back to Africa, stated that blacks were inferior and said there were differences between the races that would “forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Did Spielberg give us the historically accurate Lincoln or Hollywood Lincoln?
Michael Moore recently tweeted, “I’m sorry, but anyone who claims that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ endorses torture either hasn’t seen the movie or wasn’t paying attention.” I tend to agree with him. Though reading many different reviews of the movie almost seems like a Rorschach test. People walk away believing what they want to believe.
But I don’t see how the film endorses, glamorizes or leaves viewers with the impression that torture was how we got Bin Laden. In the film, a terrorist named Ammar is shown being waterboarded but he refuses to talk. He’s stuffed into a tiny box and when asked what day an attack is to take place, he gives every day of the week, thus illustrating the futility of torture. The only time useful information obtained from him is when his interrogators trick him into talking.
Its not glamorous watching a man who has defecated on himself be punched, waterboarded, stripped and walked on a leash like an animal. It’s disgusting. It’s abhorrent.
At one point, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is seen watching videos of maybe half a dozen detainee interrogations that don’t involve any torture or enhanced interrogation techniques. The film makes it clear that the identity of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s courier, was corroborated by multiple sources.
The sad thing about all of the focus on torture is that it overshadows what I think most people will take away from the film: the heroism of Agent Maya. I think most viewers will leave the film thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know we had a badass, dogged, determined female agent pursuing Bin Laden.”
The actual Maya has to be one of the sources for the film. She is also mentioned in former Navy SEAL (and second Bin Laden shooter) Matt Bissonette’s bestseller “No Easy Day.” She is believed to be the model for Claire Danes’ character in the Showtime series “Homeland.” She should’ve been the biggest story coming out of this film.
As for my review of the film, I think it should’ve opened with the actual footage of the 9/11 attacks, the crumbling of the towers, attack on the Pentagon and smoldering field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Instead, Bigelow chooses to show a dark screen and play audio from that awful day. The effect worked in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” in 2004 because the attacks were so fresh they didn’t need to be seen. In this case, over a decade later in a film about the greatest manhunt in history, I think you have to start with the horrible attack visually.
With that said, the cinematography is excellent. The direction is first rate. And the final sequence depicting the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s fortress is riveting and expertly detailed, shot as if straight from Bissonette’s book.
However, while I admired the drive of the Agent Maya character, the film never explains it. In fact, if I have any complaint it’s that the characters are two-dimensional, there simply to advance a timeline. All we know about Maya was that she was recruited out of high school and Washington thinks she’s a “killer.” We have no back-story and no basis for her motivation.
Perhaps this was the intent from screenwriter Mark Boal and/or director Kathryn Bigelow. But directors like Michael Mann have directed movies with large casts and still managed to humanize the characters and create motivations for their behavior as in 1995’s “Heat.”
So for me, while the final assault scene rocks, the movie itself, coming with so much hype, plays like a long procedural, checking the boxes until we get to the money shot: killing Bin Laden.
It’s a good movie but not great. And it’s not terribly controversial. I believe the chatter around the movie isn’t really about the film. It’s about how we haven’t processed the decade after 9/11. We have U.S. Senators outraged over a film who should’ve been outraged over a bogus claim of WMD. We tortured, stained the nation’s soul and held no one accountable. Where were the public and officials pushing for that? We’re shell-shocked after years of terror alerts, irrational fears, real security concerns, an enemy we don’t understand and fatigued over misguided war.
“Zero Dark Thirty” rattles because Boal and Bigelow refuse to put the events into a political or moral framework. Having lived these events our minds won’t allow us not to.