For the past couple of months, the media has been ablaze talking about director Kathryn Bigelow’s and screenwriter Mark Boal’s movie “Zero Dark Thirty”. Discussion of the film’s portrayal of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and decade long search for Usama Bin Laden has, unexpectedly to many, drawn a massive amount of controversy.
There were media-types calling Bigelow and Boal sadists and torture cheerleaders (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/24/zero-dark-thirty-torture-bigelow-boal). Some of their Hollywood peers were denouncing the film as “pro-torture” and were comparing “Zero Dark Thirty” to the pro-nazi propaganda piece of 1935 “Triumph of the Will”. (http://www.progressive.org/hollywood-protest-against-zero-dark-thirty). A documentary director, Alex Gibney, praised the movie’s technical achievements and lack of clichés while calling the film’s message on torture irresponsible. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alex-gibney/zero-dark-thirty-torture_b_2345589.html)
I have now seen “Zero Dark Thirty” as of last night. When I walked into the theater to watch the work, I tried as best as I could to clear my mind of other people’s opinions so I could judge the movie on my own. When the credits started rolling, I sat in the theater chair about four rows back from the very front and wondered what these critics were talking about. “Zero Dark Thirty” does not glorify or glamorize torture (i.e enhanced interrogation techniques). I am also convinced that Bigelow and Boal are not preaching to their audience. This is not a message movie and not a film necessarily advocating anything. (http://video.msnbc.msn.com/msnbc/50599480#50599480)
An audience member definitely experiences graphic portrayals of “enhanced interrogation”. A CIA agent named Dan (a compelling and great performance by Jason Clarke) in the beginning of the story subjects a detainee to waterboarding. Dan kicks the prisoner onto his back, stuffs a rag on his face and starts pouring water. We also see the detainees’ clothes removed and a dog collar put around his neck as he is led on his hands and knees around a cell. Finally, he is stuffed into a small box. What is the tone of the movie while these scenes are going on? First of all, they are as graphic as one could be with these activities. There is no heroic sounding music being played. Second of all, we hear the detainees pleas for help and for food. We see closeups of his face and tears streaming from his eyes. Are these the techniques of a filmmaker hellbent on showing how wonderful torture (“enhanced interrogation”) is and cheerleading the United States on in using the methods?
There are several questions regarding the torture scenes of “Zero Dark Thirty”. The first: does the movie glamorize torture? The answer is a resounding no. The second: did the enhanced interrogation techniques portrayed in this film actually happen? Yes, this is a matter of historical fact. No matter what someone thinks of “enhanced interrogation” as a moral issue (more on this later as well) or regarding the Bush administration stamping their approval upon these methods, they actually occurred during the past American decade. The third: did enhanced interrogation techniques lead to information that helped capture Bin Laden? This is the murky point from which we have heard varying opinions from officials and politicians but surprisingly, I didn’t think the movie strongly or explicitly said that it necessarily did. Information gleaned from torture may have been hinted at as being one source of information that led intelligence officials on a path to identify Bin Laden’s courier but this point seems more implied or perhaps hinted at. (The senate intelligence documents detailing what methods were used in interrogations and what information was received from those methods remains classified from the public. Where is Julian Assange when one needs him?)
To call Bigelow (statement from her can be read here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-0116-bigelow-zero-dark-thirty-20130116,0,5937785.story) a sadist, fascist, or complain that she has a “torture fetish” is not only completely wrong, it is reprehensible journalism. Some of the same individuals who have been advancing a narrative of a “war on women” in the press are now attacking one of the most prominent female filmmakers in the industry. (See The Atlantic article on the lack of female directors: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/how-female-directors-could-at-last-infiltrate-hollywood-go-indie-first/273309/) Indeed, the only woman in Academy Awards history who has won best director (for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009). I realize that many people may not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a matter of taste which is, of course, a matter of personal opinion. However, to systematically attack not the film but the moral character of its composer (especially on dubious interpretative methods) is outrageous.
All of this being said, the film is spectacular and certainly one of the best of 2012. This is not a movie that feels triumphal. This is a dark and foreboding film that around its edges seems to question what America was willing to do in order to kill a mass murderer.
The juxtaposition of the editing of this movie was interesting to me. The film opens with a black screen and the audience hears terrible sounds related to September 11, 2001. After this scene, we see the torture of a detainee. Later, we see a London double decker bus being blown up. Then, we see more scenes of torture. Does one see the juxtaposition? One civilization does violence to another and then that civilization does violence back.
Jessica Chastain’s performance as Maya (based on an actual person but reportedly, there was a team of people who shared her view in the story) is rock solid. She plays a CIA agent who pursues Bin Laden for a decade with a sort of religious zeal. She comments to another agent: “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I’m going to kill Osama bin Laden.”
What director Bigelow constructs in the last 40 minutes or so of the movie is nothing short of edge of one’s seat thrills. Even though the audience knows the inevitable conclusion, the brilliant construction of this scene from taking off at the Afghanistan base to raiding that suspicious house in Abottabad, Pakistan is something to marvel at. Again, there is no American bravado here. The feel of the scene is ultra-realistic. There are screaming children in the compound, navy seals aggressively searching the wives looking for bomb vests, and eventually shooting an unarmed Bin Laden upstairs.
I won’t give anything away but I will say the final shot of “Zero Dark Thirty” is very relevant to this debate. The last glimpse asks us to call into question everything before that we have seen. I have counted multiple interpretations that one can glean from this shot and this part of the film will lead one to ask more hard questions.
***I said that I would comment on the morality of enhanced interrogation methods (i.e torture). Being a Christian, I believe that every human being from the womb to the most advanced of elderly years has been created in the image of God (imago dei). From this vital principle, I deduct that every person has dignity and worth both before God and should before other human beings. Yes, even when individuals or groups of people commit heinous crimes and do horrific evil, God still loves them and they still bear His image. This is the challenge for the Christian. Should we support inhumane treatment of people who bear the image of God even if those people are terrorists? My answer is no. When Jesus taught one of the most difficult commands to “love one’s enemies” during the sermon on the mount, He desires us to apply this fundamental principle to all areas of our lives: personal and political.