Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney wrote a very fine article for Salon that strongly criticizes director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for the way they depicted torture in Zero Dark Thirty. His argument is extremely persuasive, and now that I have seen it, I am hard pressed to contend that the film does not present a causal link between torture and the success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. (I’ve tried to write this several different times since I started this piece, and I’m still not sure it’s right.) Gibney goes on to criticize Bigelow and Boal for presenting the film as quasi-journalistic without making any mention of the overall failure of the use of torture in the so-called “war on terror.” His conclusion is that the film irresponsibly and falsely depicts torture as an effective means of getting information.
And yet he also concedes that “dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative...must be granted a degree of artistic license.” He also stipulates, by proxy, that torture played “an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.” His sentence is a little bit awkward, so I want to quote it in full: “But as we know from the Senate and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who wrote McCain in May 2011, that EITs did not play any more than an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.” Gibney has clearly done his homework, having won a documentary feature Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, which looked at the very same practice of torture that Bigelow and Boal address in Zero Dark Thirty; and for that reason, I’m hesitant to say that he’s missing the point here. But I sort of feel like he’s missing the point here.
And the reason I think that is because I also think that Zero Dark Thirty very effecitvely conveys just how “incidental” a role the use of torture played in the long process of hunting down Osama bin Laden. Bigelow and Boal probably spend too much of their time on torture—the only real quibble I had with the film was the running time, and that was so minor a quibble as to be completely inconsequential in the end; but if you think about what Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) ultimatley glean from the torture inflicted on one particular detainee (the name of a person believed to be a courier for bin Laden) and then consider that one piece of information in the context of how much more work it takes to get from the name of the courier to the compound in Abbottabad, you just about have to acknowledge that even if torture worked—which it patently did not—there was so much more involved in finding bin Laden that any conceivable causal link between the two absolutely evaporates.
Gibney is also not entirely correct when he says that Zero Dark Thirty never acknowledges the failure of torture. It doesn’t spend much time acknowledging that torture failed, and it only does so obliquely, in a scene where a CIA blowhard—effectively standing in for the impotent buffoonery of the entire Bush administration—dresses down his team over the fact that all the time and money spent on stamping out al Qaeda had yielded, to that point, the elimination of only four senior members of the group. Could Bigelow and Boal have spent a little more time on that point, and a little less time on the sometimes graphic depiction of torture? Yes, they probably could have done. The Bush administration could also have spent a little more time acknowledging its many massive mistakes and a little less time pursuing an illegal course of action, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think that’s an important parallel that has been overlooked in the outpouring of criticism of this film.
There was probably no way to make this film without rubbing someone the wrong way. It’s probably difficult to make any film without rubbing a few people the wrong way, never mind one that deals so directly with a subject that continues to provoke such a visceral reaction in so much of its intended audience. Opening the film (immediately after fading in to the sounds of the recorded telephone calls of 9/11 victims and responders over the brief opening titles) with a scene of torture, perpetrated by just the kind of American you’d think would perpetrate it, if you were given half the chance to describe a stereotype for a police sketch artist, pretty quickly draws the line between what happened to the United States that day and what has happened to the United States since.
Bigelow addresses the depiction of torture in an article for the Los Angeles Times: “Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” With those sentiments in mind, I can barely conceive of the fortitude it must have taken to get up each morning and press on the with the making of this film. Bigelow and Boal did not just press on with the making of any old film, though. They patiently and meticulously crafted a thought-provoking study of the horrors of a war without borders. They also managed to make one of the most exciting action films of all time, and to coax a difficult and brilliant performance out of Jessica Chastain, who might be the finest actress of her generation.
Chastain plays Maya, a covert CIA agent, recruited right out of high school, who has spent the entirety of her adult life hunting Osama bin Laden. She is present during that opening scene of torture, which has Dan attempting to get information from a detainee called Ammar (Reda Kateb). She does not participate in the torture, but she also does not ask Dan to stop the torture. It’s clear by her situation in the scene and the expressions on her face that she is bothered by what she has to witness, but that discomfort does not stop her from questioning Ammar when the time comes. As she stockpiles information over the course of the story, she responds to those who question the fact that she has yet to prove anything by explaining the manner in which patterns of information over long periods of time reveal shades that indicate where someone or something should be. This is how she tracks bin Laden’s personal courier. The discovery of the courier ultimately leads to bin Laden himself.
Chastain delivers this performance with fierce confidence, and with a species of macho bravura that both affirms and subverts the Alpha Male perception that I imagine a lot of people have concerning CIA operatives. Maya kowtows to no one, including the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini, whose character is never named, but bears an eerie resemblance to a badly bloated version of Leon Panetta). Her relationship with fellows operatives Dan and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) evolves by slow turns as the film progresses. When you realize that Maya and Jessica have become close friends, you start to ask yourself when that happened—and then it occurs to you that their conversations have gotten progressively less tense as their work has dovetailed over the years. The same can be said for Maya’s relationship with Dan. What feels almost like sibling rivarly in the opening torture scene evolves into a situation where the big brother wants to look out for the little sister as much as he can—except that Maya can take care of herself perfectly well, thanks.
Bigelow and Boal move through events in the film with the same slow evolution they use to develop their characters. The pacing is methodical, but the film is so smart that you don’t feel the suspense as it builds. Everyone knows what happens at the end, so the payoff for this film can’t be the reveal. Instead, we get the information on how we got to that reveal—we get the procedural. The trick to extracting suspense from a story with a known ending is to do the very best you can to make the audience understand how close the known ending came to not happening. You take as many steps back as necessary to illustrate just how complex was the web of paths from point A—9/11—to point B—the death of Osama bin Laden. I think that Kathryn Bigelow and her cast and crew have done that. Did they adhere strictly to the truth? Of course not. They never pretended that they were going to, they never claimed that they did, and they could not have done even if they had promised to. This is a narrative film, with actors and a script and an editor. It is a work of fiction, regardless of how much of it was based on actual events. It is a remarkable work of fiction that confronts emotions, asks hard questions, and provokes—yes, provokes—serious thought.
Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece.