Like Django Unchained, the reception of Zero Dark Thirty has been clouded by a question of whether or not the film endorses torture by depicting it as a viable tool in the decade long search for terrorist Osama bin Laden. According to Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin—who sent a letter to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures—the film gets the facts wrong by presenting a myth that torture is effective. The acting director of the CIA voiced a similar opinion, stating that the film “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.” On the other side of the issue, national security reporters, a political pundit (Andrew Sullivan), and several film critics (Manohla Dargis, Scott Tobias, and Glenn Kenny) have argued that while the film depicts torture, Zero Dark Thirty is far from being an absolute endorsement of the technique. The film’s ambiguous stance towards torture, like the satirized violence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or David Fincher’s Fight Club, almost allows for both readings to be legitimate. The keyword here is “almost.”
Zero Dark Thirty begins with a black screen in which we hear the events of September 11th. We hear the frantic phone calls, radio transmissions, and explosions. Bigelow is a smart filmmaker. She knows we were desensitized to the actual images of the two airplanes striking the World Trade Center a long time ago and, at this point in time, the most effective way to give that event weight is to emphasize that loss literally. From that sonic montage, we cut to a CIA Black Site somewhere in the Middle East where a terrorist is being tortured by Dan (Jason Clarke) and a figure in a ski mask. They tie the subject up to the ceiling and keep repeating questions about a potential upcoming attack. When the subject does not comply, Dan and the masked figure water board him. We soon discover that the figure in the ski mask is a new, young, CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who urges Dan to continue his interrogation. Dan and Maya go back into the room, pull down the terrorist’s pants, put a dog collar on him, and threaten to place him into a wooden box if he does not tell them where the next terrorist attack will take place. As they move the terrorist towards the box, he begins to mock them by rattling off random days of the week. By the time they shut him in, torture has not produced any valuable information. Moreover, the torture of the terrorist does not prevent the feared follow-up attack on a hotel. Unlike the torture of 24, the technique—which is depicted in grisly, unflinching detail by Bigelow—only pushes the terrorist not to comply.
Thus, torture is not the inciting incident that leads to the name of bin Laden’s courier and eventually to the man himself. Notably, the courier’s name is gleaned from a conversation that takes place under the opposite of circumstances. After realizing the torture of the subject has not prevented further attacks, Dan and Maya take him outside (after depriving him of sleep), feed him figs and hummus, and fool him by thanking him for information that stopped an attack. Since the terrorist has been out of the communication loop and deprived of sleep, he does not know it is a lie. They ask him again for information and he begins to talk. He mentions a name and when asked for further details, he is reluctant to comply. Dan threatens torture again but the terrorist spills the beans: the man is a courier for Osama bin Laden.
Now, does the film endorse torture? Those I’ve spoken to about it point out that the subject only elaborates after the threat of torture is brought into the conversation. Thus, it was an effective tool. However, we have already seen that the subject seems unfazed by torture in the previous two interrogations. Moreover, the torture has encouraged him not to answer their questions. Is it not feasible that the terrorist, now taken out of his cell and treated like a human being, is persuaded by the favorable circumstances? When I brought this up, some folks argued, “Well, he’s persuaded because of the contrast in circumstances. The figs and hummus only work because he has been subjected to torture.” Perhaps. But the subject doesn’t cave during an earlier scene when he’s given juice, asked a question, and then threatened with torture. The final observation I’ve been confronted with is one I don’t know how to answer: “Well, the subject was tortured with sleep deprivation and that enabled the mind game to work.” This is the hardest observation to address, because I’m anti-torture and would not find being deprived of sleep for days at a time pleasant. That said, as far as my relatively superficial research has uncovered, a 2002 memo from the CIA states that sleep deprivation is not considered torture under United States law. Moreover, while the European Court for Human Rights found it degrading and inhumane, it did not consider it torture. Perhaps this is a game of semantics, perhaps not. The fact is that the film’s clinically detached approach to torture (we aren’t given a heartbreaking John Williams score underneath it, nor is it rendered in slow motion to aesthetically ruminate upon, nor are we provided with a scene in which a character criticizes or praises the technique) produces a degree of ambiguity. It acknowledges the truth that we committed acts of torture during the War on Terror. It depicts torture as not being particularly effective. In my opinion, the terrorist is tortured, but he does not provide the name of the courier during the act of torture.
So Maya gets the name of the courier and starts a decade long search to find him. She encounters policy changes (President Barack Obama later prohibits torture), the loss of friends to further terrorist attacks, physical threats on her life, organizational red tape, and the struggles of being a young woman in a man’s world. Eventually, she tracks the courier back to strange compound in residential Abbottabad and keeps watch over it for nearly six months while she persuades her bosses at the CIA to make a move on her hunch that bin Laden is holed up there. This brings us to the film’s climax, a near real-time forty minute sequence of Seal Team Six storming the compound and killing bin Laden.
There is an issue in the film that weakens it in my estimation, and that is characterization. Maya is depicted as being an intense, obsessed, individual. Chastain wears this mask of determination the entire film. That’s great. I’m glad to see a strong woman in a film. The problem is that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow don’t give us much insight into what makes her an intense, obsessive, strong woman. For instance, there is a scene in which she is asked something to the effect of, “Do you know why the CIA hired you?” and we never get the answer. It’s almost as if obsession is used as the means to the end of defining her character. She’s the motor that drives the film and yet her colleague, Dan—wonderfully played by Jason Clarke—(in fact, all the performers do a hell of a job with the vague sketches they have been given) is given more nuance in his thirty minutes of screen time than she is given in two hours. I’m not sure what I prefer. The trite characterization of Bigelow and Boal’s previous collaboration, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (which had one of the most intense action sequences I’ve ever seen . . . the sniper duel), or the non-existent characterization of Zero Dark Thirty. Probably the latter, because I can project onto it whatever I want. It’s not that Zero Dark Thirty is a bad film. It made my top ten for multiple reasons, including the moral questions it brings to post-screening conversation and the intense chronicle of events that took place in the search for bin Laden. It just alienates us by providing the walking embodiment of a Rorschach test for a protagonist.
Verdict: See it in theaters.