Jessica Chastain as Maya, the dedicated past the point of obsession CIA analyst whose emphasis on spy-craft over torture guides her in directing the hunt for Usama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s not, as far as I could see, pro-torture movie, Zero Dark Thirty.
Major spoilers coming!
Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty Sunday. No review yet, but as the title of the post says, I’ve got a few thoughts.
First is, Wow! Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a movie!
Second, she didn’t make a pro-torture movie.
At least, I didn’t see a pro-torture movie.
I went in afraid that’s what I was going to see. An awful lot of critics and pundits I respect, along with several United States Senators and some highly experienced veterans of the intelligence field, reported that they saw a pro-torture movie.
Like I said, I didn’t.
Neither did Mrs M.
What we saw was so much not a pro-torture movie, in fact, that I wondered if all those critics and pundits had actually seen a different movie.
I wondered if Bigelow, stung by the criticism, had re-cut the film since its initial release.
Doesn’t appear she did.
What I think then is that either I need to go back and see it again to find out what I missed or those critics and pundits missed a significant fact about Zero Dark Thirty themselves.
It’s a movie.
I don’t mean that as in It’s just a movie.
I mean that a movie is a story told through pictures and those pundits and critics weren’t looking closely enough at the pictures Bigelow was putting together to tell her story.
And I suspect it’s because they were too distracted listening for speeches that were never delivered.
There are no big anti-torture speeches in Zero Dark Thirty.
There is a background shot of President Obama on 60 Minutes explaining why he’s banned torture as an interrogation technique. I thought it was a key image.
But more to the point there are no pro-torture pictures.
There are no pictures showing torture working.
All the pictures add up to the message that torture did not work.
It’s shown not to work. It’s shown to fail, horrifyingly and spectacularly, again and again and again.
All of the torture scenes are confined to the first act of the film. Almost all the torture is conducted by Maya’s superior, Dan. In the longest and most horrific torture scene, Dan isn’t demanding a name. He wants a day of the week! Dan isn’t after Usama bin Laden. Dan is after information that will help stop impending terrorist attacks.
He doesn’t get it.
Almost immediately after comes a scene of a spectacularly bloody terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
There are four major and successful terrorist attacks in the first act.
All the torture ends with the beginning of Act Two.
So do the successful terrorist attacks.
The second act is when the hunt for bin Laden begins in earnest, because now it’s Maya’s show.
Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about how we got bin Laden or how the President got him or how the Navy Seals got him.
It’s about how Maya got him.
Dan has gone home. Jessica is dead. The CIA station chief is about to be recalled. Maya is pretty much on her own now and that means she gets to do things her way.
Her way is to play traditional spy games.
In short, tradecraft.
Bigelow puts it up on the screen in big letters.
Maya's hunt for bin Laden starts really rolling with the serendipitous discovery of a file that’s found because people are going back through old intelligence from lines of investigation that got sidetracked by the fixation on torture to prove Iraq had WMD and ties to al-Qaeda.
Bigelow doesn’t flat out remind us, but she expects us to remember that getting bin Laden was never a priority for the Bush Administration.
Going to war with Iraq was.
Missing the file---misplacing it, actually---is explained as “human error.” That’s a euphemism for “criminal negligence.”
From here on out, the work Maya and the team she directs is all surveillance and information gathering and old-fashioned legwork. Her team tracks down a lead and then follows his SUV to bin Laden’s compound.
When he hears that the compound’s been identified, President Obama’s National Security Advisor wants proof that bin Laden is there before recommending any action to the President. Dan is on hand to regret that he can’t “interrogate” any detainees. Maya is certain bin Laden’s there, but her superiors don’t know how they can prove it. Ok, says the President’s man, prove it’s not anybody else.
Maya and her colleagues go to work again, gathering more intelligence, chasing more leads, doing research, employing tradecraft to eliminate possibilities to the point that it just has to be bin Laden hiding out there.
Act Three is the assault by the Seals.
So it goes like this:
Act One: Torture doesn’t work.
Act Two: Let’s try it Maya’s way.
Act Three: Maya’s way works.
At any rate, that’s how it went in the movie I saw.
But I don’t get how those pundits and critics saw a different movie, except, like I said, that it’s as a I suspect. They didn’t see the movie Bigelow made because they were too mad at her for not making the explicitly and didactically anti-torture movie they wanted to hear.
The scene critics accusing Bigelow of making Zero Dark Thirty pro-torture or at least insufficiently anti-torture tend to point to as their evidence is the one in which Dan and Maya trick a prisoner into finally giving up some information. Their point is that the trick seems to depend on the prisoner’s having been tortured and so indirectly torture is shown to have helped lead to bin Laden. But they’re missing the story again. This is Maya’s story and the trick is her idea! Dan has no ideas except to drag the prisoner back for another round of beatings and humiliations and near-drownings. Maya is changing the approach and in the process beginning her move towards taking over the manhunt on her terms which is to reject torture and emphasize “tradecraft.”
Maya does try her hand at torture, sort of. Basically, she authorizes an underling to give a prisoner the old third degree. But it’s half-hearted and ineffective and, if I’m remembering right, she doesn’t try it again.
Some people have complained that in the scenes of Maya studying the images of tortured prisoners on her computer monitors she doesn’t express her disgust and revulsion. I think her disgust and revulsion are written all over her face but along with her dedication, her diligence, and her focus---we’re seeing an intelligent mind at work trying to glean as much information as she can from what she has to work with. Her focus at the moment is on getting bin Laden, not on making the case for us that torture is wrong. But to complain about this is to miss that Maya is not the only one looking at those images.
We’re seeing them too.
And what we’re seeing is bound to remind us of Abu Ghraib and nobody except the likes of Rush Limbaugh is not going to be disgusted by that, and I think it’s a safe bet that Bigelow did not make Zero Dark Thirty to please Rush Limbaugh.
Writing for the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll complains that the torture scenes are insufficiently repulsive---They sure repulsed me, but maybe Coll has a stronger stomach.---and they’re journalistically inaccurate because Dan uses techniques that weren’t used by the professional torturers at black sites but by the out of control amateurs at Abu Ghraib. Well, yes. But that’s sort of a big clue right there.
Coll also makes this point:
The film’s Ammar is depicted as a doomed man who will spend his entire life behind bars without resort to lawyers or justice. In an early interrogation scene, Maya pulls off her black mask before entering to face the prisoner because Dan assures her that Ammar will never be free to menace her. We are invited to appreciate Ammar’s subjugation.
That seems like a woeful mis-seeing of that scene to me.
First of all, if Bigelow is inviting us to appreciate his subjugation, she must think we enjoyed watching him subjugated, that we want to go back into the interrogation room along with Dan and Maya, and that we’ll get satisfaction from watching the whole thing replayed and also that we expect thqt this time Dan will get his answers.
I think you have to have been still out in the lobby buying popcorn during the initial interrogation scene to think Bigelow meant anything other than for us to be disgusted and sickened by the torture. If we were invited to appreciate anything, it’s Ammar’s pain and fear. We’re intended to sympathize with him in that he’s a fellow human being in terrible distress.
And we’re expected to see from the start that Dan is going about things all wrong, morally and practically.
But the scene outside when Maya takes off the mask is about Dan emotionally blackmailing her into going back in with him. He tells her there’s no shame if she chooses not to, but of course there is. He’ll report back to Langley that she’s not tough enough for the job if she doesn’t go back in. She’ll be recalled right then and there and, as the movie plays out, we see that if that had happened, bin Laden would not have been found.
The point here isn’t torture, yea or nay? It’s Maya, hooray!
If anything, it’s not that Zero Dark Thirty is insufficiently anti-torture, it’s that it may be a little too pro-Maya.
It might be that I need to see it again. I wouldn’t mind. In fact, I would very much like to, not just to see if I mis-saw it, but because it is a very, very good movie.
But I can’t help it. I can’t help thinking that those who saw it as pro-torture missed the story. They weren’t watching for a story. They wanted a sermon or at least an op-ed piece. But Bigelow wasn’t interested in moralizing. She worked from the assumption that her audience would be made up of grown-ups who wouldn’t need to be told torture is wrong and who’d know how to watch a movie.
All of Coll’s post at NYRB, ‘Disturbing’ & Misleading.
Also, though: Mark Bowden at the Atlantic, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Not Pro-Torture and bontemps2012 at Daily Kos, Cheney's Folly: Zero-Dark-Thirty Depicts How Torture Cost Us 7 Years in the Hunt for UBL.