Torture is usually a lazy screenwriter’s way of advancing the plot. The hero needs some information, so he beats it out of whoever has it and then proceeds to save the world. It may be that “lazy” is an unfair term but Hollywood’s usual depiction of torture is similar to its representations of violence in general. It’s very stylized, almost ritualized. A kind of shorthand has emerged as you see the same things over and over again. In real life the retrieval of actionable intelligence is much more time consuming and complicated, but we suspend our disbelief so that the hero can prevail in less than two hours.
Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by Mark Boal, isn’t supposed to be like that. They talked to agents and SEAL Team members and the people running the search for Osama bin Laden and got as accurate a picture of what went on as they could. The veracity of the result is the subject of some controversy. Bigelow and Boal obviously made this with the (possibly illegal) cooperation of the CIA. Now if you make a movie with the cooperation of one of the branches of the military they have approval over the final script. Whether or not the CIA demanded that, I don’t know. But I imagine that the people running the Company at that time had behinds to cover and axes to grind. They do not want to be seen as having tortured people for no good reason. Because as Bigelow and Boal show us in the first graphic scenes, torture is not a matter of smacking someone a few times and then writing down the unvarnished truth they sputter.
There are three reasons the United States should not torture people. One: it’s wrong. There really shouldn’t be any further argument necessary but I will continue. Two: it’s not very effective. I say “very” because there is some legitimate controversy here and those who say “never” are ignoring it. At the very best it takes just as long as regular interrogation methods. In Zero Dark Thirty, which shows torture working, it takes ten years and the crucial piece of information they got that way had to be verified by sources not obtained by torture. Three: If you torture theirs, they are more likely to torture yours. At the very least you can’t legitimately complain if they do.
Zero Dark Thirty covers the period of time from 9/11 to the assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 2 2011. During that time there apparently was one female agent, whose name we do not know at this time but who is called Maya in the film and is played by Jessica Chastain, who kept the hunt for bin Laden active in the face of indifference and even outright hostility from her chain of command.
This is a film about process. It shows Maya methodically gathering clues and getting closer to her goal. The script tries to give us some idea of the thousands of false leads that had to be run down but of course the demands of proper story structure dictate that the emphasis is on the one that did pan out. This distorts the story since, according to the filmmakers, information obtained by torture was key to this lead. It gives the impression that torture is routine and effective.
I like Kathryn Bigelow. She has made some great films in the past. Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made film with terrific performances; its two and a half hours fly by almost unnoticed. The assault on the compound in Abbottabad is as good a set piece as you’ll see this year. My mind keeps trying to somehow exonerate her for the film’s message. At the beginning of the film, Maya is obviously uncomfortable with the torture. But she gets used to it and eventually comes to rely on it. At the very least she never objects. The last shot is a close up of Maya as she leaves Afghanistan when it’s all over, shedding a tear. Perhaps that shows awareness of how all the things she’s done have changed her and by metaphorical extension the country. But that’s ambiguous. She could just as easily be thinking about the personal sacrifices she had to make in the past ten years or all of her fallen comrades or any number of other things.
Zero Dark Thirty is artful but not art. It is, in fact, propaganda, a justification of CIA’s behavior in the wake of 9/11. Bigelow, Boal and the stars of the film have been claiming that this is as close to the truth as they could get. Plenty of people in a position to know dispute this.
My guess is that Bigelow wanted to use real stealth helicopters and have access to expert technical advice to get a realistic tone to the picture. To achieve this, she cooperated with the CIA and made the picture they wanted made.