Zero Dark Thirty

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.

That’s lazy.





9 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. 1 Mark Anderson February 23, 2013 at 8:50 am

    After your summary dismissal of Zero Dark Thirty (“eliminated because it is propaganda for the CIA”) in your “Oscar Picks 2012” posting, I went back to this review. I may be reading more into your writing than is warranted, but I think these three points are fair summaries of your attitude:

    1. The filmmakers strove for accuracy, limited by the demands of compelling storytelling: “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 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…Bigelow, Boal and the stars of the film have been claiming that this is as close to the truth as they could get”. You warn that unnamed others dispute that accuracy of the result but you yourself seem to accept Bigelow and Boal’s assertion of their honest intent.

    2. The film uses the methods of art proficiently: “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.”

    3. The film’s success since its release is due entirely to its own merits; the CIA’s involvement was restricted to the making of the film: “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…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.”). But you don’t say anything that denies that after Zero Dark 30 was made, it succeeded on its own. It is not like, say, The Birth of a Nation, which was actively used by the Ku Klux Klan as a recruiting tool and owes at least a small part of its success to them (I am assuming here that you haven’t already tossed The Birth of a Nation into the “artful but not art” dumpster).

    Your explicit criticisms of the film itself seem quite mild. First, “[the demands of proper story structure] gives the impression that torture is routine and effective.” But you phrase this criticism not as a case of dishonesty or ideological bias, but as a distortion that is inherent to storytelling. And then the strongest condemnation you can muster at the end of the review is that Bigelow was “lazy” to cooperate with the CIA in order to “use real stealth helicopters and have access to expert technical advice to get a realistic tone to the picture”. If she had made the exact same picture without CIA involvement — getting her helicopters and technical advice elsewhere — would you have seen the film as a member of the same class as A Clockwork Orange, a brilliant presentation of a point of view that you abhor? (I am assuming here that you haven’t already tossed A Clockwork Orange into the “artful but not art” dumpster).

    Your central point, although never explicitly stated, is that because the CIA was involved in the making of Zero Dark 30, there must be some shattering criticism of the film that justifies its condemnation. You don’t know what that criticism is; Zero Dark 30 seems to you to meet all the criteria for a terrific film — story and performances and setting that just sweep you up into a different world and keep you there for two and half hours. You’re not going to dismiss Zero Dark 30 just because you reject its loathesome message, just as you aren’t going to dismiss Triumph of the Will just because you dismiss its loathesome message (I am assuming here that you haven’t already tossed Triumph of the Will into the “artful but not art” dumpster). But that shattering criticism must be there somewhere because the film was made with the cooperation of the CIA. Bigelow and Boal’s intent, and the film itself, are of secondary importance. You seem to see yourself as Laocoon standing at the gates of the Academy Awards, pointing at an advancing Trojan Horse emblazoned “Zero Dark 30” and shrieking “Beware of CIA agents bearing gifts!” Laocoon had a point, but he would have had been more successful if he had unpacked the horse and revealed the problem for Troy inside. Your review would have been more successful if you had unpacked the movie, rather than the deep background of its making.

  2. 2 theotherebert February 23, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    I was apparently too lazy or too much in a hurry to look up the names of the people who objected to the content of ZDT. I will correct that now. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain are all on the Senate Intelligence Committee and all signed a letter to Sony calling the movie’s implication that torture gave the CIA the essential information that led to bin Laden misleading and “grossly inaccurate.” Now because they’re senators they might just be being political but since it’s a bipartisan group, I suspect their intentions are legitimate.
    In film school I was always taught that propaganda is not art. Its scope is too ephemeral, for one thing. You enjoy a Mickey Mouse cartoon but when you see the wartime production of Donald Duck joining the army and bombing Hitler, your main emotion is curiosity. Triumph of the Will is studied today, not enjoyed, unless…well we won’t go there. As for Clockwork I don’t think Kubrick was condoning Alex’s actions so much as condemning the government’s and perhaps drawing a comparison between them. D.W. Griffith grew up as a member of the landed gentry in the south during the last days of the nineteenth century and he made a film reflecting the beliefs of his class and time. I don’t believe either of those last two to be propaganda, btw. I grant you that it is a fuzzy line but I think ZDT is clearly on the wrong side. Michael Moore defends it, so we lefties are hardly monolithic in our response.
    As for success, it depends on what you mean by that. It made a lot of money and got a lot of nominations. Did it convince people that torture is effective? Well that’s what the Senators were worried about. From what I can tell a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified. But it’s too hard to find out if that percentage has increased among people who’ve seen the movie. But that wasn’t the point, really. The point is the public’s perception of the CIA and I don’t know that anybody’s looking for that data. So I doubt that we’ll ever know if it achieved its objective.

  3. 3 Mark Anderson February 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    First, I regret much of the tone of my original posting. The writing on this blog is consistently lively, and I wanted to contribute to that. If, as seems likely, in my flight from dullness I fled into rudeness, I certainly apologize for that and any offense that I caused and will try to avoid that error in the future.

    I see also that I missed the points that I was trying to make and have consequently sent you off on tangents I didn’t intend.

    First, when I wrote that you cite “unnamed others” I didn’t mean to imply skepticism, only that because you didn’t name them, I myself couldn’t do so. I never doubted that those authorities — who from your followup I learn are Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain — were credible. I do doubt that they are as important to a review of Zero Dark 30 as you seem to think they are. Zero Dark 30 does not pretend to be a documentary. It is a drama, a fiction. A drama’s responsibility is to tell a compelling story, not to be historically accurate. I think it is a great thing that the filmmakers went to such trouble to research the historical reality and to bring as much of that reality into the film as their story would support; verisimilitude is a useful tool to help the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enter into the story. But the most important criterion for evaluating Zero Dark 30 is not its attention to verisimilitude, but the quality of its storytelling. In fiction, if the facts of history get in the way of the story, then it is the facts that should give way. You write that Bigelow, Boal and the stars of the film have been claiming that this is as close to the truth as they could get; well, in a drama it should be understood without saying that isn’t very close. Despite that, I am sure there are a great many naive moviegoers who will go to this film and assume for no good reason that it is a documentary, and the United States will be harmed by their misunderstanding. That is not a failure of the film, it is a failure of those moviegoers. From what you tell us, Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain are performing a useful public service in informing those naive moviegoers and I wish them all the best.

    Next, my use of The Birth of a Nation as an example was ill-chosen. I chose it because even though D. W. Griffith did not create the film as Ku Klux Klan propaganda, it was used as such by the Klan, by all accounts to Griffith’s dismay. I wanted to show that even as it would be unjust to dismiss The Birth of a Nation because of the propaganda use to which the Klan put it, it is equally unjust to dismiss Zero Dark 30 because, as you suspect, the CIA cooperated in its making for the CIA’s own propaganda purposes. If intent is part of what is being judged at the Academy awards, it is the intent of Bigelow and Boal, not the CIA. Your assessment of Bigelow and Boal in your review does not seem to include any dishonest intention on their part. At worse, you seem to say they knowingly allowed themselves to be used by sinister people whom they should have known had dishonest intentions. You can certainly condemn Bigelow and Boal for doing that, but that is a separate criticism from the artistic critique of the film which should be the basis of the Academy awards. According to the Academy website, “The Awards competition is a process that requires the voting members of the Academy to make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements.” Not on the ulterior motives of some of the people who provided the filmmakers with technical advice and resources and in return may have required their own approval over the final script.

    But The Birth of a Nation and Zero Dark 30 are not parallel cases because the Klan played no part that I know in the creation of the former film. A better example would be Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III. It is well-documented that Queen Elizabeth’s office of the Master of the Revels was very energetic in censoring all London plays of the time with political themes. I think it can be safely assumed that Shakespeare’s Richard III was written as a justification of the Tudor overthrow of Richard, and that Richard’s side of the story was distorted as a result. I am willing to believe you that Bigelow and Boal created the film that the CIA wanted them to create, just as Shakespeare created the play that the office of the Master of the Revels wanted him to create. But I don’t think we can dismiss out of hand Richard III or Zero Dark 30 as “artful but not art” (God, how that phrase rankles) because of that compromise. We have to evaluate the work of art that survived, or failed to survive, that compromise.

    Another point that I failed to make is that I introduced the example of A Clockwork Orange because, regardless of who the villains are in it, the film definitely does not send a positive moral message (although it may evoke an opposing positive moral response in the viewer). In your review, you take pains to set out why the United States should not torture people. I have no quarrel with your arguments, but when you include them in this review of a film which presents torture as effective and then you follow up with a statement that the film isn’t art, I draw the conclusion that you are saying that the film isn’t art because its moral message is harmful. It is not the filmmakers’ job as creators of a drama to send a positive moral message. It is their job to see a story that they think is interesting and to bring us into that story. This will sometimes result in art which is dangerous and destructive. That doesn’t mean it’s not art, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t praise the effectiveness with which the story is presented even if we choose to reject the story’s moral message. No doubt a case can be made, on crying-fire-in-a-crowded-theatre grounds, that some dangerous art should be suppressed, for example by denying it recognition through awards. But that is a different case than the one that dangerous art should be denied recognition because it isn’t really art.

    Finally, in your followup you wrote that at film school you were taught that one reason that propaganda is not art is that its scope is too ephemeral. I hope that since your time they have stopped teaching that. Much art is created as a very direct response to the zeitgeist, and as the times change the power of that art may disappear. Perhaps that is true of Triumph of the Will, if it is indeed of only academic interest today as you say — the renewal of Germany as a world power under the Nazis after the humiliation of WWI and the chaos of the Weimar Republic is no longer a current issue. That doesn’t mean that such art, including art which is used for propaganda, should not be praised in its hour, and a ceremony that happens as frequently as the Academy Awards is the right place to do it. Certainly if a film appears that will transcend its time and be of permanent value then it should be given priority, but I don’t think the Academy Awards are the place to look for such films, if only because the test of time has not been able to operate yet. Given the short lead time available to evaluate the contenders, making a lot of money and getting a lot of nominations are useful criteria to consider.

  4. 4 theotherebert February 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I can see that we’re not going to agree on this propaganda as art thing. To me it’s salesmanship, trying to sell a contemporary political idea and I would no sooner call that art than I would call television commercials art, even though they are often well produced and acted and some of them are quite moving. Because of the CIA’s involvement, the message of ZDT is not “With courage and persistence we can overcome our enemies, even if we make horrific mistakes in the early going,” it’s “The CIA was perfectly justified in every action it took during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Not a theme that will echo down the years, I think.

    As for your example of Richard III, I take it that you don’t believe that there is a distinction between propaganda and censorship? It seems to me that propaganda is an active process where the artist willingly subverts his/her artistic vision to the state in order to promote a political idea. Censorship is a more passive process where the artist is trying not to offend the powerful. Shakespeare wasn’t propping up the Tudors, he was trying to keep his head attached to his body.

    Lastly, theme is just as important an element in a film as the direction, the cinematography, the script or any of the other things we evaluate. Therefore I am totally justified in factoring it into the equation of my final judgement. Now in some cases excellence in the other elements may overcome a bad theme, but in the case of ZDT it would take a lot. How can I gather something to my bosom that at its core is so repellant?

  5. 5 Mark Anderson March 1, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Yes. We are not going to agree on this propaganda as art business. You have stated your position clearly on that. But somehow I just can’t leave it alone.

    I think there is a distinction between propaganda and censorship, but if a censor imposes certain conditions that must be met in order for a play or movie or some other work of art to be produced, and those conditions are such that the only works that can meet them are propaganda, then there is a relationship between the censorship and the propaganda, although they are not the same thing.

    I don’t agree with you that propaganda necessarily requires active cooperation on the part of the artist. That is why I introduced the example of Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith, from what I have read, had no sympathy at all for the Ku Klux Klan and was surprised and unhappy when the Klan appropriated The Birth of a Nation as a recruiting tool. Note also that anyone can use propaganda, not just government.

    Shakespeare’s Richard III does not fall into the same category as Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, though. Shakespeare certainly went into the writing of Richard III well aware of the compromises he would have to accept. He could have avoided the censorship issue entirely by writing something apolitical like The Comedy of Errors. But Shakespeare chose to write a play about the fall of Richard and the rise of the Tudors. He chose to do so at a time that Tudor England was at war with Spain — the Spanish Armada had only recently been driven off when Shakespeare is believed to have written Richard III — and more generally (Protestant) England was in conflict with rest of (Counter-Reformation) Europe. Domestic and foreign agents of Spain and Catholicism were active in England. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare understood that for this particular play to pass scrutiny by the office of the Master of the Revels, it could in no way question the legitimacy of the Tudor regime’s actions. Shakespeare chose to write to that specification. The situation is parallel to that which by your account Bigelow and Boal faced in their creation of Zero Dark Thirty. They understood that the CIA would have final approval of their script and that their script could in no way question the legitimacy of the CIA’s actions, and they chose to write to that specification. I agree with you that Zero Dark Thirty is a much lesser work and Shakespeare was running much greater risks.

    I agree also that you are totally justified in factoring the theme of Zero Dark Thirty into the equation of your final judgement. The problem I have with your “Oscar Picks 2012” posting is that there aren’t any other factors. You seem to write that because (by your account) the film was made with CIA approval, which required it to present a favorable account of the CIA’s reprehensible actions, you can a priori justify dismissing it from serious consideration for an award which is (at least by its own rules) made solely for artistic and technical merits. The problem I have with your original review of Zero Dark Thirty is that you don’t separate your aesthetic response to the film from your moral response. As nearly as I can tell, you think Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific film, and you despise it. Just leave it at that! Don’t try to bury the first truth under the second one. People who don’t give the devil his due end up underestimating the devil.

    Finally, the metaphor of you gathering Zero Dark Thirty to your bosom always completely derails my train of thought for some reason and I ask that you not use that metaphor anymore.

  6. 6 theotherebert March 4, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Is that what this is about? You object to my dismissing ZDT in one sentence in my Oscar prediction column? I dismissed every film in one or two sentences. The thing was a byte buster as it was and for something like ZDT where I’d reviewed the film at length earlier, I didn’t feel the need to go into any detail. In my proper review of it I felt that I’d praised the elements of it that warranted praise and made my case for why it fell short overall.

    I think there is an important difference in Shakespeare’s situation and Bigelow and Boal’s. Shakespeare did not have First Amendment protection. If he didn’t cooperate with the state, he would have lost his livelihood if not his life. B & B simply would have lost access to government employed technical advisers. They are certainly in no physical danger, nor are they in any danger of not being able to make more movies. Bigelow has Best Director and Best Picture Oscars on her mantel for The Hurt Locker; her films make money. It would take a couple of spectacular financial flops for her to not get funding for a project.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen Richard III but if I don’t think that Shakespeare really made any statements in it that actively promoted any contemporary issue of that time, or if he did it’s buried in the annotations somewhere. I don’t think the Bard concerned himself with that kind of stuff. Sure he had to avoid offending the current power structure, but I think his main concern is more timeless. In Richard III he was trying to see if he could create a thoroughly despicable main character that you still sort of liked.

    I don’t think Birth of a Nation is propaganda. It was certainly misused by the Klan to the horror of the filmmaker but to me propaganda implies intent on the part of the state and the filmmaker. This is semantics, however, and there is no value in belaboring the point.

  7. 7 Mark Anderson March 5, 2013 at 4:25 am

    It wasn’t the brevity of your dismissal of Zero Dark Thirty that troubled me but your reason for dismissing it. You have heard me out on that already.

    You are right: Shakespeare — writing at a very tense period in England’s history at a time where he had no legal protections — was
    running much greater risks than Bigelow and Boal when he chose to write a play about the fall of Richard III and the rise of the Tudors. That is why I am willing to say that as Shakespeare wrote he kept a very careful eye on what would be acceptable to Tudor officialdom. Yet somehow, despite the consequent distortion of the historical record in the Tragedy of Richard the Third, a play of value emerged from this compromised situation. Although Bigelow and Boal had much less to lose, I suspect that they (if their script was subject to CIA approval as you posit) kept a very careful eye on what would be acceptable to CIA officialdom because they wanted their script to be passed. I submit that it is possible that a film of value could emerge from this compromised situation, and that in an evaluation of the film Zero Dark Thirty, the film itself should be the center of attention. Not the CIA, which I think is at the center of your review, with the film out around the edges.

    You haven’t seen The Tragedy of Richard the Third in awhile. Not a problem. You remember Richard III is portrayed as a consciously, determinedly, unceasingly evil man and that in contrast Henry, Earl of Richmond, the Tudor in the play who becomes Henry VII at Richard’s death, is portrayed as flawless. That is the contemporary issue. How does the Tudor regime justify the overthrow of Richard III, a duly crowned King of England, by Henry Tudor, a man with a much weaker claim to the throne at the head of an army of rebels and borrowed French soldiers? By presenting that overthrow as a triumph of Good over Evil. As you say, legitimatizing the actions of the Tudors was likely not Shakespeare’s main concern; rather, he had a story he wanted to tell. I think that legitimatizing the actions of the CIA was not at the top of Bigelow and Boal’s agenda, either. They had a story they wanted to tell, and when Zero Dark Thirty was considered for the Academy awards, I hope it was considered solely on the artistic and technical merits of how well that story was told.

  8. 8 theotherebert March 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    You’re right. We are arguing in circles at this point. To my way of thinking rejecting ZDT out of hand for being propaganda is perfectly legitimate in my Oscar preview column. And in my main review of it I did praise the elements of the film that deserved it.
    I’m much too lazy to look it up but I wonder if the fact that Henry Tudor is a bland character with no moral failings while Richard is the main character and is one role that every Shakespearean actor wants to play at some point is seen as a sneaky political comment.

  9. 9 Mark Anderson March 11, 2013 at 12:22 am

    Yes, we are arguing in circles. Thank you for the opportunity of commenting on your review, and for hearing me out. I look forward to reading your reviews in the future.

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