Review. Zero Dark Thirty
Do you remember where you were when you heard that Osama Bin Laden was killed? I remember exactly where I was: I was walking into a Wal Mart (of all places) talking to a friend on the phone. That was when I heard that they might have gotten him.
I found out for sure later that day while watching the conclusion of, of all things, a WWE pay per view. Just victorious in a championship match, avid US troop booster John Cena took the microphone and, standing atop an announce table, announced that Osama Bin Laden had been “compromised to a permanent end.”
There was something going on in professional wrestling at the time that provides something of a parallel for Zero Dark Thirty, the Hollywood adaptation of the killing of Bin Laden. The loud, brash promos – for the uninitiated, this is something like a speech – stereotypically given by pro wrestlers was being ushered into obsolescence by a quieter, more cerebral style of “promo” that forced the audience to actually listen to every syllable of every word.
Enough pro wrestling. Time to talk about Zero Dark Thirty.
Much like the aforementioned quirk, Zero Dark Thirty is a much quieter film than the standard military fare. Viewers will very quickly notice that for most of the film, it almost completely lacks music. So much so that the few instances in which the film features any music at all – such as when CIA interrogators are playing Slayer to keep a prisoner awake – it can’t help but stand out.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) clearly wants the audience to pay attention. And that attention certainly will not go to waste.
Because so much of the official story of how the CIA tracked down Osama Bin Laden remains classified it’s hard to know for certain where Zero Dark Thirty plumbs that ever-present line between fact and fiction. In fact, the predominant dispute over this particular line deals with the prevalence of torture in tracking down Bin Laden. More on this shortly.
So Zero Dark Thirty is about how they found and killed Osama Bin Laden. If you’ve seen an ad for the movie, you know this. If you’re anything like me, you’re excited to see it. (I prepared this interview by watching the film twice in 24 hours. Don’t ask how.) But more than this, Zero Dark Thirty is about what was risked, and what it cost, to catch and compromise Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow makes it perfectly clear: the price paid to get Bin Laden was very high for those who obsessed over that particular case file.
Maya (Jessica Chastman, Lawless) is a fresh faced CIA analyst recruited right out of high school. She’s assigned to assist in prisoner interrogations in Pakistan. She’s thrown into the fray right away: into some of the most intense interrogations after the so-called “Saudi Group” who planned and financed the 9/11 attack. On her first day in the field under the supervision of Dan (Jason Clarke, Public Enemies) she’s fetching water for the waterboarding of a prisoner with key information.
The film’s first risk is presented. The prisoner is remarkably resilient. In time, his denials almost begin to seem convincing – if not for the prisoner having made a $5,000 wire transfer to the 9/11 hijackers. But even as the prisoner holds out, dangling information about coming attacks tantalizingly close, other attacks take place, including a machine gun attack in Ryadh.
The risk presented is the moral hazard presented by Michael Ignatieff in his book The Lesser Evil.
While those who use torture morally degrade themselves – something the characters in the film are all too aware of, as you watch them age at an alarming, seemingly accelerated rate – they also face the moral hazard of missing out on information that may avert a terror attack. The film punctuates this by presenting the 7/7 attacks in London as a reminder of the stakes.
Even with the potential reliability or unreliability of that information temporarily set aside, Maya finds herself predisposed not to risk missing out on information. She proceeds with the “enhanced interrogations,” even as breaking scandals like Abu Ghraib make that an extremely dangerous course to follow.
This has become something of the central controversy of the film, as a bi-partisan US Senate committee has accused the film of misleading viewers as to the role information obtained via torture played in subduing Bin Laden. They contend that torture obtained no useful information leading to Bin Laden. But at the risk of spoiling the film – skip to the next paragraph if you’re concerned about this – I’d like to note that in Zero Dark Thirty it isn’t actually the torture that leads to the naming of Abu Ahmed, the courier who eventually unwittingly leads the CIA to Bin Laden’s compound, but rather a clever deception related to the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The torture takes a toll on the torturers as much as on those being tortured. Each in their own separate way, they suffer together. It quickly becomes too much for even the characters who seem the hardest.
The theme of risk also underscores a conflict between the so-called “new school” of counter-terrorism and espionage, and the “old school.” One high-ranking CIA officer clings very determinedly to Cold War-era techniques, and it does not end well. In the face of the radical Muslims of Al Qaida, the message seems to become crystal clear: devolve or die.
As the spectre of Abu Ahmed slips in and out of the overall picture, Maya becomes more determined, more forceful and more ruthless – with her colleagues as well as with her enemies – in pursuit of Bin Laden. In doing so she develops a gift for telling her superiors what they want to hear by daring to tell them what they don’t want to hear. It’s the development of this particular attribute that crystallizes the stunning metamorphosis of her character. Audiences will almost certainly cheer for Maya, but will also feel for her, and perhaps even regret what she has to become in order to get Bin Laden.
The underlying theme of Zero Dark Thirty – how far would you go? – is a question that everyone needs to ask themselves in the era of the war on terror. The characters in Zero Dark Thirty wake up every day facing the reality that today could be the day 9/11 happens all over again, and they themselves could be the ones who fail to stop it. Yet even as they continually face down this central question – how far will they go? -- nearly all of them, in time, reach their breaking point. Universally, it’s far beyond their point of no return.
Certainly none of this was on the minds of many people when they first found out that Osama Bin Laden had finally been terminated. At that moment most people were drinking in the victory, not stopping to think about what it cost the people who ultimately won that victory.
In that sense, Zero Dark Thirty is a film that will forever change how you remember that moment when you learned Osama Bin Laden was dead.
Patrick Ross is a Contributing Writer to The Propagandist