Zero Dark Thirty and the torture issue

So I recently got to watch Zero Dark Thirty. 

In terms of quality I have to say the movie has been pretty over-rated. It’s well made and written and paced excellently for a nearly three hour movie, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable once it was over. I’m really not sure where the rave reviews are coming from.

The big question mark here is obviously the film’s depiction of torture. The received wisdom on more liberal movie blogs and websites is that the movie works in a clear anti-torture message around the facts of what happened * as best as it can. Having actually seen the movie I can’t really say I agree. If there’s an anti-torture message here it’s either exceedingly well hidden or delivered so ineptly as to almost compel the viewer to come to the opposite conclusion.

The very start of the movie gets into some trouble, opening with recordings of phone calls from 9/11 victims playing over a black screen. It’s effectively chilling and a daring way to open a movie, but it also primes the viewer to side with the protagonists in what comes next, a lengthy torture scene in which a detainee at a CIA black site is beaten, suffocated and stuffed into a tiny box. This establishes a trend throughout the movie in which terror attacks like the London bombings and the Bali hotel massacre are shown to us, yet the carnage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that are going on concurrently with the movie’s story remain almost completely off-screen and are barely discussed, such that a person watching this 20 years from now could easily not even realize they had taken place if they didn’t already now.

This has the effect that the actions of the Americans are understandable, but their victims remain ciphers. We don’t find out what motivated the men they torture to join a terrorist organization. Some of them are clearly angry, but at what? Why? I’m not saying the movie could or would justify attempts to kill civilians, but it would be nice if we could at least understand the mentality behind it. On a related note, some acknowledgement of the innocent bystanders wrongly abducted by the CIA would be nice.

This is why I reject the oft-repeated notion that Zero Dark Thirty “just presents the facts” and lets the viewers make up his or her mind. It presents some of the facts, the ones relevant to the particular narrative the film makers wanted to impose on history, while leaving a whole lot of relevant historical context out. 

There are some other problems with the message people keep telling me the movie is trying to deliver. In one particularly eyebrow-raising scene Maya reveals she had initially wanted to drop a bomb on Bin Laden’s compound despite knowing there are several children living there. This was the moment my sympathy for her as a character and any ability I might have had to get on board with her goals went out the window. If the movie notices this it shows no sign of it. There’s also a moment near the start where Maya’s resolve and ability to watch a man being tortured are clearly presented as moments of character strength, rather than something to be ashamed of. I’ve felt for a while that American society increasingly views a lack of empathy and a willingness to cause suffering as commendable or even virtuous, and movies like this do nothing to dissuade me from that view. 

Imagine if the Hostel movies had focused entirely on the staff operating the gruesome torture factory. We’d get to see their friends and family, get to know all of their hopes and fears and frustrations. Meanwhile their actual victims are one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, existing only to be brutally massacred before vanishing from the story so we can get back to the torturers. It would be a pretty weird way to frame a movie, wouldn’t it? And yet that’s how Zero Dark Thirty is structured. The story of the hunt for Osama Bin laden could be presented through the lens of steely-eyed CIA spooks doing whatever is necessary to get their guy while faceless terrorists blow people up for no apparent reason, or it could be presented through the lens of innocent bystanders cut down by gunfire or buried in rubble, or spirited away in the night to be tortured for the crime of sharing a country and a religion with a handful of violent fanatics. The American perspective is not the only perspective and I would argue strongly it’s not the perspective that most aligns with reality, ethics or common human decency, but it’s the perspective we’re with stuck with here. 

Now to the movie’s credit it does refuse to end on a triumphal note, with a highly ambiguous final scene that seems to call into question whether the killing of Bin Laden was really a victory at all. It’s at this moment I can believe Katherine Bigalow and Mark Boal might have thought they were making an anti-torture movie that calls into question the United State’s brutal foreign policy over the last decade, but all of the issues I’ve discussed previously mean that the scene falls on its face. it’s simply too little, too late. 

And even if I’m wrong and Zero Dark Thirty is anti-torture, so what? It’s obviously presenting its position in such an opaque way that no one can seem to agree on whether it’s even there or not. The atrocities committed by the US military and intelligence agencies during the war on terror are both on-going concerns and crimes that have yet to be punished or even recognized by many people. Now isn’t the time for weak, tepid “well I guess you could view it as anti-torture, sort of, if you want” subtext. We need a strong, clear denial of the legitimacy of the US military’s actions, delivered with anger and outrage.

When an American movie does that and gets nominated for an Oscar, I’ll start paying attention. 


*(the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of torture has been called into question, see here for details. also see this blog post for a criticism of the film’s portrayal of Pakistan)



4 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty and the torture issue

    1. ronanwills Post author

      I don’t think the film makers intended it to be, but that’s what they ended up making.

  1. Andrea Harris

    “I’ve felt for a while that American society increasingly views a lack of empathy and a willingness to cause suffering as commendable or even virtuous”

    I do too and (needless to say) it really bothers me and alienates me even further from the culture I live in. Not that my problems are important. But I see it in the way characters in fiction are admired as “badass” where once, they would be commended as courageous, or brave, but only if they also showed themselves to be compassionate… I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. But this movie sounds like the polar opposite of films that came out in the 60s and 70s that were highly critical of the US government’s involvement in war & atrocities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s