There has been a lot of controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, the film which depicts the events leading up to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Does it celebrate torture? Does it normalise torture? Torture, torture, and torture?
On the one hand, it’s great that a film can prompt that sort of conversation in society. The problem of torture should be discussed openly and often to ensure that we maintain a common language. America’s use of interrogation methods co-opted bureaucratic language to create a gap between the activity being undertaken and the public’s revulsion. The activities being undertaken, we were told, were in our interests: they kept us safe, they were pragmatic, they were done on our behalf. Seeing the events portrayed makes it more difficult to provide room for that gap between language and revulsion. It is harrowing to watch, even with actors portraying the activity.
On the other hand, how should a film present morally difficult questions to the community? Many have accused the film of presenting the film in a morally neutral context. The torture just happens and nobody is judged for engaging in it. The director of the film, Kathryn Bigelow, says that she tried to present torture as an event, rather than as a moral problem for endorsement:
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. [Source]
It’s the sort of brutalist attitude that she took in The Hurt Locker: depict events in sequence and let the audience do the moral critique and emotional engagement. Frankly, I find it lazy and cowardly.
It’s this cowardice that lets the film down. The opening scene is nothing but audio from September 11. We are supposed to frame everything that happens as a response to this one pivotal event, and the dialogue throughout the film keeps drawing us to that point in time. Characters who stand in the way of the lead character are consistently described as having ‘pre-nine-eleven’ thinking. The opening audio is the moment which has changed the entire world and things that were true beforehand are now false.
But we get no connexion from this shocking piece of world-changing audio to the events which follow: spooks in the desert torturing a man who, by all accounts, is depicted as an empathisable character. He is in a position of helplessness while people in balaclavas degrade and torture him. The audience is given no reason to believe that this guy deserves this treatment. Perhaps they’ve got the wrong guy? Perhaps he really doesn’t know anything? Has this guy inflicted cruelty upon the world commensurate with the cruelty he himself is enduring?
The shock of reliving the terrorist attacks of September 11 has given way to a new shock: that our response to being attacked was to destroy individuals. It is a strange film which makes us sympathise with the terrorists. For thirty minutes, the world turns on us as ‘our guys’ in the theatre of war are no longer on ‘our side’.
As the film progresses, tropes are deployed to make us feel that Maya, the protagonist who took part in the early torture, is supposed to be our hero. Consistent with America’s fantasy that the radical, strong-headed, individual is always smarter than the cautious and conservative institution, Maya has a hunch which she desperately believes is true, but bureaucrats, simpletons, and bureaucratic simpletons get in her way. People want evidence but Maya’s intuition is more than just evidence — it is 100% solid fact.
Consistent with Maya’s identity as a science-fiction superheroine, all of her assumptions miraculously transform into reality. What if they guy we’re after isn’t dead and we’ve been using the wrong photograph? What if the guy we’re after isn’t part of a chain but reports directly to OBL? What if the guy we can’t see, hear, or detect clearly is OBL?
It’s these tropes which make engagement with the film difficult. They fit awkwardly in a historical drama. It’s like Stargate but with history. Or Batman. Remember in the 1960s Batman film where they stand in a room discussing puns in order to work out who the villains would be? Yeah, that.
The film is also let down by the Problem of History: films which depict actual events try to create suspense over whether or not history will happen as everybody remembers it. The same problem was encountered in The Iron Lady: will Thatcher become Prime Minister and will the Falklands War happen? For the final thirty minutes of the film, the audience is treated to a torturous debate about whether or not the bunker which, in real life, was housing OBL or whether history is somehow different in this film’s universe. Are they going to retcon history? No, they aren’t.
There’s nothing gained from the actual killing of OBL that couldn’t have been achieved in a montage. It’s not suspenseful; it’s just dull. The climax was getting the political machine to agree to invade Pakistan, not the death of Osama. Law of Armed Combat nerds might find it interesting to analyse whether or not the film depicts a lawful killing
In short, it is a messily boring film which bites but obstinately refuses to chew. It is neither a celebration nor a condemnation. It is neither an informative documentary nor an enjoyable drama. And it’s insufferably long.
Its only redeeming feature was the renewed interest in discussing the ethical problems of torture, but there were probably more effective and cost efficient ways of achieving that outcome.