As the pro-torture debate rages on, LWLies weighs up the real impact of Kathryn Bigelow's unflinching political drama.
Zero Dark Thirty – the state-colluding propagandist endorsement of torture in which an auburn angel of revenge and retribution hunts away in the wings of the CIA, eventually finding "the disappeared one" cowering in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as his wives and Muslim brothers take the fight to the ruthless infidels of justice.
This is a film about process and procedure, about the secretive work that governments do; necessary work, we are told and we hope, that remains accountable, legal and driven by moral purpose.
Gestated and in development years before bin Laden was eventually caught and killed, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal were granted access to the highest levels of American intelligence. Boal interviewed the main players, devoured the restricted files, and wrote a film that now aggressively claims authenticity and factual authority.
It acts as a report, not a commentary. From the unreadable mask that is Jessica Chastain's Maya to Bigelow’s clinical, sometimes sterile directorship, the film strains to be dispassionate and ambiguous, totally embedded in its content.
Critics of the film – who include Republican Senator John McCain – have attempted to skew it as an agenda-ridden paean to American hard power at its most morally bereft. McCain, flanked by right-wing peers, has also claimed the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding.
It is difficult – and open to conjecture – to say whether this claim is accurate. Other statements from people equally high up in the chain offer contradictory views. The day after UBL (as he's referred to throughout the film) was neutralised, CIA chief Leon Panetta told NBC News anchor Brian Williams: "Enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission's success."
Talking to Fox News' Sean Hannity, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated bin Laden was found "as a result of waterboarding," while clarifying that an earlier report claiming he stated waterboarding had not produced relevant information was "a miswording."
In the White House's official press briefing that day, President Obama's press secretary Jay Carney did not deny torture had yielded information, stating: "The fact is no single piece of information led to the successful mission that occurred on Sunday, and multiple detainees provided insights into the networks of people who might have been close to bin Laden. But reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years in the intelligence community."
Other critics have tried to completely ignore or deny the role torture played in the hunt. But what if the film had censored or edited itself, flinching from showing those scenes of torture? Would they prefer a reorientation, a fabrication of near history that buttresses high-ethic, liberal beliefs of an ordered world? Writing in the LA Times, Bigelow responds with a withering truism: "Depiction is not endorsement."
Despite this, do her critics have a point? Embedded reporters talk of the difficulty of achieving another perspective; of being too on-side and right-on with those who have let them in. Is Zero Dark Thirty too acquiescent to its sources? Did Boal and Bigelow treat the access given by the CIA with enough journalistic skepticism and rigour, or did some unsaid trade-off happen somewhere along the line? Did the CIA ask to sign off on the final cut?
This is drama, not documentary, but an interpretative framework that uses genre, tone, impressionism as much, if not more, than words and sources. If one is to attack the film, this is the point of entry. As David Denby writes in his New Yorker review: "Bigelow wants to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time.”
Denby’s colleague Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker’s The Front Row blog: "Zero Dark Thirty operates on several levels, and it functions against itself: even as the movie stokes excitement for the hunt for bin Laden, it stands outside the mission and – without actually posing questions about the operation – poses the mission itself as a question, by way of canny and conspicuous omissions in content, strategies in representation, and control of tone."
So where do you stand? Without ever coming out and saying it explicitly, does Zero Dark Thirty endorse, or conflate, America's use of torture?