MOVIES: Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

MOVIES: Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

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BY STACEY PEEBLES Hollywood has always thrived on partnerships: John Wayne and John Ford. Hepburn and Tracy. Fred and Ginger. And now Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are emerging as the moviemaking team giving us the most acclaimed—and provocative—films about contemporary war. The Hurt Locker took a piece that Boal had originally written for Playboy and turned it into an Oscar-winning portrait of an adrenaline-addicted soldier in a bomb-disposal unit; Paul Haggis used another article of Boal’s as the basis for his script of In the Valley of Elah. But Boal and Bigelow’s current release, Zero Dark Thirty, has surpassed those two films (and anything else in theaters now) in generating a maelstrom of praise and criticism, including five Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe for lead actress Jessica Chastain, and a formal denunciation from Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. At issue is the film’s depiction of torture, specifically the waterboarding and other harsh treatment of detainees suspected of having information that could lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Many watched the film and concluded that torture is portrayed as a key step in that capture. Frank Bruni thought so, as he wrote in The New York Times; so did Glenn Greewald in The Guardian and Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, along with many others. Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain thought so too, and judged the film “grossly inaccurate.” They don’t deny that torture happened, but they object to the causality they see in the film, and voice the concern that this will “shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.” Boal responded to the criticism, saying that “it’s just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden.” He notes that a detainee early in the story only reveals crucial information when he thinks the operation he was involved with has been foiled. Over lunch on a breezy terrace, he names names—and one name, the one they’re looking for, they later discover in an overlooked file. According to Boal, the torture was unsuccessful. What worked was a bit of obfuscation, some decent food, and a lot of tedious research. The Senators and others are wrong to object that the film shows torture as a successful tactic. This is a smart film for a smart audience, and if you can follow the complex storyline and blistering CIA-speak, you can probably discern that the big clues aren’t coming out of the interrogation scenes. (Likewise, The Hurt Locker wasn’t a celebration of its protagonist’s recklessness, although it may have seemed that way to some—like the Economist, who called him “the new John Wayne.”) But the torture is troubling for other reasons, and in ways that seem to be intentionally subtle. Maya is visibly unsettled by the first interrogation session that she visits, but she quickly steels herself for more, eager to uncover a new lead. Her colleague Dan, apparently the lead man in waterboarding and other cruel tactics, can shift from being the worst kind of bad news for black-site prisoners to an easy amiability in other settings. He eventually gives it up—“I’ve seen too many guys naked,” he jokes flippantly—and heads to Washington to pursue politics by other, more traditional means. He warns Maya to be careful: “Politics are changing, and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” Dan isn’t a monster, which might be the most monstrous thing about him. He’s a guy with a Ph.D. and a sense of humor who’s doing his job, and the audience isn’t cued to hate him by any mustache-twirling or ominous music. We simply have to judge his actions. Dan isn’t, in other words, Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, a gleefully evil Southern baron with blood on his hands and bad teeth in his mouth. DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie sanctions and facilitates torture of his slaves in some of the grisliest ways possible, and we know we’re supposed to root for his and his plantation’s spectacular annihilation. It’s satisfying destruction at the hands of Django, the rare African-American movie cowboy who rides to the rescue. But where’s the satisfaction in Zero Dark Thirty? Yes, the clues and research and Maya’s decade-long tenacity finally all pan out and result in the raid on bin Laden’s compound. It’s exciting, especially when the top-secret stealth helicopters close in over the dark terrain, but it becomes less so when women in the compound are shot and children are crying. After the soldiers return to base, one soldier indulges in a whooping cheer, but he’s the only one. The others are quiet, just like the packed theater where I saw the movie. It’s no celebration, not even for Maya, who boards a military airplane and ends the film with tears, not knowing, quite literally, where to go. Does she feel relief? Exhaustion? Recognition of all she’s given up to reach this goal? It’s hard to tell. For all the significance this film allots to “getting in”—to the minds of detainees, to terrorist networks, to bin Laden’s compound— we never really get in the head of our protagonist, who remains something of a cipher. What did 9/11 mean to her, or the waterboarding, or the death of the only other person she could have called a friend? A film doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or unambiguous when it deals with troubling subject matter. Maya’s motivation and psychology may be ambiguous, in fact, because of the particular story that she’s a part of. It’s a tangle of questionable methods, tedium, petty politics, danger, and a messy but final success. How does it all add up? Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell us outright, and instead invites us to read it on Maya’s face in the final scene. That’s not advocating torture—it’s asking us to consider a complicated story that’s about as far from a triumphant slam-dunk as you can get. Stacey Peebles is the Director of Film Studies at Centre College and author of the book Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Cornell UP, 2011). This review also appears on page 11 of the January 24, 2013 print edition of Ace.

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