Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) is the best of Hollywood, and the worst of Hollywood. As an action packed thriller it is gripping, but as a supposedly liberal film it is very questionable in its depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his execution by US Navy Seals.
The film has incurred protest from the CIA and right wing US politicians like John McCain because of its graphic and shocking depiction of torture by the CIA in illegal detention centres. Many reviews of the film have focused on torture and whether ZDT condones it, and a question to which I’ll return. What ZDT does take for granted though, is that the extra-judicial murder of Bin Laden, watched by Obama in the White House, was morally correct.
The film starts with the voice of a woman telephoning emergency services from the Twin Towers on 9/11, knowing she’s going to die. This factual reminder of 9/11 starts a film whose premise is that Bin Laden had to be killed and that had to be achieved by any means necessary. Throughout the film the CIA are working under the pressure of further terror attacks like those in London in 2005.
The illegal execution of Bin Laden is something that should not be condoned, whatever his crimes, because it, and the justification for it, are now being used to justify the murderous drone wars being carried out by the US in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Acceptance of that in the West can only stoke the rage against America and its allies across the Muslim world.
ZDT is a film where the heroes are the Americans – in this case, as in Argo, the CIA. We are asked to sympathise and identify with them in their “dirty war” against terror. The film depicts it is a dirty war from the outset, but, its conclusion is that it was necessary to get Bin Laden.
The main character, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), is shown to combat and then overcome her scruples about the conduct of this war, particularly torture. But she is also known in Washington as a “killer,” as the film reminds us, and does not hesitate to get stuck in, declining to don a disguise when taking part in the first torture scene.
Her colleague is shown to be an educated man, with a sense of humour and a love of animals. In contrast the Muslims in the film are not allowed a voice. There is no explanation of why they may or not have become terrorists. They are either compliant victims or defiant haters of the West.
Indeed it goes further than that. When asked what she thinks of Pakistan, where she’s been stationed, she tells the CIA bureau chief its “fucked up.” Again no explanation of why its “fucked up,” of the extension of the US war in Afghanistan across the border or the long history of US support for military rule.
Maya is woken from her first sleep of her posting by the call to prayer from a mosque next door, grimaces and says “Oh God.” Pakistan and Pakistanis are portrayed as a threatening place and a threatening people. Again there’s no explanation but it contrasts with the way we’re asked to identify with Maya and her colleagues.
This was a film made with help from the CIA and the White House. Bigelow got to talk to some retired Navy Seals about the final kill, not the ones who took part I might add. That operation is shown as heroic.
And that brings me to torture. There is no question that the torture scenes are shocking an upsetting.
The director, Kathyrn Bigelow tells Time Out this week that: 'I find it interesting that you could see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and in any way come to the conclusion that it is pro-harsh tactics. It is absolutely inconceivable… I think torture is reprehensible. I’ve said that, and I will continue to say it.'
But there is a problem. The film centres on the claim that it was the confessions from torture victims that got the information which led to Maya identifying Bin Laden’s hide out. She spends hours interrogating prisoners and watching videos of those torture sessions in her determination she can get to the one man who can lead her to Bin Laden.
But that is not true. It was not the confessions forced from prisoners that brought the Americans to Bin Laden. And if we accept that, the moral axis of ZDT collapses. To repeat, ZDT’s premise is that if it takes torture to get America’s 'most wanted,' then so be it.
After watching ZDT I was left with an acknowledgement that this is a great Hollywood action film, but if this is as good as Tinseltown can deliver then it does not deserve an Oscar. Because, as with Argo, it is America which stands on the moral high ground and its enemies, denied a voice, are shown as an enraged crowd of Orientals. Both films remind me of those Reagan era films about Vietnam where the Americans are shown as the victims and even the victors.
So behind the excitement and the white knuckle ride of Zero Dark Thirty there is a narrative which leaves America feeling good about itself. It shouldn’t.
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