Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.
In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.
The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure” lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).
Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.
Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.