Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Reviewed

Saddam's Torture Chamber
Werner Herzog toured Kuwait and Iraq immediately after the first Gulf War in 1990-91.  The oil fields were still burning and his resulting film contains a short chapter on Saddam’s torture chambers.  The camera lingers silently on the implements of torture:  normal looking tools made horrible by our imagination of what they were used for.  The segment shows a mother shocked permanently speechless because she was forced by the authorities to witness her own sons being tortured to death.  Our mind recoils.  Herzog’s camera judges.  Saddam’s torturers inflicted pain and death in order to terrorize and control others.  It was terror as sadism.  We know it from the movies.  It robs the torturer of his or her humanity. 

The torture depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty is not like that.   The film opens with the interrogation of “Ammar,” depicted as peripherally involved in the September 11, 2001 assault on the World Trade Center.  He’s not talking and is being subjected to beatings, stress positions, degradation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and prolonged confinement in a small box.   The acting CIA director wrote a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee indicating that the CIA engaged extensively with the filmmakers, and the action feels authentic.  We no longer have to wonder what waterboarding looks like, even if we don’t know what it feels like.  Bigelow presents the action without judgment.  The mind does not recoil.  Jason Clarke in the role of lead interrogator, “Dan,” and Jessica Chastain as “Maya” are professional, earnest, and likeable.  Unlike the mother in Herzog’s film, Ammar is never fully broken.  The torture in enhanced interrogation has limits.   And that makes all the difference.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a gripping, brilliantly told story of the CIA’s 10-year pursuit of bin Laden after 9/11.  It follows Maya, an invented heroin of epic Greek proportions, recruited directly from High School to work on the CIA team assigned to find UBL.  After ten years, it’s her strength of character, her doggedness, her conviction, that ultimately leads to the Navy Seal operation to Abbotabad.  James Gandolfini, as CIA director Leon Panetta, tries to take the measure of her confidence in a quiet moment in the CIA cafeteria in Langley shortly before the raid:  “It’s all I’ve ever done,” she tells him.  Through three college class length hours we follow Maya’s pursuit of an obscure reference to a courier close to Bin Laden, to the discovery of Abu Ahmed and bin Laden’s compound.  The challenge of making the decision to proceed in the absence of full information is compellingly told.  We are spellbound, drawn in, not repelled.

It’s an American tale, but it’s not propaganda.  The film opens with a black screen and dialogue between 911 dispatchers and victims trapped high in the World Trade Towers.  It ends with Maya alone at the end of the film, finally letting go, crying.  Those tears contain more than the 9/11 victims, they include Amman, the dead courier and his brother, her dead colleagues, the dead kitchen staff at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.   Although there are suicide bombings, the market in Islamabad is bustling and vibrant.  There’s no jingoism here; Amman and other Arab detainees are depicted in human dimensions, understandable and normal.  The ambivalence of shooting unarmed men and women in the UBL compound comes through loud and clear as the Arab translator with the Navy Seals, summoned to bring a body bag to the third floor for Osama, examines the Kalashnikov on the mantle and notes it is unused.   There is comment in a remarkable scene where Maya engages in social chit-chat with a colleague (the only time in the film) as she watches a drone strike without any change in expression.

Those who wish to politicize the absence of politics in this film have it all wrong.  An example is Marjorie Cohn, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, who writes in the Huffington Post:  
“Granting impunity to the torturers combined with propaganda films like Zero Dark Thirty, which may well win multiple Oscars, dilutes any meaningful public opposition to our government's cruel interrogation techniques. Armed with full and accurate information, we must engage in an honest discourse about torture and abuse, and hold those who commit those illegal acts fully accountable.”
Full and accurate information and honest discourse are the right goal.  By presenting the torture involved in “enhanced interrogation” in a sober, non-judgmental light the film is doing its part. 

Cohn goes on to quote at length from the Feinstein/Levin/McCain letter  which falsely characterizes the film as portraying that it was torture that disclosed the full name and identify of the courier.  The film does nothing of the sort and to pretend that it does will not serve the quest for honest discourse. 

This film will inform your feel for discussions about where to draw the line with “enhanced interrogation.”  The film will provide helpful context for assessing the John Yoo and Jay Bybee memoranda signing off on “enhanced interrogation” in the wake of September 11, 2001.  The filmmakers have done a service to the country and they’ll deserve every Oscar they get. 


  1. Roland, I could not have said it better. And I have high regard for my writerly abilities.

    This film tells the compelling story of a determined/obsessed,morally and physically brave person doing what every American or at least a goodly majority of American wanted someome to do. Kill Bin Ladn.

    And it tells a story about drawing the line on "enhanced interrogation."

    Now, do they deserve every Oscar they can get? They are nominated for picture, original screen play, editing. sound editing.

    In my opinion.

    Picture: No. I think Lincoln was the Best Picture. But ZDT, was second.

    Editing: I think Life of Pi was some awesomely good editing. Showy. But in an engaging entertaining way. However, ZDT, was very complicated, build of visually interesting cuts. Building tension in a situation in which I knew the ending. I give the Oscar to Zero Dark Thirty.

    Sound Mixing: Yes, ZDT. The opening sound montage was a brave choice and a reminder of one very important way we as a society reacted to the 9/11 attacks.

    Original Screenplay: No. Not this time. Original is like Django or Moonrise Kingdom. Flight. The acting was good but the writing was pretty melodramatic I didn't see Amour. I am in denial about life. But the Oscar goes to Moonrise Kingdom.

    2 of 4 is what Zero Dark Thirty deserves. However, if you bat .500 you make it to the hall of fame. Unless you used banned substances.

  2. I forgot Best Actress. Jessica Chastain has been working at her craft for 15 years. The woman from Amour is pretty damn old. As much as I admire Jennifer Lawrence and that is alot, Jessica Chastain carried the movie in a story about killing UBL.