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Bin Laden film sparks misguided torture debate

"Zero Dark Thirty", Kathryn Bigelow’s devastating new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been accused of celebrating torture, but those claims miss the point. FRANCE 24 film critic Jon Frosch takes a closer look.


The controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty”, Kathryn Bigelow’s superb new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, began long before anyone had even seen it.

Several months ago, conservatives cried foul over the movie’s originally scheduled October release date, alleging that it would have a pro-Obama slant and therefore unfairly impact the November election.

New York Magazine's film critic, David Edelstein, ranked "Zero Dark Thirty" best film of the year, even as he criticised what he sees as the film's message. "As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic," he wrote. "As a piece of cinema, it’s phenomenally gripping an unholy masterwork."

Now, several liberals -- not all of whom have seen the film -- are claiming that “Zero Dark Thirty” glorifies torture by showing CIA officers obtaining crucial information through abuse of prisoners.

Both sides are wrong.

“Zero Dark Thirty” (a military term for half past midnight, when Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan) is neither a scorching indictment of US counterterrorism tactics nor a patriotic, adrenaline-pumped ode to American mettle and might. It is, rather, a cool-headed, clear-eyed look at the logistical mechanics and moral ambiguities of a grueling 10-year mission to track down and kill the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

It is also one of the very best films of the year: a riveting spy procedural, crafted with journalistic rigor and great visual confidence.

Depicting torture as effective?

After 2009’s terrific bomb-squad thriller “The Hurt Locker” (for which Bigelow became the first woman to take home a Best Director Oscar), “Zero Dark Thirty” indeed confirms that the filmmaker and her screenwriting partner, reporter Mark Boal, have become Hollywood’s sharpest, least sentimental documenters of America at war.

But whereas “The Hurt Locker”, like most of Bigelow’s previous work, centered on a male protagonist and his relationship to the violence around him, the main figure in “Zero Dark Thirty” is a female CIA agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain and reportedly based on the same person as Claire Danes’ brilliant, bipolar Carrie on popular TV series “Homeland”).

When we first see Maya, she is strenuously masking her disgust as her mentor punches, strips, and waterboards a Saudi Arabian terror suspect. Bigelow’s graphic depiction of torture (full of blood, animal-like howls of anguish, and unintentional defecation), as well as her fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.

What has infuriated those who claim the film justifies the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used after 9/11 is the fact that the suspect eventually offers the name of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, in what ultimately turns out to be a crucial clue. Several activists, journalists, and politicians have cited CIA documentation stating that such methods were not, in fact, “a central component” in finding bin Laden.

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But “Zero Dark Thirty” also shows violence against prisoners eliciting false information – and transforming CIA agents in disturbing ways. The operative who nonchalantly hisses “You lie to me, I hurt you” at the Saudi Arabian suspect in the movie’s opening sequence ends up taking an office job in Washington, telling his boss -- with barely masked vulnerability -- “I’m sick of seeing naked men all the time”. And the same Maya who all but shudders when she first sees violent interrogation methods up close quickly adapts, at one point wielding torture as a threat against a tight-lipped suspect, and yelling “I’m going to smoke everyone in this op!” when she struggles to locate her target.

Other critics of the film have cited a scene in which a CIA agent gripes that his job has got harder since Obama banned “enhanced interrogation techniques” as evidence that the filmmakers are suggesting torture is effective.

But Bigelow and Boal are not interested in whether or not torture works. They are getting at something far trickier and more disconcerting: how violence can desensitise and facilitate, becoming just another tool at one’s disposal and something intelligence operatives, and the US foreign policy apparatus at large, grow dependent on to get a certain result.

A climax without catharsis

Far from validating torture as the key to nabbing bin Laden (“an information-extracting necessity, repellent but fruitful”, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote in his appraisal of the film) “Zero Dark Thirty”, if anything, celebrates the decade of detective work Maya did from behind her desk – working the phones, studying photos, and making connections.

Reflecting that methodical, labyrinthine process, the film largely eschews Hollywood-style theatrics in favour of hushed scenes of sleuthing, intelligence meetings, and rapid-fire exchanges of information.

Along the way, Chastain gradually becomes fiercer and steelier, and the movie gives her character no life outside of work. Referring to colleagues who have died, Maya at one point says, “I believe I was spared so I can finish the job”, her relentless, almost religious devotion to finding bin Laden a sort of mirror image of the latter’s own extremism.

The final section of “Zero Dark Thirty” culminates, of course, with a long, harrowing sequence in which US Navy SEALS raid bin Laden’s compound. We see them approaching Abbottabad in their helicopter, tense, but oddly calm, and then blowing open the doors and gradually making their way through the house, around corners and up staircases.

Bigelow alternates an objective camera and a subjective point of view, with bits and pieces of the raid filtered through the green tint of the Navy SEALS’ night-vision goggles. There’s no suspense in how things turn out, but the way Bigelow stages it all – full of stops, starts, snags, and brief bursts of gunfire -- is exhilarating in its authenticity of tone and masterful choreography.

Once the job is “finished”, with bin Laden carried out in a body bag and delivered to an anxiously waiting Maya, there is no high-fiving or swelling music. Maya and the others appear not exalted, but shaken and sobered – which is exactly how one feels after seeing the movie.

Upsetting as it may be to its detractors, “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t overtly condemn, approve, or diagnose anything. Nor does it have to. Bigelow’s forcefully naturalistic images, including a shattering final shot, speak for themselves – and leave viewers to form their own opinion about the sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.

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