Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Does it or doesn’t it?
That’s what I wanted to know last month and I couldn’t get a straight answer from the myriad critics and commentators and clowns who had seen the film. They all disagreed. Detractors called it morally reprehensible. Advocates brought up the fact that the U.S. government under Pres. George W. Bush did in fact torture people, as if that were the controversy. But this was the controversy:
Does “Zero Dark Thirty” suggest that torture led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden?
If so, I argued, then it disagreed with the facts as we knew them.
I finally saw the film the other day, and I left the theater thinking it did something worse: it dramatized not just the efficacy of torture but its necessity. Yes, it makes torture look pretty awful, and the Americans who torture become depleted as well. But torture becomes the thing that needs to be done in order to achieve the film’s goal, which is getting Osama bin Laden. It’s how our heroes get their hands dirty, unlike those folks back in Washington, D.C., who sit behind desks. This is a conceit of many Hollywood action movies. The audience shares a knowing wink with the heroes on the screen. We’re all adults here; we know how the world works. Think of the way Pres. Lincoln bribed lame-duck congressmen to pass the 13th amendment in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” To do good, you need to do a little bad. Except this time it’s torturing people.
But I saw no direct link between that torture and the intel to get bin Laden.
Then I got home, read some of the commentary, particularly Glenn Greenwald’s in The Guardian, and realized I’d missed it. There is such a link. Suddenly I had sympathy for all of those critics who couldn’t give me a straight answer last month. An hour after seeing the movie, a movie in which I’d searched for this very thing, I couldn’t give myself a straight answer.
So I went to see the movie a second time.
This particular story
One wonders why screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow went with this particular story. They had so many options.
They could have made the movie about the U.S. Navy Seal team, Team Six, that actually went into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed bin Laden. Instead they’re the tail-end of the film and we hardly get to know them. They’re virtually interchangeable. They’re scruffy and wear fatigues and—for much of their time onscreen—night goggles. They seem like insect creatures in an alien land. We don’t see their faces. Is that the Aussie dude from “Warrior”? Or is that the other bearded guy? Or that third bearded guy? The assault on the compound is fascinating for how dull it is. Bigelow doesn’t use quick cuts or pulse-pounding music. It is not triumphant. Far from it. It’s done with a whisper, professionally, almost in real time. Back in Afghanistan, there are congratulations, and shouts of joy, but also a 10-year-long exhale. The ending, with Maya (Jessica Chastain) on the military plane being asked where she wants to go, and stopping, and tears welling up, is like the ending of “The Graduate” or “The Candidate.” What do I do now? We don’t know who we are anymore.
The movie begins with a minute of blackscreen audio from Sept. 11, 2001. We hear screams. We hear conversation between someone in the towers and a 911 operator. “I’m gonna die.” “No, ma’am, stay calm.” “It’s so hot, I’m burning up.” Then just the operator: “Can anyone hear me?” Then it’s two years later and we’re at a black ops site where old-hand Dan (Jason Clarke) and newbie Maya are torturing Anmar (Reda Kateb) to get information about the next attack.
It’s a long movie, 157 minutes, and in each segment Maya partners with a different person, or group of people, in the intelligence/military community, to get bin Laden. Maya is the driving force, the laserlike focus, but mostly it’s the others who gather the intel. Dan gets Anmar, after two years, to give up the name “Abu Ahmed,” a nom de guerre, which Maya carries with her through the years, through rumors of his death and arguments with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris’ daughter), who thinks bribery trumps ideology, until Debbie (Jessica Collins), a newbie in the Pakistani office, finds Abu Ahmed’s real name in an old file. Maya then convinces Dan, back at Langley, to get a Kuwaiti contact to find the family, whose phone is then tapped. She convinces Larry from Ground Branch (Édgar Ramirez of “Carlos” fame) to use his limited resources to search for the son who keeps calling from phone centers near Islamabad. It’s another analyst, Jack (Harold Perrineau), who brings the news that this son, surely Abu Ahmed, has bought a cellphone, and they’re able to track its signal; and in this manner, and despite the fact that this man always calls at odd hours and on the move, they manage to get a photo of him, which their Pakistani sources use to track his movements through the city. Which is how we wind up at the complex in Abbotabad.
But is bin Laden there? Now that debate begins, mostly in D.C. Maya’s there for it, of course. In a meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini), never named but obviously Leon Panetta, others, including Dan, offer weak probabilities, 60 percent maybe, that bin Laden is in the compound. Then Maya pipes up. She’s 100 percent certain. After a second she amends it to 95. Not because absolute certainty is impossible but because she knows it scares the shit out of her colleagues. The director smiles. He likes her toughness. We like it, too, or we’re supposed to, but Maya never annoyed me more than at this moment. There’s a scene in the second “Godfather” movie, the Hyman Roth birthday-cake celebration on a rooftop in Cuba, in which Michael correctly predicts the Cuban revolution. It’s a cheap device: having fictional characters get real history right with the 20/20 hindsight of screenwriters.
Eventually they follow Maya’s lead, we meet Seal Team Six, and … you know.
The facts as we know them
Did you miss the link between torture and bin Laden in that synopsis? I missed it the first time I saw the movie because I forgot how Abu Ahmed’s name was first introduced. I thought Maya came armed with it. Instead it emerged after two years of torture.
Last month I said such a link would dispute the facts as we know them. I said it would be a lie. In the movie, Dan keeps telling Anmar, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” and I think critics and pundits are saying the same thing to Kathryn Bigelow. When you lie to us, we hurt you.
But is it a lie? Last week, Acting CIA director Michael Morell wrote an internal memo in which he talked up the film’s inaccuracies. In so doing, he actually muddied the waters. He said the film’s impression that enhanced interrogation techniques were key to finding UBL is false. Then he wrote:
As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.
In refuting the film’s falseness, he actually lays bare its truth.
In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran who headed up some of these programs, says that both the film and the film’s critics get it wrong. Enhanced interrogation did lead to intel that led to bin Laden. But it wasn’t the kind of interrogation shown onscreen. They waterboarded with small plastic water bottles, for example, not rusty buckets. He also objected to the Jessica subplot. Maya’s friend and rival, Jessica, thinks she has a mole in al Qaeda and agrees to meet him at a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan. She’s portrayed as giddy, almost silly, baking a cake for his arrival. It’s as if it’s a date. She’s worried he won’t show. When he does, she’s worried that the guards at the gates will scare him off, so she gets them to stand down. Then she, and he, and several military officers are blown up. The character, says Rodriguez, is based on a real CIA officer. He writes: “The real person was an exceptionally talented officer who was responsible for some enormous intelligence successes, including playing a prominent role in the capture of al-Qaeda logistics expert Abu Zubaida in 2002. Her true story and memory deserve much better.” Not knowing this agent at all, I agree. The movie’s long as is, and this makes it longer, and it’s all telegraphed. Why make her seem like such a giddy girl on a date, for example? To make Maya look better? Does she need that? Doesn’t she have “100%”? Doesn’t she have “motherfucker”?
Yet the larger point remains. According to both of these CIA officers, enhanced interrogation, or torture, led to intel that led to bin Laden.
But is this right? Senate investigations are now being called to find out what Bigelow knew and when she knew it; what Bigelow was fed and how. At the moment, the truth isn’t out there.
But even though we don’t know the truth at the moment, is the movie still wrong?
The lesson of the Central Park Five
To me it’s wrong because of what we learn in “The Central Park Five.” That documentary, which was also released in select cities in 2012, is about five kids, ages 14 to 16, who confessed to the infamous assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, but who were innocent of the crime. Why did they confess? They got tired. They got worn down. They wanted to go home. After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, none of it enhanced, the police were able to get innocent people to confess to horrific crimes. They got misinformation and it led to tragedy. The real rapist continued to rape and kill for another few months before he was caught. These boys were put away for 5 to 10 years. Nobody won.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” we never have the wrong people. We always have the right people. And they always break. The movie’s right about that. Everyone breaks. Innocent people probably break sooner.
Mark Boal recently defended his film at the New York Film Critics Awards ceremony. He said: “I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives usa more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.” What’s that appraisal? I would say it’s this: Torture works. It’s a little immoral and a lot effective, and it prevents great tragedies. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, we get our hands a little dirty. But in the end we got bin Laden and that’s what matters. Because we never torture the wrong people.
A few years ago, I wrote an article on a civil rights lawyer named Robert Rubin. One of his cases involved a man named Hady Omar, whose story goes like this:
On Sept. 11, 2001, Omar’s flight from Florida was grounded in Houston, but he made it back to Fort Smith, Ark., and his American wife, Candy, in time for the FBI to pick him up the next day. He was targeted for: a) being Egyptian, and b) buying his plane ticket from the same Kinko’s in Boca Raton that one of the hijackers used. The FBI had questions but Omar wasn’t worried. The next day he took a lie detector test, passed, but instead of going free, the INS took him, in shackles, across state lines, to an office in Oakdale, La., then to a prison in New Orleans, then to a federal penitentiary in Pollock, La. There, while someone videotaped him with a camcorder, he was ordered to strip. There was a body cavity search, and jokes were made, and guards, including female guards, laughed. Finally he was placed in shackles in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell. He told officials he didn’t eat pork so he was served pork twice a day. His hot water was turned off so he stopped bathing. Days turned into weeks turned into months. He lost 20 pounds. He had thoughts of suicide. Finally, after 73 days without charge, he was freed. By then he’d lost his job and many of his friends—the front page of the Fort Smith paper on Sept. 13 featured a four-column photograph of Omar being led away in handcuffs under the headline: “Terror Strikes Home.” He and Candy were forced to sell their car and furniture; they moved in with her father. That’s when Rubin got involved.
Hady Omar got “lawyered up,” as they say in the movie.
Boal and Bigelow don’t show authorities incarcerating and interrogating men like Hady Omar, but it would’ve been easy to do so. There’s a perfect moment for it. When Debbie finds Abu Ahmed in a file folder, Maya wonders aloud why the information never got to her. There’s a discussion of all the misinformation flying around after 9/11. It’s implied that this misinformation came from other countries, probably Pakistan, who pretended to help but hurt. It would’ve been the perfect moment to bring up the innocent people who wound up in the detainee program. But for some reason Boal and Bigelow didn’t want to allude to that story.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…
So how was the movie?
“Zero Dark Thirty” can be a slog. We never get to know our main character because she has no personality besides getting bin Laden. Most of the others are background figures. The most intriguing is Dan, who does his job well, and who has something of a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. He goes back early. He says he’s seen too many naked guys. It’s gallows humor. Jason Clarke does a great, understated job with the role.
I’ll say this: “Zero Dark Thirty” goes for veracity and mostly achieves it. But it screws up in this most important area. It misrepresents the efficacy of torture. It does so, at the least, by withholding information from us. And when you withhold information from us, we hurt you.