Zero Dark Thirty | THE FILMS OF CINEMA | Forum
Discussion on this is probably going to be limited until January ... but I'm itching to talk about ZD30 here, especially given that Vern and his readers are thoughtful about filmatism and politics and violence and ethics. Plus, the whole controversy about the role of torture as depicted in the film (and by extension real life) is actually legit, as opposed to some talking point planted to generate publicity buzz.
Part of the reason why the controversy is under my skin is that ZD30's strengths aren't specific to cinema but more to re-enactment. The emotion presented onscreen is largely remote; the bulk of the emotional impact is tied to our real-life investment in the subject. Similarly most characters feel like cogs, who wouldn't be all that interesting outside of their involvement with this particular manhunt. (Chastain has the most to play, and she runs with it. The supporting cast also breathes a lot of life into thinly-sketched roles.) The story is presented in a "this happened, then that happened, and then that, etc." kind of way, filling in details of a narrative we in large part already subscribe to. And visually, the movie goes for realness rather than flourish; this kind of surprised me from Bigelow, as even in The Hurt Locker there were several "wow" images.
So unlike, say, "Argo", which uses familiar casting and more conventional story structure and clearly cinematic story elements (compare its spiffy "here's what happened in Iran" opener to ZD30's scene-setting World Trade Towers phone calls), ZD30 carries itself in a way that has come to represent authenticity (fuckin' handheld cameras.) And ZD30 is also purporting to spill the beans (at least some of them) on how the investigation and assassination mission went down. And this is where I think the movie and interpreting it gets very slippery. Attempts at versimilitude aside, the most principled, objective recreation of events portrayed can't help but put some sort of slant on things. Not only does a viewer have very limited points of corroboration for what's being revealed, you have to question whether not only what's coming across but also whether that's essentially unfiltered, or whether (and if so, how) it's inadvertently filtered by the filmmakers, or whether it's intentionally massaged by the filmmakers (and if so, why). On top of all that analysis, there are questions about whether there's a bar of accuracy that the film is responsible to reach; how unmistakable the filmmakers' attitudes need to be, and to whom; how to balance accounts and arguments from the government vs. the media vs. Mark Boal's secret sources; whether fictionalization is valid; whether or not even a flawed account reaching the public will do more harm (e.g., widespread miseducation) than good (e.g., broader revelation and discussion of real-life events.)
I'm totally in the TL;DR zone, so instead of getting lost in the questions this movie raises, here's what I feel about the movie's portrayal of torture.
I don't think the movie condones torture, but I do think it presents it as a tool that won't necessarily but can yield viable information. We know that historically interrogation techniques seen in the movie happened (I'm defining at least the beatings and prolonged physical contortion as torture. Others might not.) If you evaluate the movie's intent solely by looking at the dramatic structure, interrogation techniques break down the first captive (Ammar) so that he yields info that Maya seizes on; Maya's commitment to theory built around this name (and subsequent research on name) leads to assassination of Bin Laden. It's as significant as a meet-cute in a romantic comedy. Again, if you're looking at the movie through a conventional movie narrative prism* - where events aren't extraneous but significant points on the way to a destination - the idea is there that the interrogation techniques were the first step to killing OBL.
However. The movie doesn't say that this information would never have surfaced without torture. It doesn't outright say that we should or shouldn't use the methods depicted ... only that we did (though one could argue that the absence of definitive judgment is in itself unethical; another could argue that it's not a movie's responsibility to editorialize; another could find that the portrayal of torture says all that needs be said on the topic; another could say that any fictional reenactment of torture has no importance against real-world torture. It never ends.) ZD30 only presents that the woman responsible for first came across the information gathered this way. This is one of those items that can't be corroborated. If it's true, I find it hard to knock the film for starting Maya's story here. And though we can't verify the truth, I would argue though that if one looks at how the movie characterizes Maya - who is the closest thing the viewer has to a surrogate, and whose evolving emotions are the ones the filmmakers have chosen to showcase - you don't find a pro-torture agenda. She's not comfortable with it at the start; when attending interrogations she refuses to hide her face behind a mask; when over time she becomes the lead interrogator the interrogations are markedly less cruel. These later interrogations also have her continuing without a terrifying mask, but she'll protect herself (more from herself than from the detainee, I'd say) with a wig, which I interpret as part of her growing ... I don't want to say callous, but her emotions have moved towards sleep mode as her exposure within the "war on terror" mounts (e.g., there's a brief scene where an overhead monitoring of what appears to be an exploding truck, and the footage has become background noise for her; she comes out of sleep mode with the base bombing.) So if one looks at the movie as Maya's story, her exposure to torture damages her, and the many others steps in her trackdown of OBL do not. (In fact, she displays enough skill in reading between the lines of people's testimony that one could argue that she could conceivably have extracted the nugget she got from Ammar in some other, less damaging way ... though, per the movie, that's just not how it went down. Though there is the fact that others picked up on the same nugget, and I don't think it's clear whether they did so independent of awareness of Maya's hunch and/or without torture.) And while the movie avoids milking the successful assassination for a feeling of uplift, I'd argue that as portrayed there's no positive emotional payoff linked to the torture per se; compare with the excitement when locating the moving courier. That kind of investigation gets emotionally endorsed by the film; interrogation doesn't. (And I'm forgetting about the burnout of the lead interrogator who introduces Maya to Ammar.)
There are a number of ways you can parse the movie, obviously. Don't want to sound definitive here. Just that I'm very curious to read more of y'all picking through the can of worms the movie opens.
*The movie doesn't really employ the most conventional narrative format, IMO; it feels more like events pile on rather than escalate in a tight cause-and-effect way.
Still rolling this movie around in my head. I wish I had read the Feingold/McCain letter on the movie right before seeing the film, because the letter's fascinating. I don't have exact recall of how the film unfolds, but some of the letters' bulletpoints seem to split hairs in ways that don't conclusively contradict the film's accounts. For example, I don't believe the movie says that the CIA "first learned" about the courier through detainees who were subjected to torture. Even if this claim from the letter is factual, it doesn't rule out that Maya's real-world counterpart didn't get her first exposure to the courier's existence through a tortured detainee, does it?
Similarly, the next point says that the CIA didn't get the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. I'm fuzzy on the precise details, but I believe the film posits that Maya got the courier's family name from a detainee but didn't come up with the courier's full identity until following up a theory involving a deceased individual being misidentified. If this is indeed what the movie portrays, it seems that the congresspeople's point can be accurate yet fail to debunk the movie's account ... which ought to be the letter's intention.
There are several further points that are brought up presumably to discredit the movie's account, yet can coexist with how the movie lays things out. I hate sounding like a tinfoil hat guy, but I wonder if these less-than-airtight refutations are because the movie is more accurate than our government is comfortable with. The letter's authors disavow that torture should be employed, and I'm in full agreement. Yet when the letter says that "the use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse", I get the feeling that the letter authors' highest goal may be to stress current anti-torture policy by sweeping recent history under the rug. Who knows, despite the letter's stated purpose of preventing Americans from being swayed to believe that torture is legitimate, maybe they're pre-emptively going on the record before the movie goes global, including to groups inflamed by that awful "Innocence of Muslims" video.
Or maybe they're inducing a pro-torture (or torture-neutral) agenda solely from the trailer. I was pretty mixed on the movie, but I'm tempted to see it again primarily to get the movie's account down solid and compare it to the letter's countercharges.
Hopped onto the forum to see if anybody had started an 0D30 thread, and was pleased to find plenty of substance in Mr. Li's thoughts.
I was invested in the question of the film's stance on torture before seeing it. In Angelo Muredda's review of the film (http://www.filmfreakcentral.ne.....hirty.html), he cites a few dudes who claim that the film glorifies torture. For example, he quotes a gentleman from the Guardian who says:
"to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is - by definition - to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm.....propaganda)
Well, that seemed like idiotic logic to me. I mean perhaps some Americans DON'T believe that the ends justify the means, for example. But it got more dicey when, in his review, Muredda also says:
"Whether [torture] produces valuable information in Maya's eventual discovery of bin Laden's courier or not (and for the record, it doesn't)..."
I became fixated on this, because how fucking ridiculous would it be for all these people to be upset that the movie simply was portraying torture when in fact the movie demonstrates that the torture didn't even help them in the long run?! Muredda doesn't propose that the "for the record" bit is even crucial to his interpretation of the film, but nonetheless it was constantly on my mind while watching it: trying to judge for myself whether or not the "advanced interrogations" provide a crucial piece of the puzzle; if they do, whether the film argues that this was the only, or best, way that the information could have been obtained; if it is the only or best way, whether the movie is saying that the ends justify the means.
The way I see it:
1) The first detainee breaks after being tortured (sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings, simulated drownings, humiliation) and gives Maya a list of names. She does not recognize one of the names and this is where her courier lead first manifests.
2) A number of other detainees are tortured to some extent. They all confirm suspicion in Maya's mind about the courier and his importance. You don't see them tortured, but you can infer that they were tortured because A) Maya mentions their reluctance to share the information (I think?) and B) later on, reference is made to the fact that they can no longer torture detainees, and in fact the backlash from the torture scene is so bad that it's counterproductive to even talk to the detainees at all, because the detainees' lawyers will be present and the lawyers will then go and warn bin Ladin about shit. (This is kinda ambiguous i guess, since it's not necessarily that torture was critical to the detainees being valuable sources of information, but now the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that they're definitely not valuable).
3) Maya is now fixated on this courier. She follows the lead for YEARS. It seems that the courier is dead and she loses hope. This other intelligence worker, an admirer of Maya's work, explicitly working intelligence in Pakistan with Maya because of her admiration, produces a breakthrough with the courier lead by sifting through old intelligence provided to the CIA by Saudi Intelligence. (Does this actually mean Saudi Arabia's equivalent of the CIA, or does it mean that similar to how Maya is working out of Pakistan, there are also Maya equivalents working out of Saudi Arabia?) Anyways you would have to REALLY bend over backwards, I think, to argue that this particular breakthrough is enabled by torture. It was clearly a multiple-all-nighters-sifting-through-files type of breakthrough.
4) The CIA uses fairly traditional surveillance methods to find the courier and trace him to the bin Ladin compound, and thereafter to stakeout the compound and decide that they think bin Ladin is somewhere between 60-100% definitely there. Some of the gov't strategists want the probability higher, and this is where the torture-backlash scenario is bemoaned as I mentioned earlier: maybe they could know more for certain, but they can't interrogate people effectively anymore.
So it seems to me that in the film's narrative, they get important information (important = it causes Maya to fixate on the courier lead and pursue it to its successful, bin Ladin-killing conclusion) by torturing detainees. I think you could start to formulate an argument about how the film argues that the information couldn't have been obtained elsewise, because one character complains that they are having trouble coming up with more intelligence on whether or not it's actually bin Ladin in the compound now that the former torture-ees can lawyer up.
I don't think that the movie is pro-torture and I think the notion that it "glorifies" torture is absurd. I don't think the movie glorifies ANYTHING, including that the actual operation on the compound is presented quite matter-of-factly instead of triumphantly, and that the whole affair leaves Maya feeling however she was feeling in that final shot (again, not glorious). Certainly the torture itself looks ugly and unattractive, not kinetic and manly like getting tortured in a Mel Gibson film.
I believe the film attempts to draw some comparison between Maya and the people she is pursuing: she's a zealot. She uses rhetoric about how she is destined/chosen by God to do what she's trying to do or something. There's an attempt on her life, and reference is made to the fact that she's now "on a list" and once you're on a list, you never get off it, similar to how they're still pursuing UBL even though her boss thinks UBL is completely irrelevant to the bigger picture of defending the homeland ("might as well be dead", he says).
I don't think that just because the one character says that they can't get info from the detainees because of the detainee's lawyers, means that that's what the film thinks. It's the sort of discussion where it would help to have the text in front of you, though.
AND I keep going back and forth as to whether THE HURT LOCKER is informative at all in parsing this film. War films (or holocaust films for that matter) get criticized for (inadvertently) glorifying what they're depicting by romanticizing the heroism and self-sacrifice embodied therein. Like, you can set out to say "look at how horrible war is" but you end up making it into this ennobling tragedy, which of course has it's appeal. HURT LOCKER on the other hand seems to take this whole "we're just going to show you, objectively, what these people are going through and you can decide for yourself."
But of course what they go through is so psychologically fucked, it actually ends up being the most effective anti-war movie imaginable. All culminating in Jeremy Renner FINALLY returning home, and home isn't shit, he might as well not even be there, and quick as that the clock resets in that hella devastating final shot. I'm tempted to say that Bigelow was going for something similar here: present things 'objectively' and the fact that the situation is fucked will speak for itself. This is our post-9/11 culture, Bigelow says, here's what we do, yeah it maybe let us kill bin Ladin but nobody feels better about anything in spite of that. Killing bin Ladin is equivalent to Jeremy Renner's underwhelming time at home with Evangeline Lilly, and Maya's final tears are equivalent to "100 more days" or whatever it says at the end. I'm not sure I agree with this theory that I myself am espousing, but I certainly agree with it more than the notion that the film is saying "...and that's is why it's important to torture detainees."
Thanks for the kind word, Renfield. I like your take on the film and on the bizarre mental leap from that oft-cited Guardian article - who says every contributing factor takes on the sheen or taint of a result?
Does anyone know how much participation the Department of Defense had on this film? A friend argued to me that ZD30 has to be propaganda, because (amongst other reasons) the DoD has a firm grip on how they're portrayed in productions they participate in (which is true.) I'd argue that the DoD could vet the script while not being able to vet the film's ultimate tone - which is grim, hollowed-out, and more ambivalent than the DoD would probably want. But then, I don't know how much of a grip the DoD would have if they provided info but not locations or vehicles ... are those copters at the end the real thing?
Big correction to my previous post: Feingold is not Dianne Feinstein! Plus, I've read that the real family name of Abu Ahmed only reaches Maya when that admiring analyst brings her the report. If so, this is one of those things where a point from the letter (that the courier's identity didn't come from a detainee subjected to coercive techniques) doesn't definitively contradict the movie's account. And also interesting that Feinstein McCain et al. are now looking to turn the spotlight on Boal's sources.
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