Zero Dark Thirty

This film was high on my list, but it took a while to find the time to go.  I went earlier this week and have been trying to “process” for myself what I think about this film. 

Zero Dark Thirty presents a dramatic version of the search for Osama bin Laden, launched after the 9/11/2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The focus is on a particular female CIA agent who, in the film, participates in the effort to determine Bin Laden’s location.  Early scenes vividly portray the torture of a captured suspect by CIA operatives seeking information about the operations of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s location.  Our main character observes but does not personally inflict physical force on the suspect. The presentation can be somewhat confusing, because little explanation is provided to the viewer.  There is little in the way of comprehensible exposition in the early stages of the film.  It is unclear whether any information that the torture subject reveals is used or contributes directly to apprehending terrorists.  Later scenes cast some doubt on the reliability of intelligence upon which the CIA operatives are taking action.  Ultimately, of course, Bin Laden’s whereabouts are discovered, after ten years of effort, and a major portion of the film is devoted to a re-enactment of the successful raid on his compound.  My interpretation of what was happening was that lucky breaks, good detective work, and the obsessive focus of the central character, played by Jessica Chastain, resulted in locating and terminating BinLaden.  (My understanding is that the character portrayed by Chastain may be something of a composite, not totally based on just one individual.)

This is a thrilling piece of film-making, giving the viewer a sense of being present and observing real events unwinding.  It is confusing to follow at times, because the narrative is fast-paced, many of the characters speak quickly in jargon-laden language, and there is sometimes no explanation about what is going on – one just watches things unfold and has to supply one’s own explanation.  The casting and directing is very strong.  I was particularly amused at James Gandolfini (“Tony Soprano”) being cast as Director of the CIA.  Once a boss, always a boss, I guess.  He gives a great performance, as he always does, even though it is a brief bit part.

This film has attracted some harsh criticism as being said to communicate that torture results in useful intelligence.  It is not clear to me that the film would send that message to a viewer who is watching intently and interpreting carefully what is presented.  One of my facebook friends questioned why the torture scenes were included if they were not relevant to the discovery of Bin Laden’s location?  My response is that the vehicle for presenting this story is the central character and a dramatic account of her experiences, which would include from the time she arrived in the Middle East as part of the intelligence-gathering mission after 9/11, a time that included these extreme interrogation techniques.  These were experiences that marked her and influenced how she proceeded.  It seemed to me that Chastain portrayed the character as being uncomfortable with these techniques and being devoted to other means of investigation.  She ultimately uncovers Bin Laden’s location after these techniques were officially abandoned, and it is not clear from the film that any intelligence traced to torture of captives directly contributed to the discovery.

It is now accepted by critics of the extreme interrogation techniques that in addition to being immoral they are not effective because a subject under such interrogation will say what they think they have to say to end the torture, regardless of its truth, and — as I think is well illustrated in these violent scenes — will tell interrogators what the interrogators want to hear, just reinforcing what may be incorrect suppositions.  Experts in the field contend that verbal interrogation, skillfully conducted, can be much more effective in eliciting accurate information.  I don’t think this film, as a dramatic work, can settle that question one way or the other.  I do think that the graphic depiction of these violent interrogation techniques is likely to bring home to the viewer how repulsive such techniques are, demeaning of human dignity and contrary to the concepts upon which our country is founded, including ideas of due process of law and protection of individual autonomy as well as respect for the physical integrity of the individual.  We reject the notion that the ends always justify the means, and if the ends are illusory and the means are disgusting, all the more reason to reject the means.

At bottom, I think the criticism of the filmmakers is overly-generalized and inadequately sensitive to the details of the film they made.  Depicting such activities is not equivalent to approving of them.  I would be very upset if the film overtly depicted a torture victim spouting obviously valuable and accurate intelligence in the course of this activity, but that is not my impression of the scenes in this film.

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