On Watching Zero Dark Thirty

I watched Zero Dark Thirty today. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Academy Award for directing the movie The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty depicts the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden over nearly a decade.

When I first saw the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty in the theater a while ago, I thought to myself how much I didn’t want to watch that film. Not in the theater anyways. Hunting down OBL was a good thing and I’m not suggesting otherwise (check out my post about the day OBL was killed). I just didn’t think I would want to be in a darkened theater full of people cheering killing someone.

However, due to the controversy surrounding the film, I really wanted to check it out for myself.

Some of the controversy stems from how the movie glorifies torture. It justifies the use and the extent of it because, as the movie shows, torture was key in eventually finding the whereabouts of OBL. Therefore, viewers will come away from this movie with a perspective that torture is necessary. The issue is that in real life, torture played no part in garnering useful information on the whereabouts of OBL.

Sure, “it’s just a movie” but that argument doesn’t hold for a couple of the reasons that journalist Glenn Greenwald puts forth in his article Zero Dark Thirty: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda:

First, this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the “journalistic” approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film’s first screen assures viewers that it is all “based on first hand accounts of actual events”. You can’t claim you’re doing journalism and then scream “art” to justify radical inaccuracies. Serwer aptly noted the manipulative shell-game driving this: “If you’re thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is ‘history’; if you’re a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it’s just a movie.”

Second, the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade: the 9/11 attack (which it starts with) and the killing of bin Laden (which it ends with). George Bush got re-elected running on the former, while Obama just got re-elected running on the latter. It was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House. Everything about this film – its subject, its claims, its mode of production, its implications – are political to its core. It does not have an apolitical bone in its body. Demanding that political considerations be excluded from how this film is judged is nonsensical; it’s a political film from start to finish.

He has more to say about that and a lot more so definitely read his entire article. Also check out this article by Jane Mayer, a journalist who is an expert on torture, titled Zero Conscience in “Zero Dark Thirty”.

Sometimes I’ll look past inaccuracies if the movie itself is good. I’m kind of a sell out that way. But I can’t do that this time because portraying torture as a necessary evil can have huge ramifications on policy and what we as a nation are willing to do.

Also, and I know this places me in the minority, I didn’t even enjoy the movie enough to say that it was worth viewing.

And I thought I would too! I thought I would be sitting here, writing that fine, the torture scenes made me queasy and it didn’t even happen that way but dagnabbit, what a good movie! I was even prepared for the jingoistic nature of this film and figured people would cheer like with what happened during Argo (which I thought was a better movie, by the way). But none of that happened.

I even wore my Airport Uniform just in case I got weird stares by anyone because, let’s be honest, if I’m going to watch a movie where all the bad guys are Muslim, I best be prepared. My Airport Uniform consists of my hoodie, Chuck Taylors, and either my Superman shirt or my other shirt depicting a group of superheroes. This look, I like to believe, really sells the “Hey, I’m one of y’all, y’know?” image that I really need sometimes. In the airport, while donning this uniform, I will also make sure to smile more and speak slightly differently, enunciating more. Yes, I’m slightly strange. You’re just figuring this out now?

Bottom line, if you watch Zero Dark Thirty, be very aware of the issues that surround it and take responsibility of educating yourself. Don’t be one of those people who gets spoon fed their morals and teachings from movies.

Side Note: In his article, Glenn Greenwald mentions that the agent that the composite of the character of Maya played by Jennifer Chastain was based on was actually in part responsible for the “kidnapping, drugging, and torture” of Khalid El-Masri, who was an innocent man held by the CIA in 2003. Khalid El-Masri’s story appears in the the book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustices, published by McSweeneys.

Side, Side Note: I got to meet Glenn Greenwald at the annual CAIR Banquet in the Bay Area in November. He signed a copy of his book for me (and for the tons of other people in line) and we talked for about 30 seconds. I’m pretty sure that makes us best friends now. FYI.

7 thoughts

    1. I think it could definitely wait until DVD (or Blu-Ray, streaming, whatever :) I have to say though, it was interesting watching the ending play out. Just took too long for the movie to get there.

  1. While I agree with you in part, I actually think the film shows (perhaps not as obviously as one would like) that torture wasted a lot of time. The real break through was after the first guy (sorry to sound obtuse but I can’t remember his name) that we see tortured is told that he had given information when in fact he hadn’t. This then leads him to reveal information about the Abu Ahmed character that Maya then pursues.
    The irony is that they went after Abu Ahmed using ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on other detainees but had the information all along form the Moroccan government but hadn’t bothered to sort through it.
    Once this lost info was found, the approach was far different. That’s the message I ultimately took away from it; that impatience and thoughtlessness led to ineffective and just awful torture and that had they invested more in the actual pursuit of information through networks and spies on the ground that probably would have found him way sooner.

    Just a thought anyhow.

    1. Hi Olivia! Thanks for the comment. I understand the message that you came away with and I’ll be honest, I hadn’t thought of it that way. That is an interesting perspective and I think you’re right, that the film does show how much time was wasted trying to get info from other means when they had it all along. I guess my fear is that people won’t be able to see through the torture that was conducted. For example, I was on IMDB and there was already a discussion on the forum of the page of this film about “yeah torture is bad but look how it helped here!” That’s the kind of stuff that scares me.

      I appreciate your thoughts on this! I wonder then if I should give this movie another viewing sometime and keep a more open mind about it :)

      Thanks for reading!

        1. Thanks! Yeah, the issue about the whole artistic route though is addressed in Greenwald’s point above. At least she is addressing the controversy! Even if she didn’t set out for it to get like that, it is what it is.

          And then there’s stuff like this, although it probably portrays more the ignorance of the movie-goer rather than what is in the film:

          http://mondoweiss.net/2013/01/reviews-thirty-muslims.html

  2. I was always more prone to see movies with extrimelly fictional characters, superheroes, super romantic and similar, with their superpowers being so unreal that I didn’t have a need to analyse them or enervate myself.
    And if it need to be serious, I would rather choose something that is tickling common human things, sorrow, isolation, emptyness, family relations and so on.
    And if it really need to be something historical I would choose rather something that happened really long ago in the past, on time distance that makes it more easy to consider it. Or movies that shows more how some happenings effect the people and their lives.
    It’s not that I don’t think movies are important, it s the basic need to talk and react on happenings around us in many ways. Just, my opinion is that politics and what is happening in the world has lost its black-and-white character and there is a lot of hidden things behind some particular movie or something that makes me hard to watch it. Unfortunatelly, only ordinary people’s sorrow and pain is evident. I just more understand that.
    And this is not about that particular movie, I haven’t seen it yet, it s more general.

    If I would need to replace my very faulty English opinion above with the movie that reflects the same thing, it would be this one
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0809407/
    If u ever have a chance to see it, do it:)

    In the meanwhile I m going to see The Hobbit tomorrow night:)

    Greets! (and as always I really like to read ur posts, and I m really aware that my commenting is an upside down sometimes (always:) )
    (I would add here a list of my favorite movies, but even me, I need to know when to stop;))

Leave a Reply