Arts and Culture

Are You Dirty for Seeing 'Zero Dark Thirty'?

Storm of controversy about film's portrayal of torture precedes its opening today.

By Steve Burgess 11 Jan 2013 |

Steve Burgess writes about film, culture and travel for The Tyee.

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Jessica Chastain plays CIA operative named Maya.

If you pay attention to film you probably have strong opinions about Zero Dark Thirty. You've read the blogs, seen Glenn Greenwald's Guardian piece and the strong reaction to it. You may well have taken a stand, pro or con. Now, in the interests of thorough research, you can actually see the movie.

Director Kathyrn Bigelow's chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden arrives accompanied by so much controversy and such a fascinating back story that it's a little difficult to see past to the actual movie. The project was in the works long before (spoiler alert) Bin Laden was actually tracked down by a Navy Seal team and shot dead in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. You may find yourself wondering about the skeleton of the old screenplay and how much remains. Take the movie's central figure, a CIA operative here named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Did the filmmakers understand the key role she was playing in the search even before her work actually paid off? Seems doubtful, since even her CIA contemporaries are unconvinced that her dogged tracking of a secretive Al Qaida courier will be the thread that finally leads to the world's top terrorist.

But most of the heat generated by the film involves torture.

CIA and senators no fans

There is no scene where a tortured prisoner breaks and says, "Enough waterboarding! I'll talk!" But according to this version of events a captured Al Qaida operative (Reda Kateb) becomes so addled by abuse and sleep deprivation that he is susceptible to a piece of trickery devised by his captors, and provides the first key piece of information that begins the hunt. It was this that inspired Greenwald -- who admitted he had not yet seen Zero Dark Thirty -- to condemn it as an advertisement for torture and even to compare Bigelow to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. CIA director Michael Morell said that the film's version of events was not accurate. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin issued a statement insisting the idea that torture played a key role was "misguided and misinformed. Instead," they wrote, "the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."

Much as we would love to believe such statements, we simply can't know. Very few of us would be likely to believe CIA denials on any other issue, so it would be rather hypocritical to take their word only when we hope they are telling the truth. Still, the potency of the torture issue has meant that Zero Dark Thirty has become a flashpoint for people who are not particularly interested in cinema. So much ink was spilled before the film's release and so many opinions expressed that one exasperated movie buff started a thread at titled "I Cannot Believe I Inhabit the Earth with You Fools." (Interesting that Ben Affleck's Argo, another alleged representation of actual CIA operations, was one of the year's best-reviewed films even though it was so full of bullshit it might as well have been a Charlie's Angels episode.)

So is this a good movie? It is. Zero Dark Thirty, while not flawless, is compelling and uncompromising. As it unfolds it's easy to remember that the movie was originally the chronicle of an unsuccessful hunt. There are false leads and horrible mistakes. And aside from the central controversy, the movie's depiction of torture does reflect the reality of what was going on in hidden cells and CIA black sites. You can argue with Bigelow's suggestion that torture was effective but not with her confirmation that it was going on.

Chastain's Maya is a hard-ass, not particularly likable, but obsessed with finding Bin Laden. One of the most surprising aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is that, unlike the cute movie producer played by Alan Arkin in Argo, Maya is not an invention. In the book No Easy Day, apparently co-written by a member of the Navy Seal team, Maya is known as Jen. And subsequent reporting has revealed that she is arguably more obnoxious than the film suggests. After being awarded the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Medal, "Jen" reportedly fired off a group email attacking other CIA medal winners as undeserving and claiming that only she deserved honour. She was subsequently passed over for promotion. None of that downer stuff made it into the movie.

A scene where Maya confronts her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) may be the film's most obvious false note. Her self-righteous rant about Bin Laden's importance hardly seems necessary. (Blogger Jon Schwarz also makes the point that Maya is wrong about Bin Laden in the scene, and that her attitude is representative of a misguided American approach to counter-terrorism. This film does start arguments.)

See for yourself

Zero Dark Thirty (the name simply refers to a night time operation) climaxes with the scene Bigelow didn't think she'd be able to film -- a near real-time recreation of the raid on the Abbottobad compound. It's no less gripping for the foregone result. (Bigelow is very careful with her representations of Bin Laden himself -- he is never seen clearly.) The Seals are probably the most likable people in the movie. Asked what he is listening to on his iPod on the way to the raid, one soldier answers, "Tony Robbins," and suggests to his fellow soldier that they should really sit down and talk about it afterwards. (There may be another laugh in the movie but if so I can't recall it at the moment.)

I am not one to say, "It's only a movie." I have long wished filmmakers would have more respect for history -- after all if you think your factual story is interesting why not trust it? Movies like Argo infuriate me for that very reason. But I'm willing to suspend judgement on the controversy at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty because, with apologies to Greenwald, we don't know for sure that the movie got it wrong. Either way Bigelow and company have created a movie well worth your time. At the very least, once you've seen it your pre-existing opinion will have a lot more credibility.  [Tyee]

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