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Books and Culture

Michael J. Totten
Love It, Hate It—but See It
Zero Dark Thirty is too important to be boycotted by anyone but activists.
25 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is weathering a storm of criticism. Critics overwhelmingly give the film positive reviews, but activists claim that it approves of and even glorifies the use of torture against suspected al-Qaida terrorists held in secret CIA prisons and “black” sites.

The accusation is ludicrous. Nothing in Zero Dark Thirty suggests that either Boal or Bigelow approves of torture. So many have accused Bigelow of torture advocacy that she took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times and answered the charges directly. “As a lifelong pacifist,” she wrote, “I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.” Not only is she against torture—she’s a pacifist.

The reason she’s being called out for the opposite—David Edelstein at Vulture.com even calls the film “borderline fascistic” and “barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture”—is that she set her own opinions aside and depicted the hunt for bin Laden journalistically and objectively. The film’s electrifying final third dramatizes the raid on the al-Qaida leader’s compound in Pakistan, while the middle third shows the painstaking detective work that went into tracking him down. The film’s first third—the portion catching all the flak—takes place in secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland, where terrorist suspects are ruthlessly interrogated for intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Anti-torture activists are picketing theaters in cities around the country and handing out leaflets. They seem to be confusing activism with journalism and art, which I suppose makes sense, since they’re the activists and Bigelow is the artist. But someone needs to explain to them how journalism and art work.

“Those of us who work in the arts,” Bigelow writes, “know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

But Bigelow’s critics didn’t want art, nor were they interested in a journalistic account. They wanted a cinematic op-ed piece and didn’t get it. True, neither the writer nor filmmaker articulate an anti-torture message, but those trained in the arts know this sort of thing is not always necessary or even desirable. Good novelists and filmmakers can manipulate the emotions and even opinions of their audience, but they also know that the strongest emotions and opinions are self-generated. One of the first things a student of creative writing hears from a good teacher is “show, don’t tell.” If you want the audience to think something is horrible, you don’t tell them something is horrible. You show them something that’s horrible and let them come to a conclusion about it themselves.

The first third of Zero Dark Thirty not only depicts scenes of prisoner abuse; it also includes gut-wrenching scenes of mass murder and terrorism. No character waltzes in front of the camera later to tell the audience that terrorism and suicide bombings are wrong. That would be gratuitous and insulting, as if the audience were made up of four-year olds.

The scenes depicting prisoner abuse are trickier, because the film’s protagonists are committing violence against helpless captives. It’s less obvious how we’re supposed to feel about that. American public opinion is divided. Speaking for myself, I sank in my seat and cringed during those scenes. I saw the movie twice, and I was no more comfortable the second time around.

My feelings of revulsion were entirely self-generated. Neither Boal nor Bigelow told me to feel that way. If the film had lectured the audience, or if one character lectured another, my own natural reaction to what I had seen would have been somewhat diminished. That’s why calling a book or film “preachy” isn’t a compliment.

There is no getting around it: What took place in those CIA black sites was a nasty business. If you abhor what went on there, you should appreciate the fact that Zero Dark Thirty portrays it unflinchingly. If, on the other hand, you approve of the rough methods used to extract information from captured al-Qaida members, if you think the results were justified by the means—rest assured that none of the film’s characters will step in front of the camera and call you a monster. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell anyone what to think. Its shows us what we should think about.

Journalists and consumers of quality journalism should be thankful for this; artists and consumers of quality art should be thankful, too. Activists, and those with an activist way of thinking, are the ones who have a problem with the neutral and balanced approach—not because they want to be lectured themselves, but because they want to sit in a room where everyone else is being lectured.

Zero Dark Thirty is a hybrid of journalism and drama that includes no moralizing and no op-ed flourishes. Instead, it’s a gritty crash course in reality, which doesn’t care about anyone’s political preferences. Reality isn’t liberal or conservative or fascist or libertarian. It just is.

True, the filmmakers used creative license to create composite characters, making some scenes in the film not strictly accurate. When activists and critics accuse Zero Dark Thirty of giving the false impression that torturing prisoners yielded vital information that helped us track down bin Laden, they have more of a case. Here, they’re half right.

We see a detainee waterboarded, placed in excruciating “stress positions,” kept awake for days on end by heavy metal music at volumes only appropriate for a rock concert, stripped naked, and forced to crawl around on the floor while wearing a dog collar. After all that, he coughs up the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, which turns out to be the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier. This critical piece of intelligence eventually helped lead the CIA to the terrorist mastermind’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

That, however, is not exactly what happened. The prisoner in the film, Ammar, isn’t based on any one detainee. He’s a composite. Everything that happens to him in the film really did happen to prisoners at CIA black sites, but the real-life version of the man who gave us the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—a Saudi, Mohammed al-Qahtani—wasn’t waterboarded. Nor was he placed in stress positions. But according to Peter Bergen, a prize-winning journalist who knows this subject better than just about anyone, al-Qahtani was “kept awake. . . by loud music being blasted when he was falling asleep, doused with water and subjected to cold temperatures, kept naked and forced to perform tricks as if he were a dog.” So while it’s true that the CIA didn’t learn about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti by waterboarding a prisoner, the CIA did waterboard prisoners, and it did acquire al-Kuwaiti’s name from harsh methods that are no longer used and that are condemned as torture by those who condemn acts of torture.

Filming all this without comment does not constitute an endorsement. Kathryn Bigelow explained her intention this way in Los Angeles Times: “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

Zero Dark Thirty is not “just a movie.” As a creative, quasi-historical document, it is likely the most vivid and realistic depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden that will ever be filmed. Love it or hate it, everybody should see it.

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