Zero Dark Thirty’s real collateral damage

The Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty is misleading at best when it comes to the use of torture.

The filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty reportedly wanted a more "boots-on-the-ground" experience with the film [AP]

Zero Dark Thirty, the hunt for bin Laden thriller that enters wide release today with freshly minted Oscar nomination for Best Picture, has generated intense controversy during its limited run. Conservatives were initially angry about the supposed help and even classified information given to the filmmakers by the Obama Administration and military and intelligence officials, which led to fears that the film, originally scheduled for release in the weeks leading up to the Presidential election, would serve as unfair propaganda for President Obama’s reelection bid.

After the film’s release was pushed back till after the election and Obama’s victory, conservative anger was quickly replaced by even more vociferous anger by progressives. When the film began advanced screenings in December, complaints began to be voiced about the film’s supposedly inaccurate portrayal of both the role of harsh interrogation measures in producing the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture, and of the level of debate within the intelligence and wider policy-making community that occured during the period covered by the film surrounding whether such measures could and should be used on detainees.

Writing in Al Jazeera, Jonathan Hafetz well-summarises the progressive critique of the film as endorsing torture, summarising a variety of reviews, from Jane Mayer‘s devastating New Yorker critique of the film as “false advertising for waterboarding” to Glenn Greenwald‘s attack on the film’s broader propaganda value: not for President Obama’s reelection bid, but for the rationale for the trillions of dollars that have been spent on the war on terror during the last dozen years.

Tortuous policies, and realities

Despite criticisms by senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Acting Director of the CIA of the film’s portrayal of the role of enhanced interrogation techniques in the hunt for bin Laden, the film continued to be marketed as the “real” experience and “untold story” of the “greatest manhunt in history” (no exaggeration possible here, at least). On the eve of its release, commercials claimed that the film “brings the mission [to capture bin Laden] to life” and was “based on the true story”. In interviews, actors from the film dicussed the “honesty and integrity” of the torture sequence in explaining its seeming realism.

Inside Story Americas
Has torture become acceptable?

At the same time, even the CIA seems unable to keep its story straight. The original statement from the Acting Director already hedged its bets about whether some actionable intelligence was produced by waterboarding, arguing first that this claim was a “lie” but following up immediately by claiming that “some [intelligence] came from detainees subject to enhanced techniques”. What’s more, soon after the statement’s publication, Jose Rodriguez, one of the people most responsible (by his own admission) for both the enhanced interrogation programme and the larger hunt for bin Laden, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post strongly arguing that the methods he supervised did provide crucial pieces of intelligence. He also claimed that the enhanced interrogation methods actually deployed on prisoners were not nearly as harsh as those depicted in the film.  

An uncharitable person might suspect that the CIA has been engaging in some sort of doublespeak to keep everyone guessing both about the methods it’s used and their efficacy, just in case they’re allowed to use them again.

The realities of “boots on the ground”

The debate over whether the film accurately depicts and – as important – contextualises the use of torture by US personnel is an important one. But it’s actually a second or even third order debate. We will likely never know if crucial details came from waterboarding or other forms of torture, but in the end the question of whether torture works and whether it should be used even if it does are not as important as the question this debate completely avoids. Namely, why does the US keep pursuing policies that produce the kind of people that the US then feels it must invade, occupy, send drones against, secretly rend, keep in black sites, interrogate with all sorts of “enhanced” methods, and engage in other policies which violate the core ideals upon which American society is supposed to be founded and be governed? 

In this regard, filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have displayed remarkably little understanding – willingly or not it’s hard to say; but considering that Boal is an “investigative journalist” and Bigelow already has a Best Picture Oscar for The Hurt Locker to her credit, it’s hard to imagine they are that ignorant of the political impact and implications of the kind of artistic production in which they are engaged. Bigelow’s claim that “depicting” torture is in no way the same as “endorsing” is particularly disingenuous given that her critics have clearly argued that it’s the lack of accurate context in which it occurred, not the depiction itself, that is so problematic. Similarly, her argument in defence of her focus on the use of torture – that it was a part of the “history” the film explores and thus had to be represented – only works to the extent the film accurately reflects the actual events and conflicts surrounding torture’s use, which it does not do.

Bigelow and Boal further defend Zero Dark Thirty by arguing that “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge… I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience”. This statemement betrays an even greater ignorance of the “true story” upon which their film is supposed to be based. They completely miss the fact that the “boots on the ground” – that is, the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and the trillions of dollars of war-making they brought with them to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and who knows how many other countries in the last 12 years – represent the purest form of political action imaginable. Politics lies behind not merely the torture that everyone is debating, but behind bin Laden himself, who was trained, financed and supported for years by the same US military-intelligence machine whose boots on the ground Zero Dark Thirty so faithfully follows, and who began his jihad against the US precisely because of the unending presence of American boots on the ground in his homeland of Saudi Arabia.

As such it is no more possible to present a “boots on the ground” depiction of the hunt for bin Laden free of politics than it would be to present a purely boots on the ground depiction of the American military occupation of Iraq, Vietnam, or any foreign military occupation and war. Indeed, despite all its accolades, The Hurt Locker‘s vision and aesthetic impact are also quite narrow for the same reason as is Zero Dark Thirty‘s.

In this sense we can fruitfully compare Bigelow’s two films to Three Kings, the 1999 David Russell film starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, which manages to create a unique sense of style, pushing the boundaries of the war film genre while also offering a powerful reminder to viewers of the essential truth of most wars (including the first Gulf War and now the War on Terror): there is no good side and no justification for the violence they unleash, and no motivation beyond lies, greed, and the desire for power.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now reached an even higher level of stylistic achievement while offering an unsparing reflection of the horror and immorality of the war. Like Zero Dark Thirty, Coppola’s film centres around a “manhunt”. Yet unlike Bigelow’s film, while its story is fictional and even exaggerated in its plot specifics, the truth it tells about the horror, inhumanity, absurdity and deep dehumanisation at the heart of the US occupation and war on Vietnam make it a far more aesthetically satisfying and historically relevant portrayal of that war than Zero Dark Thirty could ever hope to be. It’s worth noting here that while Coppola was criticised for offering fictional or exaggerated accounts of events that transpired during the war, today we see the Taliban brutally murdering aid workers attempting to innoculate local populations against polio, much as Coppola has Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz explaining how Viet Cong soldiers cut off the arms of dozens of children whom the US had just innoculated against polio.

Interestingly, both Bigelow and Coppola denied giving their work an expressly political impetus. Bigelow’s stated goal in Zero Dark Thirty was to “explore and push the medium” of film rather than use her art to make a political statement or even affect political change. Coppola similarly declared that he wanted Apocalypse Now to create a cinematic landscape that would help audiences experience the “sensuousness” of war rather than push an anti-war agenda. Yet whatever his intentions, the sensuousness of Apocalypse Now was surrounded and in fact determined by the Vietnam war’s “sense of horror, madness… and moral dilemma” (in this regard, the scene depicting Martin Sheen’s meeting a small contingent of French colons and their Vietnamese servants, who refuse to leave their plantation, which was deleted from the theatrical version of the film but included in the Director’s Cut DVD, is one of the most powerful explorations of the ideological power yet ultimate futility of colonialism ever put on film).

The mise-en-scène of an “active Jordanian prison”

Not surprisingly, Coppola received no help from the US military during the making of Apocalypse Now, while Bigelow received so much help and information from the US government that some critics have argued that the CIA fed her inaccurate arguments about the efficacy of torture in order that the film would present precisely the ambiguous position it ultimately adopted. Certainly it’s hard to imagine the filmmakers receiving anything approaching the incredile – and crucial – level of aid they did receive had the film adopted a more aggressively anti-torture and anti-war tone.

Legal response difficult for ‘extraordinary rendition’ case

There is also another extremely troubling element to the government “assistance” provided to Bigelow and Boal. But here the assistance is not from the US military or CIA; instead it was from the Jordanian government. Specifically, according to the filmmakers and stars, the torture scenes that start the film were actually filmed “in an active Jordanian prison on the outskirts of Amman”, as the film’s star, Jessica Chastain, who plays CIA agent Maya put it. in an interview.

The choice to film scenes about torture in an “active” Jordanian prison is quite disturbing, since Jordan has one of the most notorious prison systems in the world, in which torture, including of young pro-democracy protesters – remains rampant despite numerous pledges of reform. Jordan was also (and likely remains) a favourite location for secret renditions that also involved torture of a far more intense kind than that depicted in the film.

If it is true that the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty were filmed in an “active” prison, then unless it was one of the new “5-Star VIP prisons” established for temporarily disgraced businessmen or government officials, there is a very high likelihood that this prison is one where torture and brutality routinely occur, something the filmmakers could not have avoided learning with just a simple internet search of “Jordan” and “prisons”. Perhaps in their quest for “authenticity” and creating the most realistic atmosphere possible they decided it was okay to cooperate with a government that routinely tortures political detainees in prisons like the one used in the movie, and perhaps the very same prison itself. We can imagine the uproar that would occur if Bigelow had shot a scene of animal mistreatment in a place where animals were actually being mistreated. One wonders what it will take for humans to be shown the same courtesy, and for human rights organisations to remind Hollywood that just because countries like Jordan, Morocco and Israel offer seemingly authentic Middle Eastern locations there is a real human cost involved in cooperating with governments whose existence depends on the routine use of state terror.

Art and truth, fiction and fact

Perhaps Bigelow and Boal’s willingness to reshape the historical record and to delve into an “active” heart of darkness to capture their own cinematic mise-en-scene reflects, as the film critic David Denby perceptively argues, the desire to “claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time”. Certainly much great art has been fashioned out of precisely this unstable and potentially disastrous dual move as the one Denby accuses Bigelow and Boal of making.

But the singularly powerful thing about art is precisely that it can speak profound truths without having to remain empirically faithful to the “facts” on the ground upon which it treads. But in times of serious conflict, and when artistic production attempts to represent or otherwise capture such moment, the measure of greatness must be not merely the extent to which it reveals uncomfortable truths, but rather the extent to which it does so without any false resolution, which is precisely what Bigelow and Boal do with their simplified portrayal of the role of and debate surrounding torture, and the complete avoidance of even more fundamental issues surrounding the war on terror, in their film.

One of Zero Dark Thirty‘s harshest critics, Naomi Wolf, compares Bigelow to the brilliant but morally debouched German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triumph of the Will helped lay the aesthetic foundation for German fascism and ultimately the murderous aesthetic of Nazism. I don’t think that Bigelow and Boal consciously sought to use their film to advocate for policies and an ideology which make torture and unending war acceptable. They are clearly not committed fascists out to mobilise a generation of American youth to sacrifice themselves in the name of genocidal imperialism.

Responding to the controversy the film has generated at an awards ceremony, Boal declared that “I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future”. Great art – that is, art with substance and not just style, however well contrived – should do precisely this: linking the past to a different future than the one to which the present seems to be heading. But in order to do so it has to have a much deeper relationship to the truth than has Zero Dark Thirty. It doesn’t have to hew to the details of every event, but it has to respect and expose the complexity and conflict of the moment(s) it claims to represent. 

By so uncritically accepting and even working with the very system that produced the story they’ve attempted to tell, Bigelow and Boal have created a work of art that fails to rise above the conditions of its creation and challenge its consumers to see the world in a different, and fundamentally more accurate way. Because of this, regardless of whether they climb the podium on Oscar night, that failure will ensure Zero Dark Thirty is ultimatelly remembered as a deeply flawed film.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.