Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Zero Dark Thirty
Third cinema trip in three weeks, third “based on a real story” film – and this one is the biggie in terms of ethical questions, because this one raises all sorts of questions about recent and current world events and how to deal with them.

Bigelow has made this film about the hunt for Bin Laden and the opening credits make much of the fact that it has extensively used testimony from agents concerned. Beyond wondering how much artistic license has been used in pruning the narrative and creating fictional versions of real people, there are, immediately, issues about subjectivity; whilst not an “official version of events”, all the narrative comes from participants only from the “official” side – from ‘our’ security services (‘our’, here, meaning Western even if they are in reality exclusively US). Under George W Bush, the decision was made to use ‘extraordinary rendition’ to secretly take foreign nationals into captivity and torture them. Let’s not mince words. Although the US denied it, people were illegally detained and tortured, and with official complicity. This raises the second, and largest, ethical issue in the film, its depiction of the interrogation of suspects. The film starts with extended scenes of some of these interrogations and some have suggested (in perhaps some of that pre-Oscars skullduggery) that the film ‘endorses’ torture. I’ll come back to that but I think this question is, perhaps fittingly for a film about spies, murky.

The film opens with a black screen and the sounds of 911, tense and terrifying. We are then introduced to Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, a fast-rising star in the CIA drafted to the Pakistan office to help break al-Qaeda in the aftermath of that awful day. She is pitched straight into the brutal interrogation of a suspect, Ammar, by fellow-agent Dan (Jason Clarke) and, despite evident discomfort and disgust, colludes in the process. The interrogation continues at intervals throughout the first half of the film and Maya becomes inured to it, becoming a more active participant, dehumanised herself.

We also see other streams of investigation, some which are dead ends and some which are, tragically, traps and the story is interspersed with further all too familiar (now historical) al-Qaeda atrocities as the CIA comes under intense pressure to break the terrorist network. Finally, the interrogation of Ammar gives up a lead and, despite a number of setbacks and confusions, the story moves to the actual attack on Bin Laden’s compound, a night attack which amply demonstrates why some of the more lurid suggestions, about how the US Seals behaved on that night contrasted with how they ‘ought’ to have behaved, are almost certainly unreasonable.

OK, so to the question of whether the film endorses torture. One of the reasons torture is sometimes defended is the expediency argument. If you could save thousands of innocent lives by torturing one guilty person, isn’t this defensible? It’s certainly debatable and the film does show (or, at least, pass on the claim) that the torture of Ammar gave up a fact that, in part, led to the location of Bin Laden. The usual ‘failsafe’ argument against torture, beyond that it implicates us in the kind of behaviour we’re supposed to be opposing, is that it doesn’t work. I still don’t think that state-sponsored torture is right but if it occasionally gives results that saves lives it would be wrong of me to pretend otherwise. I can’t wish away reality.

But this is where it gets murky. Maya tricks Ammar into giving the information, after he has been tortured – the torture has disorientated him but it is a strategem that actually provides the breakthrough. Then the movie shows that the CIA already had the information needed – it was overlooked in the glut of information provided to them in the immediate aftermath of 911. Had the US government thrown its resources at information sorting, rather than setting up ‘Black Sites’ and spiriting away suspects all over the world, could they have found Bin Laden earlier? The film covers Obama’s declaration that “the US doesn’t torture” quite drily but does show the programme being shut down, and that the agents feel obliged to take part in it despite their own ethics being compromised – surely another argument against torture? And, although the film doesn’t move into this territory, you then have to factor in the reputational damage done to the US by the whole process. In the immediate post-911 world, sympathies were entirely with the US but were squandered by the Bush administration with both the illegal rendition/torture issue and the Iraq invasion. If either or both were unnecessary, you have to wonder what the world might have been like had Bush been less gung-ho and more interested in diplomacy and cooperation.

It’s a powerful, thrilling and engaging film, that left me disturbed and uncomfortable, and reflecting on my own beliefs – which is exactly just what it should do.

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