One of my absolute favourite films is Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973), which is about the manhunt through Europe of an assassin known only as the Jackal. Simultaneous with the manhunt is shown the Jackal's meticulous preparations for his latest assignment, killing French president Charles de Gaulle (the film is set in the early 1960s). In order to obtain information about the Jackal the French intelligence service torture a suspect, with limited results. The film does not really comment on the use of torture, it does not comment on anything. It merely shows what happened. The film is focussed only on professionals at work, on procedure and preparations, and there is little psychology and no character development. The filmmakers have cut to the chase.The story is fictional, but it is based on real events and has a strong flavour of documentary. I mention all of this because the parallels between Zinnemann's film and Zero Dark Thirty are many, beside the fact that Zero Dark Thirty as a whole is based on real events, yet feels less like a documentary. I have never thought for a moment that Zinnemann is celebrating torture, and neither do I feel that ZDT does.
There was an unusually large number of people who wrote angry articles about Zero Dark Thirty before they had seen it, including Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald. After Sullivan had seen it he wrote a new piece. The title of the first post was "Kathryn Bigelow, Torture Apologist?" The second one was called "Kathryn Bigelow: Not A Torture Apologist". It is an old fallacy, to attack something you have not seen or read. Spike Lee did it recently when he said that Tarantino's new film Django Unchained was a horrible film and that he would never watch it. Some films lend themselves particularly well to such behaviour, those that are provocative. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was such a film, with angry Catholics proudly saying that they would never watch such filth. Zero Dark Thirty is also such a provocative film, with its depiction of torture. Many have argued that it celebrates torture, and that it claims that torture was important in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. But many have also argued the opposite, that it is critical of torture. Some have been ambivalent about the film's message, myself among them.
The film begins, after a black screen with sounds coming from 9/11, with a scene where a suspect, Ammar, is being tortured. The main reason for torturing Ammar is so that he will reveal when a terrorist attack will take place. But he does not and the terrorist attack happens as planned. The CIA agent in charge of the torture, Dan, says at to Ammar at one point "Everybody breaks. It's biological." Only he is wrong. The film clearly shows that Ammar does not break, and the terror attack takes place. Later, after the terror attack has taken place, Ammar is served lunch, outdoors, with Maya (the central character) and Dan. During that conversation Ammar gives away the names of some Al Qaida operatives. That sequence is one of the key scenes used by those who say the film is arguing that torture works and is a necessary evil. However the sequence can just as easily be read as arguing the opposite. When Ammar talks it is after the event, when it is too late. He does however name some people, but not necessarily because he has been tortured. In his first piece about ZDT Greenwald writes "Ultimately, I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this." This is what happens when you write about a film you have not seen, because there is not one scene in the film that glorifies torture. None. The torture scenes are all ugly, and their effectiveness is very much compromised and put into doubt. The name Ammar gives away turn out to be a dead end, and it is not until a file is found in the CIA's archives that the hunt can proceed. So the torture was not only not helpful but also completely unnecessary. There is a parallel here too to The Day of the Jackal. In the torture sequence they get a name, which they think is the Jackal. But this does not do them any good really. The police manage to stop the assassination in the last minute by pure chance, almost accidentally, not because of any torture.
A key scene in ZDT is a conversation between Maya and Dan by a monkey cage at a base in Saudi Arabia. He used to play with the monkeys, as he is used to treat looked up humans. But now in this scene the monkeys are gone. "Shot." he says, "when they were trying to escape." It seems he does not believe that excuse, as it is an excuse often used when human prisoners are shot. He then says he is quitting, he cannot do torture any more He warns Maya not to be the last one "holding the leash" when the investigations begin. This scene to me suggests many things, but primarily that the treatment of the detainees is comparable to how animals are treated and that Dan has realised that it is wrong. He has had a change of heart, or perhaps he always felt that but has now decided that he can no longer deny that it is wrong and immoral. This is one of the more powerful scenes in the film, and signalling both that torture and such imprisonment as shown in the film is wrong, and that is done at a cost for the perpetrators (i.e. the CIA agents) as well.
Some, such as Greenwald, have said that the film is glorifying CIA, an argument that is diminished considering CIA is on several occasions criticised for, among other things, the fake claims about WMD in Iraq. But the argument also depends on how you view the torture scenes in the film. If you read them as being deliberately revolting, then that would suggest the film is criticising the CIA. If you think that torture is glorified, well, then you might consequently argue that CIA is also glorified.
It has also been said that nobody in the film raises any objections to the use of torture. That is not so. President Obama does, in a TV interviewed which is shown in the film, with the main characters watching it. But it is true that no internal objections to the use of torture is shown in the film, there are never any debates about the methods used, despite the fact that such objections and discussions took place in US at the time. But such scenes are not needed for the story the film is telling, their only purpose would be for spelling things out for the audience. It is not lying or perverting history by not including such scenes.
In his second article, post-watching, Greenwald wrote something peculiar: "The issue here is falsity. The problem isn't that they showed torture working. The problem /.../ is that the claims it makes are false." But if that is the only problem with the film then Greenwald, or any of us, are not really in a position to take a stand, because it is not clear whether torture helped or not. We will perhaps never know. Steve Coll, in a recent article in The New York Review of Books that is critical of ZDT, does a good job elaborating on the murky and contradictory claims as to whether torture was helpful. If classified documents are leaked that states that torture did in fact help, would Greenwald then write a new column saying that the film is actually great? (I have many issues with Greenwald's articles, as has Glenn Kenny, and you can read Kenny's answer to Greenwald here: Perception, reality, perception again, and "the art of defense".)
Unfortunately there is a tendency among those that are critical of the film to write in a style that is both condescending and disingenuous. Considering the importance of the subject I find this problematic. Many approach ZDT as if it was a film by Michael Bay, as if ZDT has to be bad because it is a Hollywood film. They are therefore reluctant to consider that the film might be more nuanced than they give it credit for. Some critics have compared Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, she who made Triumph of the Will, celebrating Hitler. Bigelow has also been called a sadist and fetishist, and a bad filmmaker. This is both lazy and offensive. Although, if she really was aiming to do a film which unabashedly celebrates torture she must be said to be a bad filmmaker considering how many people have argued that it is anti-torture. Critics have also made a lot of assumptions on behalf of the audience, saying that they will cheer at the scenes of torture and the killing of Bin Laden. I cannot speak for other audience members, but I felt for example that Ammar was one of the few sympathetic characters in the film, and I was most certainly not cheering when he was tortured, not when the special forces that killed Bin Laden are also shooting women and scaring crying children.
Some who have criticised ZDT, such as David Bromwich, have also made it easy for themselves by dismissing those who like it as "mainstream critics". It is not clear what is meant by that (other than it is not a compliment), but critics like Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott at New York Times are not obviously mainstream, and it has been celebrated by a wide variety of people besides film critics, including leftist icons such as Michael Moore and leading academics such as Steven Shaviro, not exactly mainstreamers. It was initially reported that Martin Sheen was against ZDT, calling for a boycott because of its alleged pro-torture stance. That was a mistake, he has gone on the record as saying he likes the film, and that it is against torture.
The reason why the film has led to such heated discussions (and some rather unpleasant articles which are more interested in calling Bigelow names than seriously discussing the film) is of course that torture is such a terrible thing. The potential flaw in the film is that, considering it is such an explosive subject, it might have been more advisable to tell it in a more direct, less ambiguous, style. Bigelow and Mark Boal have both said that they are adamantly against torture, and I believe that, but considering that so many have taken the film to be glorifying, or at least condoning, torture they might have profited from a more didactic approach in order to get their message across. That would have made it less artistic of course, but when it comes to torture it seems art needs to be moderated.
Meanwhile in Abbottabad "the sleepy army town in Pakistan in which Osama bin Laden was found and killed by American special forces, decided to build an amusement park to present a new image. It is not clear how many tourists will visit." (reports The Economist)