Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. U.S. 2012.

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Torturing detainees and “smoking” unarmed men and women is depicted as “day-to-day tradecraft” in Kathryn Bigelow's thriller Zero Dark Thirty, a controversial account of the ten-year campaign to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden, whom it is widely agreed was responsible for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a strong and self-assured young CIA agent who has dedicated her professional life to the capture of bin Laden. Maya has no back story and is basically a cipher but is depicted as a goal-oriented, independent woman not defined by any romantic relationship but only by her single-minded purpose.

Like Argo, the film is a paean to American exceptionalism and the U.S. intelligence agencies are the heroes. As director Kathryn Bigelow has stated, the movie is about “the unsung heroes of the intelligence community, those who work in the shadows." According to Canadian investigative journalist, William Marsden, to obtain information, “the White House, the CIA and the U.S. Defense Department all worked closely with the filmmakers by granting them unprecedented access to classified information so that they could come out with an authentic film.” Unsurprisingly, Ms. Bigelow stands by her screenwriter Mark Boal's interviews with CIA operatives, saying that "I feel very confident with his reporting, very confident with my handling of his reporting."

It is the CIA, of course, that has stood by the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, "The CIA did not first learn about the existence or the identity of the Osama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subject to coercive interrogation techniques, but through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program." In reply, Boal has stated that the information in question was garnered not during an interrogation but calmly over lunch after the torture had stopped, a response that can only be called disingenuous.

The film begins with a blank screen as we hear the voices and the cries of those trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The scene then shifts to a CIA “black site” in Pakistan where CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) is subjecting an al Qaeda operative Ammar (Reda Kateb) to humiliating techniques designed to break him and give Dan the information he needs. What is disturbing about the sequence is not only the ugliness of the techniques that fail to extract information, but the fact that the film celebrates the kind of by-the-book professionalism that goes about doing the dirty jobs without any recognizable human emotion.

Tied to the ceiling with ropes, compelled to wear a dog collar and crawl around on all fours, deprived of sleep by an onslaught of rock music, waterboarded, and locked in a wooden crate, the prisoner is told by the interrogator that “This is what defeat looks like.” Fighting organization inertia, Maya tries to convince agency officials that bin Laden can be found by discovering the courier who helps deliver his messages to al Qaeda. The search to find the mystery courier is an eight-year project that involves enhanced interrogation techniques, surveillance, and “boots-on-the-ground” detective work.

The determination of the courier's identity eventually leads Maya to discover a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where she is one hundred percent convinced bin Laden is hiding, though her colleagues require much convincing. In a riveting concluding sequence done with extraordinary realism, the film dramatizes the operation known as Neptune's Spear conducted that took place on the night of May 1, 2011 in which a Navy SEAL team perfectly executes a raid on bin Laden's compound and kills the number one al Qaeda leader.

The raid begins in eerie silence as Black hawk helicopters cross the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the middle of the night. Bigelow not only shows the “Geronimo” moment but takes us through a tense room-by-room odyssey in which soldiers are depicted killing unarmed men and women. While questions have been raised about what really unfolded that night, no questions are asked in the film and the subject of whether capture was ever an option is not considered.

To the director's credit, there is no American triumphalism at the end, only one of the characters sitting alone in tears, perhaps lamenting for all of us whether in the process of killing bin Laden or the use of drones to assassinate American citizens suspected of terrorism, we may have undermined the most important moral and legal values of our society, the same ones that Islamic Fundamentalists have fought against for years, the determination of guilt or innocence in a court of law. If Zero Dark Thirty can remind people of this basic incongruity, it will have served a very useful purpose.


Howard Schumann

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