Last night, I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I expected to be disappointed, but I did not expect just how much the film would irritate me. Here are the four biggest problems I had:
1. The film is inaccurate.
Despite screenwriter Mark Boal’s promise not to play ‘fast and loose’ with history, there is a lot of sloppiness to his script.
The majority of the film is set in Pakistan, where CIA employees work out the U.S. embassy compound. The protagonist, Maya, drives her own car in and out of this compound, something few women in Pakistan, and no senior officials, do.
When two agents sit down with a prisoner for a meal, he’s served hummus and tabbouleh. This is laughable. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country, and no one there is eating hummus, unless they are going to ethnic restaurants.
When CIA operatives masquerade as aid workers offering vaccines to get bin Laden’s DNA, the film misstates the vaccine being offered (it was hepatitis B, not polio) and doesn’t address the consequences of using humanitarian workers as a cover, thereby discrediting NGOs that provide real aid to Pakistanis.
I could go on a long time picking out details like this, but the point is: to anyone who has any firsthand experience of Pakistan or the ‘war on terror’ in South Asia, the movie is highly implausible.
2. The film glorifies torture.
It is no secret that there is a lot of time spent on torture in this film, from the opening water-boarding scene to later segments featuring forced nudity, dog collars, and a grown man confined in a small wooden box.
What makes the film abhorrent, however, is not that it depicts torture – it would have been inaccurate to exclude it entirely. The problem is in the way it is depicted. Maya’s initial discomfort with torture is something she has to overcome, and we are encouraged to view it as part of her personal growth when she does. Later, when President Obama ends the torture program, we are encouraged to see it as a bureaucratic annoyance.
When the White House asks for hard evidence – photos, phone logs or DNA – that the Abbottabad compound houses bin Laden, Maya’s boss replies, “We lost the ability to tell that when we lost the detainee program.” That statement is presented uncritically, with no one in the room challenging it. It summarizes the position of the film on torture, which is that it was central to CIA success.
As people with knowledge of the matter have pointed out, this is a highly inaccurate claim, not least because in a real room of intelligence officers, there would have been more dissent. Yet it would be an immoral claim whether it was accurate or not, because torture is unequivocally wrong even if it can be effective.
3. The film pretends to be journalism.
My biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty, however, isn’t in its Orientalist depiction of Pakistan or its abhorrent justifications of torture. It is the film’s utterly dishonest attempt to cloak these views under the mantle of journalism.
Its opening title, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is a claim to journalistic authority. It’s a much stronger claim than the standard “based on a true story” we’re used to seeing in historical fiction. Presenting it at the start of the film, rather than during the credits, accompanied by audio of real phone calls from the collapsing World Trade Center, is a way of making an explicit plea that we interpret what follows as fact. Director Kathryn Bigelow herself has referred to the film as a ‘reported’ work and an ‘imagistic version of reportage.’
Lots of viewers – the ones who don’t have any expertise on this topic – will take these claims at face value, and thereby walk away with the conviction that all the film’s fictionalizations are factual, that this is a work of journalism. That is wrong.
Bigelow and Boal are retreating behind the argument that art should be weighed against its fealty to a ‘higher truth’ not against political context. I am skeptical of this notion, but it simply doesn’t apply to a work that has been marketed as nonfiction.
4. All art is political.
Even without its pseudo-journalistic framing, the film would still be problematic.
All culture happens in a political context. Art that aims to be ‘neutral’ by simply presenting ‘the way things are’ is still political. When you present political context as ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way individuals have chosen for things to be’ you are normalizing the prevailing political order, and thereby helping to sustain it.
This film normalizes not only the torture apparatus, but also the validity of spending ten years and billions of dollars on the bin Laden search in the first place. Plenty of reports suggest that the al Qaeda center of gravity long ago moved away from bin Laden to splinter groups elsewhere, or to lone militants radicalized online.
There are good arguments for the significance of catching bin Laden, but the film does not allow its characters to have this debate. The head of the CIA’s operation in Pakistan voices skepticism about Maya’s project. But he is never taken seriously by his peers (or the audience) and is fired from his post in disgrace. The film is on Maya’s side by default, and the audience in my theatre clapped at bin Laden’s death.
Bigelow is a talented director and the film is well made. But she uses the war on terror and claims of historical accuracy as a cheap backdrop for her characters’ stories, refusing to engage in any real way with the moral implications of doing so.
That’s not artistic subversion. It’s disgraceful callousness, and deserves to be called out as such.