Saw it the day before yesterday, in my first outing to the cinema in seven weeks. Voilà my quick take.
There are two broad issues in regard to the film. The first—and less important one—is its length and pacing. Several friends and family members—including my wife (with whom I saw it), my daughter, two tenured professors in the social sciences, and a top honcho at a major NGO—found the movie interminably long and soporific. In short, they thought it was boring. At least one of the aforementioned friends suffers from CADD (Cinematic Attention Deficit Disorder), though I can see why one may feel this way. At 2½ hours the pic is long and it is not a high-octane, pulse-quickening, edge-of-your-seat nail biter (critics and others who have written that it is must be confusing it with ‘Argo’). Some of the scenes do drag on and the pacing is languid for stretches. The film could have been cut by at least twenty minutes to half an hour without sacrificing anything essential. But this said, the length and pacing did not bother me. At no point did I get impatient or start checking my watch. I was absorbed in the film from beginning to end. Maybe it’s a question of temperament. Or of interest in the subject. Or of CADD (the absence of). That’s as much as I can say about this aspect of it.
The second—and more important—issue with the film is, of course, its treatment of torture and whether or not it justified its use (Kathryn Bigelow made it clear that she did not believe torture was the key to finding UBL but that it was still part of the big picture; that it is an indisputable fact that torture was employed in the UBL hunt, even if certain scenes in the movie were fictionalized). I was well aware of the polemics over this but made it a point to read none of them until I had seen the film. Now that it’s been seen I’ve gone back and done the reading. The argument that ZD30 does justify torture—in part by suggesting that it was key to finding UBL—has been made by writers whom I respect, e.g. Jane Mayer, Steve Coll, and Peter Bergen (who is less categorial in his affirmation). Also CUNY law prof Ramzi Kassem and Amy Zegart from Stanford. Jane Mayer, whose review has been the most widely cited, takes Kathryn Bigelow to task on a number of points, such as this
In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.
She was not the only critic to assert this. Glenn Greenwald, in his typically understated, nuanced manner :-/, went further
This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that – whether intended or not – is the film’s glorification of torture.
As it turns out, the most pernicious propagandistic aspect of this film is not its pro-torture message. It is its overarching, suffocating jingoism. This film has only one perspective of the world – the CIA’s – and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration.
All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network (the sole exception being a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information; the only good Muslim is found at the CIA)…
Blah blah blah. Glenn Greenwald is, to put it colloquially, full of shit. Not to impugn his intellectual integrity or anything but I am willing to bet whatever amount one puts on the table that Greenwald had made up his mind on this—had written these very lines in his head—before seeing the movie.
In fact—and as one may sense by now—, I did not detect any defense of torture in the film, let alone the suggestion that it played a role in breaking the UBL case. On this, I entirely share Andrew Sullivan’s interpretation
The first thing I’d say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that’s what we became in our treatment of prisoners.
In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.
Absolutely. Sullivan drives the point home with this
The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed – correctly – as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior’s own orders.
Spencer Ackerman has much the same view as Sullivan
“It’s a movie, not a documentary,” screenwriter Mark Boal told The New Yorker. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.” That quote has electrified the internet as a statement of intent to gussy up the importance of torture. But the fact is torture was part of the CIA’s post-9/11 agenda: dispassionate journalists like Mark Bowden presents it as such in his excellent recent book.
Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet. Were a documentarian making the film, there would surely be less torture in the movie…
At the same time, the film makes viewers come to grips with what Dick Cheney euphemistically called the “dark side” of post-9/11 counterterrorism. Meanwhile, former Bush administration aide Philip Zelikow, who termed the torture a “war crime” in a recent Danger Room interview, will probably find the movie more amenable than Cheney will. What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.
Blogger Devin Faraci (previously unknown to me) also gets it right in a review asserting that ZD30 does not endorse torture, concluding with this
A big part of the problem so many seem to have with Zero Dark Thirty is an old fashioned inability to understand the difference between showing an action and endorsing it. I’m surprised that so many smart people writing for the smartest publications out there needed to have the film step up and, holding their hand, explain that torture isn’t good. Just showing torture as horrible wasn’t enough. Just having torture be unable to stop multiple terrorist attacks didn’t do it. They needed to have a character, maybe right at the end, looking off into the sunset say “We thought we were torturing them… but maybe we were just torturing ourselves.”
One of the refrains of ZD30’s critics is that regardless of the intentions of Bigelow and Boal, audiences will inevitably interpret the film as an endorsement of torture. But this is an assertion based on nothing. In the absence of audience surveys no one can possibly have any idea of how people are going to react to a film or interpret particular scenes. E.g. who is to say in advance how movie goers are going to view the opening scenes of CIA agent Dan humiliating and torturing Al-Qaida prisoner Ammar? Speaking for myself, I wanted to kick Dan in the cojones, punch him in the face, and then some. He was an odious, immoral, sadistic SOB meriting not the slightest sympathy. But Ammar, despite being an Al-Qaida operative, was not depicted as an evil-doer or as someone viscerally arousing antipathy. He was a prisoner being subjected to a war crime. By the end of that long sequence—with Ammar being put in the box—I was thoroughly revolted at the actions of the CIA. And I felt that Bigelow and Boal were making a strong statement against what was happening to Ammar, not to mention of the utter ineffectiveness of torture, moral considerations aside (it’s amazing that Americans in the 21st century have been arguing over this point). Okay, so that was my reaction. But who is to say that others sitting in the theater felt otherwise? In the absence of survey data, no one can make any kind of assertion on this.
In point of fact, people react in all sorts of (often unexpected) ways to films. E.g. for the past ten-plus years I have had the students (American undergrads) in one of my classes watch ‘The Battle of Algiers’—a film that, among other things, confronts head on the issue of torture, but also the terrorism that led to it—, discuss it in class, and then write on it. I am continually struck by the range of reactions: some come away sympathizing with the FLN and condemning the French, others condemning the FLN above all, and then some condemning both sides equally or seeing the conflict from both sides. Likewise with another film I have the students in the same class see, the excellent two-hour PBS docudrama ‘Allies at War‘, on the wartime relationship between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle, and particularly the difficult, acrimonious one between FDR and de Gaulle. I happen to think the film portrays one more sympathetically than the other; students sometimes see it my way and sometimes the polar opposite. Opinions on how the film treats the protagonists run the gamut. It stands to reason that it has been likewise with ZD30.
There are exceptions, of course. If you have an audience of 17-year old American boys in a multiplex in some mall , they will most certainly cheer on the American torturing the Ayrab or Muzlim bad guy (or Chinese, or Russian, or whatever kind of foreigner he may be), and regardless of the context, intention of the director, or how despicably the American is actually portrayed. Back when ‘Apocalypse Now’ came out, a friend recounted to me how the youthful audience in his suburban New Jersey theater whooped and cheered when Lt.Col. Kilgore’s men mowed down Vietnamese civilians, which one may doubt was the effect Francis Coppola wanted to provoke (I saw the film on the Champs-Elysées, where there was no such whooping or cheering). Teenage boys in groups are idiots, qu’est-ce que tu veux ?…
As for ZD30’s qualities as a film, political controversies aside, I thought it was okay. On Roger Ebert’s star scale (zero to four), I give it a three. Overall good. No more, no less. It is not the chef d’œuvre so many critics have made it out to be (and in France as well as the US). It hardly merits the 95 score on Metacritic or 4.1 on Allociné. The acting was fine but not Oscar level. Juan Cole, who liked the film less than I, had this to say
I did not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn’t the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in “Argo,” my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn’t summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain’s “Maya.” The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.
One thing I have not done—and have no intention of—is look for right-wing reviews of the film. I did stumble across the reaction of Joe Scarborough, who saw ZD30 as defending torture and considered this to be a good thing, as it proved that torture is effective and necessary in America’s wars against its enemies. That’s as much as I need to read from that side of the political spectrum. Those who defend torture—anywhere and in any context—are moral midgets and ignoramuses. I have no interest in what they think and will not engage them in debate. Their views are not welcome on this blog.