Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

David Bromwich writes: Zero Dark Thirty is a spy thriller about the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Good police work did it, the film says, and it aims to show what (in the extraordinary circumstances) good police work amounts to. Action movies have been the director Kathryn Bigelow’s métier, and Zero Dark Thirty is tense and well-paced. It has the kind of proficiency one associates with, say, The Hunt for Red October. It does not mean to compete with a film like The Battle of Algiers. There is no question here of taking up a complex historical subject and exploring it with a semblance of human depth. Rather, the movie accepts the ready prejudices and fears of its American audience, and builds up pressure for two hours to prepare the thrill and relief at the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The first two hours skip forward selectively to cover the trajectory of ten years. The final twenty-five minutes of action are portrayed almost in real time.

Until Americans stop indulging our elected officials in their appetite for secrecy, we will not know exactly what orders the Navy Seals carried into Abbottabad. Pretty clearly, it was a kill mission and not “Capture or Kill.” Zero Dark Thirty makes killing the personal preference of its heroine, Maya, a CIA agent who begins the hunt in September 2001 and whose relentless pursuit is clinched by success. When she talks to the Navy Seals team, she says she wants them to “kill him for me.” The “me” element in the international hunt, and its reflexive connection to revenge, is emphasized more than once. This overtly simplifies an area of moral doubt which the film in other ways simplifies covertly. Maya’s stamina, force, and drive somehow place her beyond challenge. By the end, her superiors at CIA are intimidated, and we feel they ought to be. Maya has no friends, and no life outside the hunt, but her determination is itself a sort of passion. It is, in fact, the only passion that is represented in the film.

How was Bin Laden found? Zero Dark Thirty tells us that it was done by the torture of detainees; by the collection and deduction of evidence from dossiers, videos, recorded phone calls and intercepted emails; and by tailing couriers. All of these methods the movie dispassionately records, and it affirms the efficacy of all. The narrative lacks the patience and tightness to illustrate many convincing particulars of the detective work. That it leaves us in the dark, however, is also part of the point. We Americans, the film is saying, must put ourselves in the hands of the experts who have mastered the darkness. [Continue reading…]

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