For those who are going to see Zero Dark Thirty this review is certainly a perspective that should be kept in mind.
‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’
Zero Dark Thirty
a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
It is not unusual for filmmakers to try to inject authenticity into a movie’s first frames by flashing onscreen words such as “based on real events.” Yet the language chosen by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to preface their film about events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden is distinctively journalistic: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” As those words fade, “September 11, 2001” appears against a black screen and we hear genuine emergency calls made by victims of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. One caller describes flames spreading around her and says that she is “burning up”; she pleads against death and then her voice disappears. Before any actor speaks a single fictional line, then, Zero Dark Thirty makes two choices: it aligns its methods with those of journalists and historians, and it appropriates as drama what remains the most undigested trauma in American national life during the last several decades.
Since Zero Dark Thirty’s release in New York and Los Angeles in December (it opens nationwide on January 11), the film has provoked a split reaction. Critics have celebrated it for its pacing, control, and arresting but complicated depictions of political violence. The New York Film Critics Circle has named the film best picture of 2012, and it has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for the best picture of the year. The qualities some critics admire in the film are familiar from The Hurt Locker, the previous collaboration—about an American bomb squad in Iraq—between the scriptwriter, Mark Boal, and the director, Kathryn Bigelow. (The film made Bigelow the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, in 2009, and it also won an Oscar for Best Picture.)
At the same time, a number of journalists and public officials—including three United States senators—have excoriated Zero Dark Thirty. Their main complaint is that the film greatly overstates the role played by torture—or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in the CIA’s terrifying euphemism—in extracting from al-Qaeda-affiliated detainees information that ultimately led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.
“The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques…were the key to finding Bin Laden,” Michael Morrell, the acting CIA director, wrote to agency employees in December. “That impression is false.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein and the two senior members of the Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, coauthored a letter calling the movie’s version of recent counterterrorism history “grossly inaccurate.” The senators said the film’s flaws have “the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
Boal is a former journalist who conducted interviews with CIA officers, military officers, and White House officials as he prepared to write Zero Dark Thirty. The Obama administration and CIA leaders reportedly authorized at least some of these interviews, apparently in the belief that the public would appreciate the movie that resulted. Boal has said that he conducted other reporting on his own initiative. Boal and Bigelow have offered two main responses to the criticism they have received. One is that as dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative, they must be granted a degree of artistic license.
That is unarguable, of course, and yet the filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy. Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism. Bigelow has called Zero Dark Thirty a “reported film.” Boal told aNew York Times interviewer before the controversy erupted, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”
Boal has said that he believes his script captures “a very complex debate about torture” because it shows some prisoners giving up information under duress, while others dissemble. There is no reason to doubt that Boal and Bigelow intended to depict the role of torture in the search for bin Laden ambiguously. The Hurt Locker was a film of understated complexity drawn out through action, not didactic explication. Yet The Hurt Locker’s story offered a microcosm of war that did not try too hard to address the larger subject of the tragic invasion of Iraq, and so a viewer had no cause to compare the film’s choices to a record of historical fact.
Zero Dark Thirty has the inverse shape: it is an epic history that the filmmakers try to compress into a microcosm, by telling the story of the decade-long bin Laden hunt, which involved many hundreds of CIA officers and military personnel, primarily through the experience of a single analyst, “Maya,” who is played by Jessica Chastain, and who is based on a real-life CIA employee whom Boal reportedly met. In the film, the personal story of Maya’s pursuit of bin Laden—which is original and convincing—is juxtaposed against explosive external events, such as the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005, and the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008. As much as the filmmakers’ claims to journalistic method, this narrative approach—the summoning of recent, dramatic public events—invites the viewer into judgment about the film’s reliability.
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