Dark Knights

film darkCowboy mentality mars intense military procedural ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

How much torture should we, the people, condone by our government in pursuit of political ends? That’s the implicit question at the core of Kathryn Bigelow’s highly-touted Zero Dark Thirty, an exhaustive drama about the CIA’s 10-year hunt for al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. But a more pertinent question might by how much torture should we, the audience, endure onscreen in the name of entertainment?

Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary. Although based on highly classified and sensitive CIA documents, it’s been packaged as a slick piece of storytelling for public consumption. Bigelow and her longtime screenwriting partner, Mark Boal, make conscious dramatic choices throughout on how they’re going to present the material. Which means the first third of the film caroms back and forth between various “black sites” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “undisclosed locations” where detainees are tortured for information in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the U.S.

One prisoner in particular is waterboarded, walked like a dog on all fours, stripped from the waist down, and shut up in a small wooden box. His tormentor, a CIA op named Dan (Jason Clarke), is portrayed as a pretty nice guy off-site; he keeps pet monkeys, worries about what the job is doing to his psyche, and befriends the new girl on the team, Maya (Jessica Chastain). Bigelow and Boal stick to a fairly straightforward military procedural format for their narrative, but what emotional story arc there is involves Maya overcoming her initial revulsion to become more “guy” than the guys, inuring herself to the horrifying reality of torture to get what she wants—Osama bin Laden.

The filmmakers have said their film is not pro-torture, that they’re just reporting the facts as told to them in “first-hand accounts of actual events.” Meanwhile, the film races around the globe, showing al-Qaida terrorist bombings from Saudi Arabia to London to Islamabad, where the public carnage is meant to justify the means at those CIA-operated black sites.

But it’s interesting to note how little information is actually obtained from torture. One breakthrough comes during a normal conversation after Maya’s team has tricked a torture victim into believing he’s already revealed something. Another key item—a dossier on a prime suspect—surfaces after a couple of years of misplacement due to “human error” in the department. In this respect, the film might almost serve as a subtle cautionary tale against the use of torture for political results—if not for all the cowboy posturing that dominates the second half of the film.

We can’t know how much of the dialogue (if any) is taken from actual transcripts, but corny action movie clichés pop up all too often. It’s pretty lame when Maya’s fed-up supervisor (the always reliable Mark Strong) yells at his team to “Do your fuckin’ jobs and bring me people to kill!” When some of her closest colleagues perish in a suicide bombing, and Maya vows to “smoke everyone involved in this op,” you can just imagine a Hollywood voice-over intoning, “This time—it’s personal.” When Maya introduces herself to the visiting CIA director (a bespectacled, rather elfin James Gandolfini), saying, “I’m the motherfucker who found him (Bin Laden),” we think this woman has been watching too many Bruce Willis movies.

The midnight Navy SEAL assault on Bin Laden’s secret Pakistani fortress that concludes the film is pretty standard action movie fare. (It’s not exactly a stealth mission, since one of the two helicopters promptly crash-lands in the courtyard.) On the way to the attack, the National Security Advisor back in DC is portrayed as some sort of obstructionist for asking for visual or audio proof, not just circumstantial evidence, that their target really is Bin Laden. And as a dozen guys in flak jackets and infrared goggles shoot their way into a compound full of women and children, we can’t help but think of all the reported incidents from Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade where the U.S. forces were not, in fact, raiding the correct household, killing innocent bystanders.

Zero Dark Thirty is difficult to watch, at times, but at least it offers a window into what kind of skullduggery our government is perpetrating worldwide in our name.  


★★1/2 (out of four)

With Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and James Gandolfini. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. A Columbia release. Rated R.
157 minutes.

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