By GENE HOWINGTON
Upon the suggestion of long time and valued blog contributor James in LA, this column on “Zero Dark Thirty” and the controversy surrounding that film is offered as a supplement to the earlier entry in the series on propaganda,”Propaganda 102: Holly Would and the Power of Images“. It is in part movie review and in part a critical examination of the film’s content as related to the controversy around whether or not this film is pro-torture propaganda. Thank you for the excellent suggestion, James!
Is “Zero Dark Thirty” (ZDT) a good film? Is ZDT propaganda? If so, is it pro-torture propaganda (i.e. does it support or promote the idea of torture as a valid and/or necessary intelligence gathering methodology)? Let us examine these questions . . .
ZDT is well paced, the cinematography is strong and it is well written by Mark Boal – all tributes to the technical expertise behind this film being first rate and director Kathryn Bigelow ties it all together in a better than average Hollywood package. The 157 minute running time moves rapidly and keeps you engaged. As a film, ZDT works. Kind of. And I’ll get to that, but first, the acting.
The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of some of today’s best character actors from James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”, “Where the Wild Things Are”) to Harold Perrineau (“The Matrix Reloaded”, “Lost” and “Oz”) to Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones” and even more notably Thomas Jefferson in the “John Adams” HBO mini-series) to Mark Strong (perennial Guy Ritchie gangster favorite, “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy”) to John Barrowman (known to any Whovian and “Torchwood” fans as Capt. Jack Harkness). Many of these strong actors though are a bit wasted on parts that often are only a couple of lines and/or scenes, but their presence does greatly contribute to the overall quality of the film. Three actors really drive the film and get the bulk of the screen time: Jessica Chastain (“The Help”, “The Debt”), Jason Clarke (“Lawless”, “Public Enemies”), and Jennifer Ehle (“Contagion”, “The Ides of March”, “The King’s Speech”). My compliments to the cast and crew on skilful execution of their jobs. Especially the lovely Jennifer Ehle who is as strong a stand out in this film’s deep ensemble cast as she was as the scene stealing epidemiologist she played in the equally strong cast of “Contagion”.
Character-wise the film’s primary focus is on Chastain’s “Maya”, Clarke’s “Dan” and Ehle’s “Jessica” and in some ways they are representations of two different schools of thought on how to best gather intelligence. Maya is the young blood. New to field intelligence work, she’s thrown into the deep end. Her first field assignment and her first scene is with Dan as he is in mid-torture, er, interrogation. Maya is the audience proxy into Dan’s “Torture Works!” world and into Jessica’s “Old School/We Have Rules” world. Her choice is clear and it is clear from the first scene. She’s with Dan.
The torture itself is brutal and inhumane and the character Dan comes across as a pure psychopath and a sadist. Dan alternates charm with threats, beatings, stress positions (including cramped confinement), humiliation, and waterboarding. The waterboarding depicted is done so in a spontaneous and off hand way that is seems almost a casual aside. We know from memos from Cheney’s lawyers that the practice was methodical and repetitive. This is not the only time the film deviates from what we know to be the reality of torture. The other is that torture led to a detainee revealing the nom de guerre of OBL’s courier when it has been revealed that this information was in fact part of a larger traditional human and signal intelligence operations. In the real world, almost all of the information acquired through “enhanced interrogation techniques” was recalled because it was inherently unreliable.
Dan is the least sympathetic character of the film, but I don’t think he’s meant to be unsympathetic. He’s just a guy with a tough job. Maya is at first a bit taken aback, seemingly uncomfortable by Dan’s torture techniques, although she rather quickly (almost unbelievably so) opts to participate instead of watching although her involvement in the torture proper is fairly passive compared to Dan. To show how tough she is, she assures Dan she’s “fine” when asked. In one fell swoop, the young blood becomes true believer. This is all within the first fifteen minutes mind you. The torture component is only in the first part of the film, but it does set the tone thematically and as Maya character development. Maya meets Jessica afterwards in a mid-level status update meeting among the various CIA assets running ground operations in Pakistan. Jessica advocates using greed as a motivating factor to encourage people to bring them actionable intelligence. Later, Maya offhandedly dismisses this tactic by noting “it worked well enough in the Cold War” and rationalizing her tacit approval of Dan’s techniques under the rubric that the enemy are fanatics. The relationship of Jessica and Maya is important later down the road as they become friends despite their differences. This is important to the analysis of whether this film constitutes pro-torture propaganda, but the basic progression of the film is fairly simple. Torture, misadventures in human intelligence gathering, solid lead, decision to act, apprehension, afterward/closing.
At the most basic level, ZDT is a well made film. On that level, I must say it was a good movie. Not everything that is propaganda is excluded from being art. In cinema, the prime example of that is “Casablanca”. It was certainly pro-Allied propaganda in the “good people choose to act against the Nazis” kind of way. That in no way interferes with enjoying it as a film and in part because the message is one that just about everyone not a Nazi can agree with. That is not the case with ZDT and it is part and parcel of why it almost works as a movie. ZDT is certainly a piece of propaganda in the most negative meaning of the word. It presents a clear and unambiguous portrait of torture as being critical to intelligence gathering and it does so from the first scene. This message is irrevocably fundamentally wrong from both a human rights and Constitutional standpoint as well as an outright lie about the role of torture in capturing bin Laden. It is revisionist history of the worst sort; the kind designed to whitewash the actions of bad actors.
Not only does the new blood Maya quickly buy in to the torture paradigm of information gathering, it is never once denounced by any character. This includes the “voice of traditional intelligence methods” character of Jessica. She voices her opinion in favor of traditional techniques, but she seems otherwise perfectly fine with Dan’s methods. That Dan’s methods are justified is further illustrated by traditional human and signal intelligence as being portrayed is not only ineffective but a direct causal factor in the death of the Jessica character which serves as the final impetus for the Maya character to kill bin Laden. And it’s consistently and from the get go kill bin Laden – no talk is had of capture. Maya wants him dead and will stop at nothing until he’s dead. Several other characters take action based upon or make comment of the value of the “detainee program”. Dan leaves the field and goes back to Washington in part because he’s “burned out” in the unintentionally least sympathetic scene in the whole film. Po’ ol’ Psycho Dan is just worn out from all that torturing. He’s “seen too many naked men.” Of course, that he smells the changes on the political wind and wants to get out before he gets caught does nothing to enhance sympathy for the psychopath’s plight. His interest is strictly in himself and his self-preservation. He even warns Maya that she “doesn’t want to be the last one left holding the dog collar” before going home, in reference to the earlier torture scene where Dan makes a prisoner wear a dog collar and walks him around the cell. The CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley (played by Kyle Chandler) bemoans the loss of the detainee program as does Mark Strong’s character George, a nebulously defined CIA manager fairly high up the food chain and in charge of the task force that employs Maya. These commentaries stand out in stark contrast to what the later half of the movie shows, namely that human and signal intelligence are the means which ultimately lead to bin Laden’s capture despite the dogged insistence that the initial break came from torture. Even when prisoners choose to cooperate, they make it clear it is because they do not want to be tortured further.
Some in the press are speculating that Bigelow was played by the CIA’s right wing elements that followed Cheney’s lead on torture. Some think she’s a right wing ideologue endorsing torture herself. I say it is irrelevant to the end product being propaganda by merit of having a decidedly pro-torture message. Dupe or willing propagandist, the product is propaganda just the same.
ZDT is propaganda at its blackest. It starts with torture, never criticizes torture, bemoans the loss of the tool and never waivers that it was instrumental in capturing bin Laden despite the reality to the contrary. It ends with Maya on a plane home, crying – unrepentant, unquestioning, tears of her sacrifice that ignore her part in war crimes, still very much the hero. And that is the final nail in the coffin that makes ZDT almost work as a movie. There is no examination of whether torture is wrong or not. Just a tacit endorsement writ large in the self-pitying tears of the lead actress as she rides off into the sunset.
As the credits rolled, from behind me I heard another theater patron say, “Well . . . f@ck.” I turned to see a college kid with a t-shirt bearing the text of the 8th Amendment. I smiled a slight sad smile, tipped my ball cap to him and his girlfriend. “Nice t-shirt,” I said. They waved before walking away hand in hand up the aisle, excitedly mumbling to each other in that insular way young lovers do.
I knew how they felt. It was cold and rainy outside as I exited the side door of the theater opposite the young couple. It was rainy and cold in my heart. I thought, “So many people are going to see this movie and buy its bullshit without questioning the message, or worse, believing it.” But maybe not. Maybe it will backfire and act as unintentional agitprop to reinvigorate the discussion about torture and what we should do to hold those responsible accountable. Ah, hope. Our greatest strength as a species and concurrently our greatest weakness. But I digress.
There has been much defense in the media played by many involved with the film. Director Kathryn Bigelow said, “We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.” Which is utter nonsense as every bit of intelligence gathered is predicated on torture forcing a prisoner to tell us the nom de guerre of OBL’s courier when in real life we knew that from other traditional sources of intelligence. It’s abundantly clear in the film that no progress would have been made without torture first revealing that bit of information. Even a Sony executive weighed in. “We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda,” said Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chairman of its Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. “This film should be judged free of partisanship,” she said, adding that the film “does not advocate torture.” Also utter nonsense and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of propaganda can tell it is utter nonsense by the content of the film. The film doesn’t explicitly endorse torture, true, but the implicit endorsement practically screams off of the screen. Thanks, Amy, but I think I’ll judge the movie by simple human decency and the fact that torture is unconstitutional and illegal and any film that acts as a tacit endorsement of torture is vile no matter how well made it is. Then again, what do you care? You got my money and I’m not a member of the AMPAS. I will, however, probably choose to vote with my dollar on the next film either you or Kathryn Bigelow are attached to that I might be interested in seeing as well as any product in general from Sony or Columbia/Tri-Star. I don’t think I’ll see another Kathryn Bigelow film even if it’s so good it makes you cry tears of gold, sweat happy playful puppies and smell like fresh baked cookies.
I don’t regret seeing the film. It was not a waste of time. It is an excellent study piece in propaganda. It was well made. However, I do wish I had my money back. People who advocate torture – even implicitly – shouldn’t get a dime for doing so. Having seen this, I urge you to see it for as free as possible and make up your own mind in light of what you have learned from this series or elsewhere about the nature of propaganda.
If you’ve seen it or not, but especially if you have, what do you think?
NOTE: The column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur (jonathanturley.org) on January 13, 2013. It has been re-edited for presentation here.