Kathryn Bigelow has always had a talent for violence. In Near Dark (1987), redneck vampires terrorise a dive bar. In Blue Steel (1989), Ron Silver gets aroused fondling a female police officer’s gun. In Point Break (1991), surfer/bank robber Patrick Swayze sets a gas station on fire while wearing a Ronald Reagan mask and eventually rides a wave so big it kills him. Even her first short film, made in 1978 when she was still a grad student, consisted of two men pummelling each other while two professors discussed the semiotics of brutality in voiceover. It sounds a bit art school but the film was energised by her instruction that the actors actually beat each other up. No phoney stage fighting for Bigelow.
Thirty-five years later, her interest in aggression remains unsated. For the first half hour of Zero Dark Thirty, her new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, we watch a half naked young Arab man get strung up, hit in the face, waterboarded and shoved into a small box. He begs for mercy but gets none from his CIA captors. They apply their techniques dispassionately. When he doesn’t answer a question, our heroes dunk his head under water, blind him with bright lights, get their goons to beat him, play loud music, insult his sexuality, make him soil himself. When he doesn’t break they beat him some more. Finally, in a quiet moment, with a bit of kindness over a bowl of hummus, the lead interrogator tricks the terrorist into giving up the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers, which which ultimately leads to the discovery of bin Laden’s hiding place.
I found the first 30 minutes of the film exhausting and distasteful. I enjoy movie violence as much as the next guy but torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques, as the CIA likes to call it) doesn’t have the anarchic pleasure of a cinematic car chase or bar fight. It is oppressive, ugly and unpleasant. Bigelow has been attacked both in the media and by her Hollywood peers for these scenes but insists her graphic depiction was not intended as approval. She says she is just reporting what happened and that criticism of torture in the film be directed instead at those who ordered it.
This argument is disingenuous. None of the CIA agents (who after all are our heroes) expresses doubt about the efficacy of torture or seems to be adversely affected by it. The sole time President Obama (arguably the one man most responsible for the capture of bin Laden) appears in the film, announcing America will no longer countenance torture, the CIA operatives watching him on television seem disappointed and annoyed. You almost hear an unspoken “wimp” as they listen to their commander-in-chief. Towards the end of the film, when higher ups demand evidence that Osama is actually in the house, Maya (Jessica Chastain) asks how she is supposed to get that evidence now that she can no longer torture detainees. Nothing in the movie suggests Bigelow disapproves of these tactics.
But the CIA is also disingenuous in claiming that torture played no role in the capture of bin Laden. The film, including its harrowing first 30 minutes, is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” as a graphic proudly announces at the beginning of the film. For 48 straight days in the winter of 2002-03, in the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, a Saudi captured at Tora Bora received the treatment we witness in the movie. According to the journalist Peter Bergen, Ahmed al-Qahtani was repeatedly doused with cold water, made to perform dog tricks, forced to take enemas and given drugs whenever he was falling asleep so that his interrogation never had to stop.
Eventually Qahtani went mad: according to the FBI report, he showed “behaviour consistent with extreme psychological trauma.” A federal judge appointed by George W Bush declared that these interrogation techniques amounted to torture and so Qahtani could not be prosecuted for his crimes. Nonetheless, after weeks of torture, just as in the movie, Qahtani gave up the name of bin Laden’s principal courier Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.
Would Qahtani have volunteered the name of without this abuse? Probably not. Of course, we might have discovered the Abbottabad compound another way. Or perhaps, as the film suggests, without these enhanced interrogation techniques, bin Laden might still be alive (albeit isolated and ineffectual) today. But as someone morally, politically and now aesthetically horrified that my country practiced these techniques, I like to think that our opposition to torture is sturdy enough that it does not require us to claim it doesn’t work. Anybody who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies knows pain can help generate confessions. Admittedly, the intelligence provided by torture can be tainted, as captives will offer up whatever they think their captors want them to say. Torture is immoral and often counter-productive and it probably creates more new terrorists than it uncovers, but it can make prisoners eager to spill the beans.
My problem with Bigelow’s film is not so much that it asserts the utility of torture, but that it does so in a deeply uninteresting way. Perhaps the best film on political torture is Roman Polanski and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, which examines the repercussions of this crime years later. Without any pain inflicted on screen you can see the long-term effects on both the tortured and the torturer. In Zero Dark Thirty, torture is just a tool in the interrogators’ kit. They don’t love it or hate it—as you don’t love or hate a wrench—and so their brutality doesn’t seem to affect them in any way. This strikes me as naïve and cold-hearted but, perhaps worse, uncinematic. Even as a purely dramatic choice, it seems odd to have our heroes so unaffected by their own brutality. But this is a very cold movie. None of the characters has any backstory. None seems to have any life other than their job. None grows or changes. Jessica Chastain’s performance has gotten rave reviews but her acting mostly manifests itself through hair and make-up—we never get a glimpse into her character’s soul.
My favourite scene in the film follows the decision to go ahead, as Maya travels to Afghanistan to brief the SEAL team. It is magic hour and Maya and the warriors are bathed in golden light. The soldiers play horseshoes as she watches and they banter about whether this raid might be the big one after all. Bigelow has always had an appreciation for the charisma of genuinely macho men and her understanding of the behaviour and camaraderie of these elite soldiers is spot on. It makes me wish she had focused this film on the SEALs rather than on the desk jockeys (and torturers) of the CIA.
But the raid at the end of the film demonstrates the limitations of Bigelow’s approach. She built an exact replica of the bin Laden compound in order to shoot the scene. Her insistence on accuracy trumped any desire for Hollywood pyrotechnics: the soldiers move calmly, methodically. Unfortunately, we see the mechanics of the raid but it is not played up for dramatic effect. Again, the soldiers are men just doing their job and the various characters seem interchangeable. This may be truthful reporting but it is not gripping filmmaking.
Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal are proud of their fidelity to the real story. But truth is more than just not getting the facts wrong. America and the world still need to digest the implications of our decade-long war on terror and this movie shuns any grey areas or complexity. Dick Cheney would like this movie. So would Osama bin Laden, who would appreciate his acolytes’ resoluteness and courage. Bigelow seems surprised at the movie’s reception but the Manichean worldview of the “war on terror” in this movie feels very 2003. Obama’s decision to green-light the mission is also severely underplayed. It is almost as if the film’s creators saw Republicans as their target audience and realised any mention of Obama’s role in the capture would spoil their viewers’ partisan pleasure.
The story of Osama bin Laden’s capture and death could make several great films. I can imagine an action movie focused on the raid and the extraordinary soldiers that carry out these missions day in and day out. I can imagine a political movie culminating in Obama’s decision to go forward. I can even imagine a psychological movie about torture and the CIA, about the effects such behaviour has on both victim and perpetrator. Zero Dark Thirty is none of these films. Bigelow is a competent action director but she has been let down by her screenwriter. There is no arc to this movie, no character development—all we see is surfaces. In a few years this tedious, didactic movie will feel dated and inconsequential.