Tuesday, February 12, 2013

torture, complicity, and "zero dark thirty"

 Image from www.movieline.com

We saw Zero Dark Thirty last weekend. 

I admit I wasn't keen to see it.  The government sanctioned assassination of Osama bin Laden disturbed me terribly, so a film that might glorify the event didn't appeal.  Still, with the film earning so much acclaim, I felt obligated to see it for myself.

It was much better than I expected.

Debate has swirled regarding the accuracy of the torture scenes and about the way the film may connect torture to the intelligence that led to bin Laden.  I'm not so concerned with accuracy, however.  The film is a piece of artwork, not a CIA briefing, or even a documentary, so I believe we should take it as such.  Also, the film's representations cannot change two truths: 1) the United States tortured prisoners during the decade after 9/11, and 2) the United States ultimately hunted down and assassinated Osama bin Laden with public approval.  

For me, regardless of whether or not "enhanced interrogation techniques" (ridiculous euphemism for torture) happened exactly the way the film portrayed, or with any degree of efficacy, I oppose them.  Consequently, I was more interested in the film's possible jingoism than in splitting hairs over the truth of its minutia. 

Happily, rather than make a definitive statement about its topic, I think Zero Dark Thirty simply asks us to think about the implications of these events while gauging our complicity in them. 

The film opens with a blank screen accompanied by an emotional audio of selected conversations that occurred during the events of 9/11/01. From there it cuts immediately to a stark room where CIA agent, Dan (played by Jason Clarke), tortures a man who is strung up by his wrists. Watching the representation of a U.S. official torturing another person was surreal.  Should I side with Dan?  Root for him in his quest for information?  

When you watch a film, you need someone or something with which to identify--you need a place where you can insert yourself into the narrative. For a few uncomfortable moments, the film asked me to put myself in Dan's shoes as he inflicted harm on an, at that moment, helpless human being.  Worse, since I know the U.S. did "enhance" its interrogation techniques at this time, I know that something at least vaguely akin to this scene has occurred in the name of my freedom.  Am I OK with that?

Not at all.

Perhaps anticipating this dilemma, director Kathryn Bigelow brilliantly resolves it with the entry of another agent, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain.  Maya enters mid-torture and watches from the corner, reluctant, non-participatory, and looking disturbed.  As viewers, we can sit on Maya's shoulder--a much more comfortable place outside the action--and take things in.

Maya will be the hero of our story, and she will also serve as our point of entry to the film.  When, after a brief break outside, Dan asks her if she'd like to pass on the rest of the interrogation, I'm thinking yes, I definitely want to wait outside!  I'm feeling a little ill, to be honest, but Maya insists on returning, as she should--it's her job and after all, we came to see the film, not sit in the parking lot while the action goes on behind closed doors. 

Throughout the film, Maya will remain at a distance from the violence of both interrogation and assassination--allowing the viewer that distance as well.  She never actually inflicts pain on anybody.   Instead, she watches hours of interrogations from the detachment of her desk. When she does interrogate one prisoner, another agent sits in front of her, literally acting as her arm as she prompts him to beat the prisoner for her.  And of course, she stays behind when the actual assassination of Bin Laden occurs.

Despite this buffer, however, Maya does not escape complicity with the events around her.  She drives the beating in the second interrogation, even if she doesn't do it.  In addition, she hands Dan a pitcher of water as he prepares to water board the prisoner in that first scene, and later, when the prisoner tells her that Dan is a "monster" and begs her for mercy, she tells him coldly that only his honesty will bring an end to his suffering. 

If you think of Maya as the entry point for an American audience, her distance mimics ours.  Given the buffer of euphemisms, we can read about "enhanced interrogation tactics" from the safety of our desks. We can also sanction and benefit from these tactics without having to deliver the blows or pull the trigger ourselves.

But like Maya, we are complicit in these practices, despite our distance from them.  We don't have to pour the water, but when we go to the polls, we hand over the pitcher--or not. 

I think this question of complicity is far more interesting than debates about accuracy.  The film gives us just one version of how things could have happened, opening the door for conversation and debate.  While it offers us a string of events where Americans work tirelessly and at great physical and emotional risk to achieve a particular task, it also lets the tortured prisoner speak (calling Dan a "monster"); it lets us see Dan return home when his "enhancement" responsibilities get to be too much, and it lets a Navy Seal express ambivalence about gunning down a woman in a house full of children. 

When Maya stands on the tarmac waiting for the Seals to return from their mission, Bigelow gives us a moment to think about what we've done, how we've done it, and why. 

I know many people must come to that scene and think, "Yes! A job well done.  Justice served!"  I think the film leaves room for that. But it also makes room for a reaction like mine.  For me, justice only happens in a court room, so I feel a little despairing as Maya stands on that tarmac. 

I don't think the actions of criminals or terrorists justify acts of violence against them.  Not so much because I want to save those people from harm, but because I worry about what those practices will do to us.

Nazi war criminals were responsible for the cold blooded murder of 6 million Jews, cowing the 3,000 precious lives we lost on 9/11, but nobody tracked them down and shot them in their beds.  They went to trial. 

I understand that the War on Terror presents us with entirely new challenges, requiring new tactics and different ground rules.  But those ground rules are still subject to our invention, our approval, and our principles.  Personally, I don't want to hand over the water pitcher to achieve my cause, nor do I want to sanction individual assassinations in the name of my safety.

As we continue to grapple with these questions in the current controversy regarding drone strikes, I'm glad that Zero Dark Thirty left room for debate, because I can't help but ask: if we lose ourselves in the fighting, then what's the point of winning?


  1. That was fantastic - pretty much exactly how I felt about the film, although from a slightly different angle as I'm not American (though still complicit). The lack of a moral compass - just showing you what happened, and letting you stand inside it for a while - was really powerful, and a brave choice, I think.

    1. thanks for your comment allama. I didn't get any feedback on this piece and I really wondered how other people felt about the film.

      "The lack of a moral compass - just showing you what happened, and letting you stand inside it for a while" - I wish I'd put it that way! :)