There is, in the end, a pronounced despair at the core of Kathryn Bigelow's film, Zero Dark Thirty (a military term meaning 30 minutes after midnight). No, it is not because of the desperation of chasing the "ticking time bomb" we have heard so much about these last 11 years. It is one more overarching: the near-manic need to justify all the unjustifiable things the United States has done since the War on Terror began, and by extension affirming and justifying their place in the world of tomorrow.
The film is a fictionalized - actually simplistic to the point of cartoonish - account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden through the eyes of the tenacious, just-out-of-high-school CIA agent, Maya. We meet her as she is initiated into the CIA by witnessing her first torture. This is something that has been a matter of "controversy" in advance of the film's release, with critics arguing both sides of whether or not the film "promotes" torture. This is not a difficult debate: It does. As brutal as the torture scenes are - and they are brutal - we are told numerous times that valuable information was gained by its use. Only after being strung up, virtually drowned in waterboarding, enduring 96 hours of sleep deprivation, etc., etc., do we find our "detainees" willing to be candid. As one of them who is starting to be forthcoming with information tells the CIA agents questioning him, "I have no desire to be tortured again." That is, by the way, the only time we hear the word used in the film. Further, when the official policy of supporting torture is stopped, a character in the film whines about the dearth of good intelligence: "We lost the ability to prove [bin Laden's location] when we lost the detainee program." "Detainee program" being the standing euphemism for the black-site torture program.
A few years ago, this writer interviewed Damien Corsetti for the Washington Square News, the student newspaper of New York University. Corsetti had been a guard at Bagram in Afghanistan with the nickname "the Monster" for his intimidating presence. Here is what he said: "Torture is a horrible thing. It haunts me to this day. I still hear screams of prisoners in my thoughts. I still have nightmares every night, thinking about these prisoners."
That is an affliction the character in Zero Dark 30 seems not to have. The symptoms of their amorality are shown as the burden of "stress" and risk of "burnout" for a righteous cause. Further, the legality of what they are doing is not broached. These are people who have clearly violated not just basic human rights, but the legal stipulations of the Geneva Convention. They ought to be tried as war criminals, but that is of no concern for this film. Instead we hear buzz the movie might garner some Academy Awards.
Yet there is more here than the desperation of using torture, which is, among other things, an expression of no-confidence in one's strength - short-term or strategic. Midway through the film, we get a high-level CIA official running down all the false starts and frustrations in chasing Osama Bin Laden since 9/11; and here we get allusions to - but nothing but the most superficial mention of - the war in Iraq. At one point, the official bangs his hand on the table, "We are failing."
Watching this brought to mind a news item from October 2001. The US had just begun its war in Afghanistan and Sergei Bondar, a captain in a Soviet army in Kandahar in the mid-1980s was quoted in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, giving this cynical advice to Americans in the wake of 9/11: "The only thing the Afghans hate more than each other is a foreigner. They will unite against any outsider, and the result will be a long, bloody story with no happy ending."
Afghanistan was a seminal event in the collapse of the Soviet empire, and this decadent celebration of the assassination Osama Bin Laden fails to provide any echo of that.
In the end, we are meant to applaud the "leap of faith" Seal Team Six takes as they heroically attack Bin Laden's compound in the middle of the night. Using the most sophisticated technology in the world, in one of the poorer nations on earth, the SEALS shoot and bomb their way into the compound, firing at women and terrorizing children - as they whisper, "It's alright."
Of course bin Laden and al-Qaeda are engaged in their own murderous desperation, and the tit-for-tat the film shows us is not without an awful basis in reality. The problem is the film wants a Manichaean divide that does not hold up. That al-Qaeda and the like have shown utter disregard for humanity at points does not, and never will, justify a commensurate contempt on the US side.
In the larger sweep of things though, it is the declining fortunes of the US - the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the transitory nature of global economic and political power - that undergird the action. In that context, the film's affirmation of the usefulness of the depravity of torture and its lauding of the assassination of an enemy whose shelf life was by many accounts all-but-past, is stark. In that regard, Zero Dark Thirty is a film of a certain era in our history, one that ought to send us racing to the exits trying to figure out how to move into a new one.
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