Zero Dark Thirty, once this year’s favorite to harvest a whole crop of Oscars, was instead dropped down the memory hole at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. Over the course of the last few months, Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), screenwriter Mark Boal, and lead actress Jessica Chastain were transformed from the creators and star of a dramatic and engrossing thriller about the most famous military mission of the century into collaborators for a policy of torture. The consistently unoriginal Andrew Sullivan wailed that Bigelow is an “apologist for evil.” Glenn Greenwald called it “pernicious propaganda” infected by “jingoism.” They even dug up Naomi Wolf from somewhere to accuse director Kathlyn Bigelow of being another Leni Riefenstahl (which Bigelow should accept as high praise).
Conservatives, initially fearful that the film would be a hagiography of the Obama Administration timed for the election, have now reversed course to condemn “Hollyweird’s” supposedly reflexive anti-Americanism. As usual, both sides seem to be missing the point. The film is hardly a glorification of the American Imperium, aside from the perspective bias of viewing the world through the eyes of CIA agents. The casual revelation of a worldwide empire of “black sites” that host torture isn’t exactly jingoistic propaganda. Nor is Zero Dark Thirty a condemnation of American imperialism – despite the closeups of torture victims and cries for mercy, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t shy away from showing terrorists as terrorists. This is a masterful film that shows the banality of the American world order, the Empire at the End of History where torture, murder, and death are just part of the cost of doing business, devoid of moral significance.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept the official narratives about September 11, 2001, the Long War, and the execution of Osama Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is an “embedded” film, in that it was made with the help of the government, so it is worth examining what the System is trying to tell us on its own terms.
The film begins with a black screen and we hear the desperate phone calls and cries for help of the people dying in the World Trade Center. We see nothing. This makes it worse. There’s even an ever so brief excerpt (less than a second) of the horrific death scream of Kevin Cosgrave as the South Tower collapses upon him. We want blood.
Suddenly, we are taken to a “black site” where a disheveled Muslim is arrogantly lectured about being “owned” by a cocky American, Daniel, a “paramilitary hipster” in the screenplay. He’s accompanied by men in ski masks who run in and savagely beat the man, the initial rush resembling that terrible moment of action in Al Qadea’s beheading videos. Later, Daniel unleashes his rage on the suspected terrorist, screaming about the deaths of “3,000 innocent people!” before flashing a grin and joking, “I’m just fucking with you bro.” Is Bigelow satiating American bloodlust and need for revenge? Undermining it? Making a point about moral equivalency?
The correct answer may be none of the above. Beating a suspect is just business – as is the sexual humiliation, waterboarding, “the box,” and the sleep deprivation that follow in this scene and the scenes that follow. We even see Daniel walk around the detainee in a dog collar. None of it seems to get anywhere. When Daniel screams at the tortured man, “Where was the last time you saw Bin Laden!” we sense not rage, but frustration. Daniel’s comment, “This is what defeat looks like bro,” could apply to himself just as well as the captured jihadi.
Watching the scene and looking like she’s going to be sick is our heroine, Maya. Nonetheless, she (reluctantly) assists in the waterboarding, does nothing to stop the torture, and even blames the captured man for his own situation. Maya is a “killer” analyst sent from Washington to Pakistan, and the viewer is immediately thrust into a confusing world of acronyms, complicated Arabic names, and rapid mentions of various terrorist groups and national security jargon. Like Maya, we are simply thrown into the deep end of “kinda fucked up” Pakistan during the War on Terrorism. Unlike Maya, we have no frames of reference, no background knowledge on anything that is going on.
Maya is awakened from her sleep by the Muslim call to prayer, a common cinematic technique to indicate “stranger in a strange land” which will lose its alien connotation if the Islamization of Europe continues. For now though, the technique works. We are in her position. Now analysts ourselves, we are simply doing the best we can to piece together the story on incomplete bits of information.
And this is war. One thing Zero Dark Thirty does well is create a constant atmosphere of tension and remind the audience of just how much has actually happened over the last ten years. The analysts are stricken by their failure to prevent the attacks in Khobar Towers and 7/7 in London, both of which we see up close.
Nonetheless, business goes on. A friendship/rivalry develops between the redheaded Maya and Jessica, a woman with a Southern accent who urges the driven Maya to lighten up and pressures her to fool around with “Jack.” Maya resists. At the time this is mentioned, I had no idea who Jack was, and I doubt others did either. As you probably guessed, it’s the token black guy. Of course, this typically modern American conversation is rudely interrupted by the Al Qaeda attack on the Marriott in Islamabad. Both Maya and Jessica escape. Later, Jessica gets herself (and several CIA and military colleagues) blown up by trusting that a racial alien is actually a “mole” that is on her side. Racial realists, draw your own conclusions.
With Jessica’s death and the failure of the rest of the Agency to accomplish much in the way of progress, Maya and her lone quest for Bin Laden becomes the sole focus of the story. “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill Bin Laden” she announces. Maya’s lead, or obsession, focuses on a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed (real name Ibrahim Sayeed). This is a figure mentioned by detainees interrogated (and tortured) by America’s allies around the world. After determining that a report saying he was killed is false, Maya concludes that Ahmed is Bin Laden’s courier, and that to find him is to find Bin Laden himself.
She has grown up – when Daniel admits that the years of torture (that is, being a torturer) have taken a toll (on him), she looks disappointed. Whereas before she looked ill in the face of abuse, she is now impassive as prisoners are abused before her eyes. When interrogating one terrorist, she cruelly informs him, “You have deep ties to Al Qaeda that I want to ask you about before you get sent to your next location, which might be Israel.” At the mention of the Zionist state, the prisoner looks stricken, confesses he does not want to be tortured again, and confesses what he knows. Maya is not just an analyst – she’s an enforcer.
As we have the “strong” woman character, now we need the weak men. The film indulges in the kind of “woman against the old white males” narrative that is so familiar. One of Maya’s supervisors literally practices on a putting green in the office while she tries to win the War on Terrorism single-handed. Some of the others share Maya’s blood lust – the Af/Pak CIA station chief growls, “Do your fucking jobs – bring me people to kill!” Unfortunately for Maya, after the fiasco of nonexistent WMD’s in Iraq, the Agency is gun-shy and unwilling to take action on soft intelligence. They are all talk.
Maya gets around the problem with a good old exhibition of grrrl power. She intimidates her boss into taking action by threatening to testify before Congress. She bluntly orders CIA paramilitaries into the hostile streets of Pakistan where resentful natives point guns in their face and tell them “White faces don’t belong here.” She is presented as a force of nature – but unspoken is the implication that she can do this because she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. She gets away with violent rhetoric and crude displays of status and machismo precisely because her gender and appearance allows others to lower their defenses. In that way, she is the prototypical alpha of modern America.
With a combination of daring, technical wizardry, and no small degree of luck, the paramilitaries are able to track down Abu Ahmed after many futile days driving around town. They discover that he enters a “fortress” in the middle of Abbottabad, a building almost comically suited to being the perfect headquarters of an international terrorist hiding from drones and Special Forces. At the same time, an attack by jihadis on Maya almost succeeds, with her contracted foreign guard showing remarkably poor aim in this life-and-death situation. While armored glass saves her in this instance, the American habit of contracting security out to foreigners would prove far more consequential in Benghazi. The terrorist hunters are also the hunted.
In the face of these risks, what is the actual takeaway from the tremendous investment of time, money, and lives? As one of Maya’s supervisors puts it, “Basically, we had a guy who rolled with Al Qaeda and did services for them. We lost him for seven years and now we found him again – and boy does he have a really nice house. Is that it?” Maya says, “Yeah, pretty much.” It’s with this intelligence that Maya begins her next bureaucratic fight – with the higher ups in the Obama Administration to get approval for a strike.
The “CIA Director” in the screenplay transforms into Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the film. He is portrayed by James Gandolfini of The Sopranos, a great actor who is unfortunately typecast because of his legendary role as Tony. Gandolfini’s Panetta is blunt and impatient, demanding bottom line estimates from analysts who deal only in risk and probabilities. It’s the Bada Bing Inside the Beltway as Tony/Secretary Panetta rips off expletives like “No fucking bullshit” and “Is he there or is he not fucking there?” He thus shares a certain kinship with Maya, who speaks out of turn in the first meeting with the line, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.” In a later one on one conversation, it’s revealed that Maya was recruited straight out of high school and has done nothing her entire life but focus on ways to kill Bin Laden. Instead of policy meetings, we’re looking at gangsters discussing a prospective hit.
However, with the exception of Maya, they are cautious hitmen. While Maya impatiently writes the number of days it has been since they’ve found the house on her supervisor’s wall every morning, the rest of the team tries to accumulate more evidence, including trying to get a source in the ground. This includes faux “vaccination” programs. Seemingly crazy Taliban accusations that American medical and education programs are just cover for military operations suddenly are not so crazy.
Once the CIA has done everything it can do, the best that the best and brightest have are estimates of 60 to 80 percent that Bin Laden is there. This must be weighed against launching a unilateral strike within Pakistan less than a mile away from their equivalent of West Point. Only Maya is certain. Despite it all, it is understood that the risk of not acting must also be considered against the risk of action. In an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty, the order is given.
The cynical veterans of SEAL Team Six (almost entirely white) are skeptical of both the intelligence and of Maya. The class (and gender) divide is made clear as Maya sneers at America’s elite warriors, “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use your guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. . . . Bin Laden is there and you’re going to kill him for me.” Later, she is charmed by their blue collar mannerisms as they joke about being “ass-raped in a Pakistani prison” while playing horseshoes, but she clearly considers herself superior. In her own mind at least, the female analyst is at the top of the chain of command.
The SEALs take it in stride. As they fly into Pakistan in stealth helicopters, they joke about about how often they have been in crashes, half expecting a catastrophe. Sure enough, the mission begins with a fiasco, as one of the high tech vehicles unceremoniously plummets into the middle of a courtyard with a tremendous crash. (There goes the element of surprise.) No one is hurt though, and the mission is still a go.
Suddenly, we are plunged into darkness, and see the world through night vision goggles. Politics, analysis, and morality are irrelevant as we watch cool professionals do their job. Methodically, the SEALs move through the compound, using whispered names to lure out hostiles before gunning them down and putting in another round just to make sure. Abu Ahmed’s brother Abrar is wounded and then coolly executed. His wife throws herself across his body so they shoot her too and continue the mission.
Outside, confused and hostile Pakistani civilians head towards the crash site. A CIA asset accompanying the team, Hakim, addresses the civilians in Pashto as “brothers” and begs them to stay in place. They advance and the SEALs prepare to open fire. Changing tone, Hakim pleads “They will kill you!” The civilians retreat.
Ignoring the wails of children and the screams of women, SEAL Team Six continues their mission, luring out figures by name and gunning them down. Zero Dark Thirty achieves another stylistic triumph, now putting us in the role of the SEALs, straining to hear the slightest giveaway of a presence around the corner, or the telltale click of a rifle being cocked. Finally, at the third floor, we hear what we’ve been waiting for, a short, urgent whisper by one of the SEALs of “Osama! Osama!” A tall bearded man peeks out of the shadows and one of the SEALs blasts him, hurrying into the room to put more rounds into the body to make sure. One of Bin Laden’s women lies about his identity, but there is no mistake. It’s Him.
The call goes over the radio and Maya hears, “For God and Country, Geronimo.” Caught flat footed by the treasure trove of intelligence they have discovered, the SEALs scramble to scoop up Osama’s body and all the documents they can before Pakistani aircraft can arrive. The crashed helicopter is destroyed by explosives as the SEALs make their escape in other choppers, Bin Laden’s body in a bag on the floor. It’s a messy success, but a success.
Maya sees them as they arrive back at the American base, but she is ignored by the SEALs. Still all business, they are frantically arranging the chaos of captured documents and hard drives into some semblance of order. She moves to the back and opens up the bodybag, staring down into the corpse’s face. She looks at an Admiral and nods, and Washington receives the confirmation. Osama is dead. The film ends with Maya flying to an unknown location, the lone passenger on a massive C-17. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks. Maya breaks down in tears. There’s nothing left for her.
The film’s working title was For God and Country before being changed to the military jargon Zero Dark Thirty, presumably better to appeal to a generation that grew up on Call of Duty and Modern Warfare. Neither title really works. The film is a great military thriller – for the last twenty minutes or so. Other than that, it’s a political drama focusing on the intricacies of intelligence gathering and bureaucratic politics. It’s not war porn – it’s international relations major porn.
For that reason, any reference to “God and Country” doesn’t really work either. Though there is a joking reference early in the film to a “Christian mission,” religion plays no role in the lives of any of the characters, except for one of Maya’s Muslim superiors, whom we see praying in his CIA office. As the current nominee for the head of the CIA is rumored to be a Muslim convert, the film’s post-Christian CIA seems essentially correct.
While the blue collar SEALs are almost completely white, the CIA is a rainbow coalition of blacks, women, and Muslims working together to stop terrorism. Aside from Maya’s obsessive sense of mission, most of the other people we are see are chiefly concerned with giving themselves political cover and making a career. It’s therefore appropriate that the only group with some lingering tradition to the old white America, the SEALs, channel the spirit of Manifest Destiny with the call of Geronimo. In real life of course, nonwhites responded to the death of Osama Bin Laden with accusations of anti-Indian racism.
As far as the controversy over terrorism, the film is unambiguous – terrorism is horrific, immoral, and effective. Senator John McCain and others simply assert, “Torture played no rule in locating Osama Bin Laden.” Of course, there is simply no way for us to every know this. If torture did play a critical role in obtaining actionable intelligence, who would admit it? Opponents of the film use the common fallacy of assuming that because they think something is immoral, it is automatically ineffective. We see this all the time with immigration, where pro-amnesty advocates argue, “It is impossible to force illegal immigrants to leave the country! Also, all the realistic concrete ideas advanced for doing it are inhumane, evil, and should not be allowed.” Thus, Sullivan, Senator McCain, and all the rest dodge the question by simply asserting “torture doesn’t work.”
But what if it does? Of course the government tortures, and of course it was used to capture Bin Laden. Even if it didn’t help, there’s no doubt the government did it anyway and little doubt that they still do. The whole point is that our entire society is built upon hypocrisy. Most criminal convictions are the result of plea bargains because police officers scare and lie to suspects about what evidence they posses. Harmless customs like making freshman get the water bottles at soccer practice legally constitute hazing and can be punished with years in prison. Flirtation and romantic liaisons occur every day in defiance of sexual harassment codes at workplaces and (especially) universities that if strictly observed would make human life impossible. None of this is the same as torture, none of this is even in the same ballpark. However, in a litigious society where common culture has collapsed and stated belief in the unworkable pities of “rights” and liberalism are the only thing holding everything together, everyone is, quite literally, a criminal. As Saul Alinsky taunted, “They can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”
Thus, the characters in Zero Dark Thirty are less concerned with ethical dilemmas than being left unguarded from politically motivated retribution. The only time we see President Obama is when he is doing a television interview denouncing torture, while the CIA agents watch and discuss intelligence partially obtained through torture. The unspoken message is that what the politicians say and what the system does are two different things. Nonetheless, as Daniel warns Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” Another CIA employee protests the loss of the detainee program and grips about the politicians’ demands for more intelligence. “Who am I supposed to ask? Some guy in Gitmo who is all lawyered up? He’ll just tell his lawyer to warn Bin Laden.” Civil libertarians are correct when they charge the movie implicitly defends not only torture, but denying suspected terrorists confidential legal counsel.
But again, so what? We live lives based on lies in the small things – why would America at war be any different? Only the most naive would think that the “law” somehow prevents the government from doing what it wants in black operations. This country is governed by men, not a long dead Constitution. Nor do most Americans care one way or the other about war crimes. A black Lieutenant Colonel, Allan West, committed an obvious war crime when he threatened a suspected insurgent in Iraq with a pistol and fired next to his head. A reporter discovered it, he was kicked out of the military, and then he was elected to Congress as a Republican.
The real question is why are they telling us this? Why is the government so comfortable with essentially admitting that there is a worldwide torture empire? While Hollywood is clearly uncomfortable enough to deny the film the Best Picture Oscar in favor of the pretty lies of Argo, it’s not as if Dick Cheney will be put on trial for war crimes any time soon. To accept the need for policing the world is to accept the tactics necessary to do it successfully and we are being told that this is the price we must pay. The message seems to be that torture is simply part of the business of empire, a function of efficient administration. When an aide tells Panetta that he thinks Maya is “fucking smart,” Tony Soprano/Panetta all but rolls his eyes and responds, “We’re all smart.”
But what is the point of all this? What is most striking about Zero Dark Thirty is how there is no real core to any of the characters except Maya. Maya observes that Al Qaeda is dangerous because they can’t just be bribed – they are motivated by a sense of religious and ideological mission. Maya understands this because she has her own commanding sense of mission. The other government employees are competent technocrats, skillful but curiously hollow and unmotivated. Only the zealot Maya carries the mission through but at the end, she is left along in an empty plane, her life’s purpose spent with Bin Laden’s death. She’s a young woman, and her life is already over.
The spontaneous outbreaks of celebration and joy from baseball games to college campuses at the death of Osama Bin Laden showed the deep yearning by Americans to indulge in the satisfying and primitive feeling of vengeance. They were denied this, as the Obama Administration refused to release images of the body, leading to conspiracy theories that will last as long as those about the Kennedy assassination. The actual shooter in the Bin Laden mission has taken to the press, claiming that he no longer has health insurance. Even though Bin Laden is dead, the mission in Afghanistan drags on, as Marines and soldiers continue to die for an unknown mission, and the Administration prepares to cut benefits to the survivors. The government’s attitude towards immigration and foreign policy reflects a regime contemptuous of the very people that fight for it and support it. Rather than patriotism becoming the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s the citadel of the suckers.
The American Empire as shown in Zero Dark Thirty is militarily fierce, technically competent, and spiritually empty. It performs acts it can not openly defend and fights in the name of a creed it can not possibly follow. In the end, it is sustained by the sense of mission of a woman obsessed and the sacrifices of warriors fighting for a country that has long since forgotten them. As a film, it’s engrossing, entertaining, thrilling. We are drawn into the story at every stage, taking part in the adventure with Maya and the SEALs. But among it’s greatest accomplishments is that in the end, we feel just like our heroine – exhausted and curiously empty. It’s too good, it’s too real, and it raises too many questions. No wonder they couldn’t give it the Oscar.