One of the major controversies surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s multi-Oscar nominated film Zero Dark Thirty is that is appears to condone torture. The defense is that the film-makers were simply depicting the torture without (necessarily) actually condoning it. Its Wikipedia entry gives a detailed summary of various positions, so I am just going with a personal reaction. Just as Quentin Tarantino defended his ‘N-word’ -effusive film Django Unchained as simply depicting rather than celebrating the offensiveness of the N-word, Bigelow defends the torture as simply depicting what actually happened without necessarily rationalizing it. However, once you put away the whole media controversy and watch the film, it becomes clear that Bigelow makes her protagonist Maya simply the good guy in a bad (but necessary) place. So, when the already overly-long movie finally comes to an end, Maya gets to have a nice good cry for a nice long time, and then everything becomes just fine and dandy as my late grandmother would archly say. And the good side wins. What a relief!
But is ‘relief’ the right word?
First there was the very disturbing Abu-Ghraib-style torture scene at the beginning of the film which was very Reservoir Dogs Tarantino-style in its grit, grime and blood, set up against the backdrop of the industrial warehouse atmosphere. Incidentally, note here that one of the biggest criticisms of torture to extract information is that if you apply enough pain, or subject the person to enough trauma (sleep-deprivation, loud blasting music for 96 hours, hands half-way hung up for maximum fatigue), then the person is liable to say anything simply to make the pain stop. That is what happens to this victim as he is first tortured, and then shoved into a pint-sized ‘box’ for extended periods of time—he simply mutters Monday Tuesday… hoping that any named day of the week will somehow that will save him. What if he doesn’t know the required information? What if he is innocent? Even, giving that benefit of the doubt to the torturer that if the captured suspect does know something, is that an acceptable way to get information out of a human being?
History is filled with stories of this kind of torture—the Spanish Inquisition, (or closer to home in place and time) Witch-burning in Salem, Massachusetts, for example. More than anything else, torture seems to satisfy a sadistic need of the torturer to inflict pain (or perhaps a punitive desire to exact revenge), under the guise of extracting information. The opening sequence in the film of the Sept 11, 2001 scene—shot entirely in darkness with only voices and sounds—represents the horror of what the bad guys did. And yes, it was heart-breakingly, powerfully, vivid in the absolute darkness of the attack within the collapsing towers. The rest of the movie (as Bigelow has made it), is the story of what happens when you mess with Uncle Sam. Let that be a lesson to you proto-terrorists! Ka-boom! Yee haa! Yippie Ka-Yay! And all them American war cries of victory to cosmeticize the upcoming massacre.
I had been following the Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay tortures in the news since that sickening day that we now call 9/11, that I was interested to see the perspective in this film–the stance is very simple, as Maya tells the victim: “YOU are doing this to yourself; if YOU tell us what we want then YOU can stop this torture.” This is obviously blaming the victim and completely absolving the torturer. It is so simplistic, and so chillingly rationalized, (think of the similar rationalizing of ‘simply following orders’ defence that featured prominently in the Nazi war criminal trials at Nuremburg, the mutilation and genocide in Rwanda, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Armenians and every other brutally evil abuse of power). And in every one of these cases, the torturer has some sort of self-justifying moral high ground. In this movie, the justification is that the CIA tortures its victims to get information that will prevent future terrorist attacks. Oh? Really?
The most troubling assumption, of course is that everyone caught and tortured is actually guilty, so it is only a matter of heaping more torture and trauma until the victim babbles away something that the intelligence officer can file a report about to HQ. Brilliantly played, Jessica Chastain’s Maya has her best moment in the passionate reprimand she belts out to her careerist boss in Pakistan (her neck-veins bulging in self-righteousness), which could apply equally well to Maya, except that in her case, she has only one item in her career portfolio—UBL. Usama bin Ladin. So, come hell or high water, she is going to get her UBL! At least that was the sentiment Seth MacFarlane picked on in his Oscar-hosting comment about the movie being a “celebration of every woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go” which earned him a media and public roasting.
Then there was the blatant assassination of all the people who lived in UBL’s supposed ‘house’—the husbands and wives were ruthlessly gunned down in their houses in front of their children. That chilled my heart more than anything else, for it made me wonder how many such brutal murders of people are done by commando squads on their raids of suspect houses. How many silent victims exist who are killed with not even the slightest consideration of if they are indeed guilty. If you lived in a dangerous land with your family, and one night some masked strangers came firing at your door, will you open the door and invite them in for a cup of tea, or will you pull out your gun and fire away at the doorway? If you do that here in this film, you will get killed in front of your kids. Even the coyly whispered “Usama” which was designed to elicit a laugh at that tense moment, points to the mocking stance of the whole attack—and the attitude of the murderous soldiers, equipped with their mind-bogglingly superior firepower as they riddled bullets into the bodies of the men and women sleepily rising from their beds. This is euphemistically called “Collateral Damage” which means the massacre of innocent civilians in the process of acquiring military targets.
Then there is the laborious in-between part which shows Maya’s quest for UBL amidst paperwork and politicking. For her, watching thousands of DVDs of ‘interrogation’ has numbed her to the sheer atrocity of all those tortures, as she simply collects questionable data points, and hazards guesses about reliability of the supposed links. In some way, it reminded me of some of the half-baked theorizing and data mining that we did in our team projects during our MBA studies. We fashioned ourselves as tough business people, keeping up awake late at night, snacking on energy bars and bravely muscling our way into those deeply deep business strategies. What utter codswallop we manufactured in so many of those meetings, Powerpoints, Excel sheets! The only difference was that we picked our data-points and figures from Bloomberg terminals, HBR case studies, google, etc to impress our professors into giving us good grades. In contrast, the Mayas get their suspect data points from the savagely tortured suspects. But hey, it is all in a day’s work, eh? A dead giveaway of the self-seriousness of the director is in the title Bigelow gave to the movie—originally it was called For God and Country (which is a definitely more appropriate one, with all the double-edged insinuations of the expression), but she needed some tough militarydoublespeak jargon of the thirty minutes after midnight when the attack supposedly occurred, Zero Dark Thirty… Zero Dark Twenty-Eight-and-Twenty-Three Seconds would simply not do.
Maya is presented as this determinedly dogged hero even if she looks like a rather delicate woman. She doesn’t flinch in the face of the tortures both ‘live’ and on DVD, she pushes through the bureaucracy, and in good old-fashioned cowboy style, she is gonna git that summabeatch who killed mah freends, and she is gonna gun down that dirty dog what did it. By the way, the bureaucratic red tape here is that annoying problem of not being able to torture the prisoners more frequently, and faster, to get the “information” so that it takes 121 days to hunt down UBL. If only they could have freely tortured every Muslim and/or Arab in the world, they might have gotten the information sooner, and UBL dead sooner. At least that is the underlying assumption for the 2nd half of the movie.
The director Katheryn Bigelow (who is older—but interestingly similar in appearance to Jessica Chastain’s Maya) made a name for herself as a tough woman in a man’s world of machismo brawn by making gritty, tough-guy movies (Point Break, K-19, and Oscar-winning Hurt Locker). What better way to out-tough-guy the tough-guys than by being an even meaner “m*th*rf*ck*r” as Maya self-defines herself? So, with the military firepower of the US army, she creates the ultimate tough-guy movie in which the willowy blonde is the toughest m*th*rf*ck*r who brings in UBL—which even the greatest nations with the toughest tough guys could not do. And as ‘toughness’ is measured in the meanest, most savage and bestial treatment of the so-called enemy, she is going to have the balls to do it. Is this the new American hero? (At least Tarantino’s heroes were definitely anti-heroes). Ask that of the thousands of children orphaned or dead, women machine-gunned in the back, and tortured men who had the misfortune not to be born American.
But they are collateral damage. In other words, Dead.
Postscript: The subsequent J. J. Abrams film of Star Trek: Into Darkness (prominently dedicated to the 9/11 veterans), again underscores the obligatory homilies about the self-destructiveness of revenge, the cautionary note about becoming evil in the process of hunting down evil people, and all that colloquial yara yara. Interestingly, the film features not just one, but two, “beating up the bad guy” scenes: One, where the galactic hero of good, Captain Kirk, and another where self-sacrificing superhero Mr. Spock, systematically proceed to give the baddie Khan what could only be described as an ‘epic beating.’ In both cases, Khan is held at gunpoint by the good guys, and beaten up by Kirk and Spock who give vent to their anger and desire for revenge on their unresisting prisoner (until the soft-hearted ‘female, nurturing character’ Uhura cries out to them to stop). And this is supposed to be ok. Much interstellar hay is made in the movie of violating the ‘Prime Directive,’ with nary a whiff of the Geneva Convention principles echoing onward into the 23rd century—a century in which provides drunken Kirk with his bar-brawls, complete with the primitive and yet more equitable conventions that govern the brawl: both guys have an equal opportunity to punch the other. But on an even playing field, it is probable that Kirk would have been creamed in the fight.