'Zero' Dark on Details
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 01:02
To say “Zero Dark Thirty” is controversial is an understatement. Debate has raged since before the movie was released. The film — directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain — tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden through the eyes of Chastain’s CIA analyst. The controversy centers on its depiction of torture and what it implies about whether this method is effective in fighting terrorism. The debate also touches on the broader topic of the responsibility of art to its subject — especially when that subject is an ongoing conflict.
The film’s critics take issue with how it presents torture, which the film seems to indicate was instrumental in locating bin Laden’s hideout. The first portion of the movie shows CIA officers torturing an al-Qaeda detainee. The detainee provides the name of bin Laden’s courier, a tip that eventually leads the CIA to bin Laden himself. And later in the film, some characters suggest that President Obama’s termination of the use of torture complicated the search. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this is inaccurate. It’s not clear that torture yielded any such pieces of information, and the film seems to have generated numerous false details about the real-world events. More disturbingly, it may also lead to the justification of torture as a crucial tool in counter-terrorism.
The movie’s supporters, in turn, do not defend its depiction of torture as accurate. Instead, they point out that the movie is, after all, just a movie. The film, they say, was faithful in its depiction of much of the analytical work leading to the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout, as well as the Navy SEALs’ raid that brought him down. If it isn’t completely accurate in everything it shows, that’s because films don’t need to be completely accurate; they’re works of art, not news reports.
But it’s not just a movie, is it? It purports to realistically depict the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Reviewers of the film have praised it for its documentary nature. And some have even called Bigelow the “poet laureate of the war on terror.”
Although I personally think the breathless praise for “Zero Dark Thirty” is a bit overblown, the film does have some artistic value. We can see the obsessive, draining nature of the war on terror — both for those fighting it and American society as a whole — in Chastain’s performance. The “what now” ending is powerful without resorting to triumphalism or bathos. And even the film’s unflinching use of torture is effective, forcing audiences to confront tactics that were implicitly sanctioned by much of society for nearly a decade.
The question, then, is not whether it’s a good film — it is. The question is this: To what extent are filmmakers responsible for accurately representing the real-life ongoing subject matter they turn into a movie?
When you open a movie with a scene claiming it is based on true events and then cut to actual phone calls from the events on Sept. 11, you can’t get away with claiming it’s just a movie. At that point, the film must either accurately portray what happens or is shamelessly drawing on our still-raw grief from that day. Given that the very next scene is an extended depiction of the torture of a terrorist detainee that misrepresents the role torture played in finding bin Laden, the film fails at this.
This is the tension in the defense of “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is either an accurate retelling or a work of art — it can’t be both. Granted, this is present in other films: Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” does fudge a few of the details. But when it comes to influencing public opinion on whether the use of torture is justified in defending the United States from terrorism, the stakes are too high to let this slide.
Peter S. Henne is a doctoral
candidate in the government department at Georgetown.