David Bromwich has written an articulate and informative essay on “Zero Dark Thirty” in the Huffington Post. I wish to continue from the last two sentences of Bromwich’s essay: “But the deadpan narrative of extrajudicial killings is not going to be experienced in the same way everywhere. It will play differently in Pakistan.”
I do not see many mainstream films and, as it turns out, my experience with “Zero Dark Thirty” was influenced by what I thought was the extraordinary number of previews that came before the main feature. With the exception of a preview of a movie about Jackie Robinson, all of the previews were extremely violent. They showed shootings, colliding cars, fighting robots, and clouds of uprising flames as cars were blown up. These previews helped form my first impression of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Initially I didn’t see it so much as a political flick as just an ordinary Hollywood attempt to make money on a suspense thriller. Putting the preview of the Jackie Robinson film aside, “Zero Dark Thirty” fit nicely with the previews. There were shootings with blood coming from the victims, there were people being blown up in bomb attacks, there was torture and, perhaps most fitting from a commercial point of view, a great shot of clouds of flames rising in the air after the Navy Seals blew up a disabled helicopter in Osama Bin Laden’s compound. I believe that the main purpose of “Zero Dark Thirty” is to make a lot of money by addressing the contemporary American movie audience.
One thing is clear, however, and that is that such a movie would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. When the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union and vying for the allegiance of other countries, especially among the non-aligned nations, an American movie would not have had the Americans acting as torturers. As someone born in 1947 it is ever more clear to me that I am no longer living in the country where I was born. Think for example of the fairly recent “The Lives of Others.” What appeared to be the great fear produced by the communist-totalitarian bad guys, the Stasi, was sleep deprivation. But the good guys in “Zero Dark Thirty” not only dish out sleep deprivation, they dish out much more. Someone might object that the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the bad guys threaten their own innocent citizens with sleep deprivation, while the good guys only threaten (some) foreign terrorists with sleep deprivation plus. The torture of innocent persons at Gitmo creates problems for that objection. So maybe the objection would be that the bad guys work on their own citizens, while the good guys work only on foreigners. But my point is that whatever the good guys are doing they would not have been portrayed as torturers during the Cold War when many of us old people were growing up.
The movie is superficial. The competition between the C.I.A. and Al Qaeda is like a tribal vendetta. There is no analysis of how American imperialism and global dominance might trigger attacks on the U.S., nor even of how the political systems in the Middle East might give rise to terrorist movements.
From the movie’s point of view the problem starts with the attack on the World Trade Center. One thing in the movie’s favor is that it doesn’t force us to watch, yet again, the collapse of the twin towers. But we do hear a heart rending recording of a phone call from a woman trapped in the twin towers, while the screen is blank. This recording helps motivate a need for revenge. The woman feels heat rising from below, and says that she is going to die. Thus this movie about torture starts with an innocent American being tortured by Osama Bin Laden’s agents. And later in the movie, after we’re exposed to the torture handed out by the Americans defending their homeland, mostly by C.I.A. agents Dan and Maya, we’re given video shots of some terrorist attacks throughout the world. Thus there is a constant reminder of the need for revenge and immediate action. (The revenge might especially be called for because some of Maya’s C.I.A. friends were killed by a suicide bomber.)
The movie’s superficiality and lack of historical context makes it an American film. If the movie is meant to be something more than a Hollywood attempt to make a lot of money, then the film’s superficiality becomes stupidity. By use of the word “stupidity” I mean that this superficial film, clearly directed at an American audience, has the potential in foreign countries of becoming an anti-American propaganda film. In my opinion stupidity characterizes what other calls “strategy” in American foreign policy and military action over the last several decades. As I sat and watched I wondered how the various scenes would play out before foreign audiences. There is a scene with Pakistanis protesting in front of an American embassy. It’s not a smart scene as it reminds people that throughout the world there is a revulsion toward the U.S. among many people. And to make matters worse this demonstration has to do with Pakistanis being victimized by drone strikes.
I agree with Bromwich that the film will play differently in Pakistan. How will it play in Britain? The United States broke off from Britain in part to create a freer country. The great Bill of Rights was one result. But now we see the Tories refusing to extradite criminal suspects to America out of a concern that the suspects will have their human rights violated.
The movie will not play well in lot of other countries, and the problem will not always have to do with torture. There are some disconcerting scenes depicting the C.I.A.’s ability to listen to phone calls and watch buildings and people throughout the world. Despite all the controversy about torture, “Zero Dark Thirty” has the potential to scare the world-wide public with the image of the U.S. as a menacing big brother.
A theme in the movie is that the “detainee” interrogations, torture, led to the identification of the identity of a person who eventually led the C.I.A. to Bin Laden’s hideout. But a video clip shows that Obama has become president, and he announces that the U.S. will not use torture. Then later in the film there are statements by C.I.A. agents indicating that without the detainee interrogations their hands are tied, at least to some extent. In this dialogue Maya, the heroine, makes a comment about detainees at Gitmo “lawyering up.” In my view, this underscores the very American nature of this film as it shows the disregard for the rule of law exhibited by the United States during both the Bush and Obama administrations. And again, this disregard for rule-of-law values may not sit well with foreign audiences.
Another bit of dialogue that grabbed my attention was Maya’s claim that Bin Laden was still (post 911) ordering attacks on the U.S. I recall reading that Bin Laden was not ordering attacks on the U.S. and was disinclined to do so unless such an attack would result in the great expenditure of U.S. government resources in response. I do not claim to know the truth about the matter, but portraying Bin Laden as an ongoing immediate threat helps to create tension and the necessity for the torture and zealotry we see.
When it comes addressing the American movie audience “Zero Dark Thirty” is not superficial. I’ve already given some examples such as the creation and sustaining of a need for revenge, and the sense that there is an immediate need for action. Another example comes in dialogue toward the end of the movie. Several C.I.A. agents are meeting with director Leon Panetta and Panetta asks for an assessment of probability that Osama Bin Laden is in the compound in Abbottabad. The government is trying to decide if the C.I.A. intelligence is strong enough to justify some type of action at the compound. Various statements of probability come from the meeting participants. Dan, for example, states that there is a sixty percent chance that Osama is at the compound. For Maya the estimate is a loud one hundred percent. But then she lowers it to ninety-five percent with the snide remark that the others present “do not like certainty.” The movie audience has the benefit of historical hindsight, and knows that Osama was in the compound. Thus Maya’s zealous certainty resonates with the audience. This part of the movie should appeal to the various fans of certainty such as, for example, fundamentalist Christians, some Tea Party folks, authoritarians and many patriots. The movie’s controversy has to do with torture, but the film is foul in other ways.
As much as I respect David Bromwich’s essay I have a small disagreement with it. Bromwich makes the following statement. “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ portrays the torture-agents as essentially good people: technicians, working at a grim but unavoidable job. Nowhere do we catch a whiff of sadism or racism or, with the exception of Maya, strong feeling of any kind.” There are whiff’s of sadism from the good guys. One whiff comes from two scenes showing Dan with his monkeys. At a torture compound there are some monkey cages. In one scene Dan is eating an ice cream cone and sharing small bits of ice cream with the monkeys. At the end of the scene a monkey grabs a bigger chunk of ice cream. Dan looks startled at first, but then breaks into a big smile. He likes his games with caged animals. Later in the movie Dan tells Maya that he’s going back to Washington as he is burned out. During this scene we see that the monkey cages are empty and Dan complains that “they’ve killed my monkeys.” The joy of sporting with caged animals is gone. But at least while it was there Dan was a sadist.
If the government or the movie industry were to ask me, my advice would be not to distribute this film outside the U.S. But Americans do not do strategy. Outside the homeland, “Zero Dark Thirty” has a great potential to play as an anti-American propaganda piece.
Bob Scofield can be reached at email@example.com.