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Zero Dark Thirty: Torture, Take Two

I saw Zero Dark Thirty last night.

Most of it, anyway.  In a bizarre incident, the theater fire alarm went off just as the Seal Team Six helicopter was about to touch down in Abbottabad.  The Arclight made the interesting decision to keep the movie running (or non-decision, to be more accurate:  in the brave new world of automated multi-screen projection, there is no grizzled projectionist in the theater booth minding the store, nor, it appears, is there a technerd with an eye on the monitors or a finger on the button in the central control room either).  A lot of people remained in their seats at first, thinking that a descending stealth helicopter makes the same beeping and flashing commotion as a Honda SUV backing out of a driveway.  No announcement was made, so the flummoxed audience ignored the emergency exits and eventually jostled its way out into the jam-packed lobby.  There, the black-shirted hipsters who serve as the Arclight staff were wandering through the crowd, seemingly as non-plussed as anyone else.  If there is a PA system for the complex, nobody flipped it on to inform and instruct the bewildered herd.  Information, or its equivalent, percolated through the scrum as a series of mumbled exchanges.  I was able to buttonhole one staffer and take care of the Angeleno’s existential concern—parking validation—and head off into the night with the promise that I could eventually obtain, not a refund, but a voucher for further viewing.  Fortunately, the whole thing was either a false alarm or an extremely minor ruckus.  If it had been a serious sh*tstorm, there would have been a lot of terminally disappointed people, if you get what I’m sayin’.

So I didn’t get to see the final confrontation.  However, by that time the tone of the movie regarding everybody’s pressing interest—torture!—had already been set.  Of course, if it turns out in the final reel that the Seal team mistakenly barged in on Dick Cheney shuffling around in his slippers and bathrobe at his secret location, and then the cast popped out of the closets for an end-credit rendition of “Always Look on the Sunny Side of Life” I am mistaken about the direction that the movie was taking.  But I don’t think so.

Torture works, at least for Kathryn Bigelow.  I think she’s fascinated with it, and it’s really near the heart of Zero Dark Thirty.  At the same time I think that she, and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, made the cautious decision not to kill the Oscar-buzz with a queasy piece of torture porn, and instead frame the hunt for bin Laden as a neutral-toned albeit torture-sodden counter-intelligence procedural, a “just the facts, Ma’am” approach for those of you old enough to remember Jack Webb and Dragnet.

The film is grim, and grimly convincing, as a picture of the United States and the CIA spending billions of dollars to bulldoze through a world they despise to kill a man they hate.

The objective tone works against depicting Maya (Jessica Chastain) as a sympathetic character, despite the presence of standard action movie vengeance-shall-be-mine personal motivators– they killed my (kinda) friend!  They tried to kill me!  Twice!  Instead, her zeal comes across as shrill and impersonal.

Which is probably the way things really are in the CIA.  The people who get things done within that massive and murderous bureaucracy are probably more determined, more callous, and more unpleasant than their determined, callous, and unpleasant peers.

When the film shows Chastain wrung out after a tough day of torturing a recalcitrant detainee, one is left to wonder if Bigelow is descending to the dishonest humanizing cliché, or whether Chastain is simply expressing the zero-affect aggravation of a mechanic unable to repair a balky transmission.

In keeping with this approach, the movie cannily throws out enough pro- and anti-torture tropes for people on both sides of the argument to seize upon.

On the one hand, enhanced interrogation techniques are unambiguously portrayed as torture, not fraternity pranks, and the potential for extracting misleading information is referenced in a scene in which a tormented detainee is stuffed in a tiny box while randomly muttering days of the week for an impending attack.

On the other hand…

The end of the torture regime is not occasioned by any handwringing over its legality, morality, or operational efficacy.  Instead, the CIA station personnel are shown staring, with at the very best, mute resignation, at a broadcast of candidate Obama promising to discontinue torture.  Near the end of the movie there is a lot of “is UBL really in there” suspense-mongering, with probabilities of 60% and up being thrown around.  One leading national security honcho bemoans the fact that with the discontinuation of the “detainee program”, confirmation cannot be wrung out of the inmates at Guantanamo.

I don’t think Bigelow is interested in passing judgment on the efficacy of torture as a counter-intelligence policy.  But torture does exist, at or beyond the legal extremes of government spook-work, depending on who’s writing the memos, and Bigelow is drawn to exploring its implications and how a hero working heroically in counterintelligence would cope with it.  The problem, for me, anyway, is that Bigelow is interested in torture less as a moral dilemma than as a test of personal strength and determination—for the torturer.  She apparently regards torturers as potentially cool, because they are out there, on the edge, dealing with the challenge, testing the limits of law, social norms, morality, and endurance, and thereby testing themselves.

For me, Kathryn Bigelow tips her hand with her portrayal of the lead interrogator, or torturer, if you will, “Dan”, played by Jason Clarke.  He is studly, grizzled, cool, sympathetic, graceful under pressure—and transgressive, in a Nietzschean will-to-power way, as Kathryn Bigelow heroes often turn out to be.

I don’t know any torturers, at least I don’t think I do, but color me unpersuaded concerning their heroic stature based on what I read about the careful, calculated, and legalistic cruelty practiced in the enhanced interrogation program at Guantanamo and the sadism inflicted on helpless, hapless (and sometimes innocent) detainees at places like Bagram .

The element of the torture scenes (yes, there are several, torture is not just a tone-setting appetizer at the beginning of the film) that I found least convincing was the Hemingwayesque portrayal of the core confrontation between Clarke  and detainee “Amar” (Reda Kateb).

There is a lot of macho-man “bro”ing (as in “If you lie to me, I’m going to hurt you, bro”) and a brief, absurd scene in which Clarke engages in some manly wrassling to subdue Kateb  for a session of waterboarding.

Subsequently, Clarke and Chastain are shown dining al fresco on Arab fare on a sun dappled patio with a cleaned-up and relaxed Kateb , who calmly starts handing over important intelligence goodies.

One doesn’t get the impression that Bigelow regards the torture as the degradation of a helpless person by a figure of power (a more accurate depiction of torture would probably involve the systematic and unchivalric ego destruction at the core of the Bush era Enhanced Interrogation Techniques).

Instead, it’s a studly conjugal transaction whose noble outcome (the terrorist fought hard but the interrogator broke him; prizes for everyone!) has somehow elevated and affirmed both parties.  The feeling of homoerotic subtext is reinforced when Clarke  hands over a post-coital cigarette to Kateb , who puffs on it with a dignified but grateful reserve.

In a subsequent meeting at CIA headquarters, Clarke instinctively and immediately mans up to take the rap for the torture program if and when the legal hammer comes down.  (Real-life spoiler: it doesn’t.)

The motto of Zero Dark Thirty could well be:

Torture:  It’s not for the weak.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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