Zero Dark Thirty Waterboards the Facts

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Since the dawn of American cinema historical events have been followed with jingoistic white propaganda films. Just to name a few: WWI had Charlie Chaplin's The Bond. WWII had Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Casablanca, and Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 rightfully belongs on the list. Zero Dark Thirty is the latest such venture. Director Kathryn Bigalow and Screenwriter Mark Boal’s account of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden opens with the claim: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” The next words to flash across the screen: “September 11, 2001.” As the white text hovers over a black background a live phone call is heard between a 911 dispatcher and a woman who is “burning up” inside the World Trade Center. The mood and intentions are set; Zero Dark Thirty is a journalistic account of the events leading to Seal Team Six’s late night raid on bin Laden’s secret Pakistani compound. The purpose of this raid is to seek justice for the largest foreign attack on US soil in history. The journalistic intro is no mistake. Screenwriter Boal worked as a journalist tackling topics such as suicide bombers and US soldiers killing Afghan civilians in The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Playboy. It’s through Boal’s background as a journalist he was granted access to interview CIA agents and personnel for Zero Dark Thirty. Before the film made its early debut in New York and Los Angeles, Boal told the New York Times that it was a “reported film,” and as Steve Coll notes in The New York Review of Books, Boal also said, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”

However, over the sound of crinkling candy wrappers in the theater, the very first scene we see is that of Ammar al Baluchi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s (the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks) nephew, being tortured. They string the sleep deprived and severely beaten Ammar up. He’s waterboarded, sexually humiliated, walked like a dog on a dog leash reminiscent of the brutal photos leaked from Abu Ghraib, until he's eventually confined in a small wooden box. Throughout the film a statement that torture was essential in finding bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, who then led to bin Laden himself, is presented as fact.

Since Zero Dark Thirty opened its statement regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques”  has caused much controversy. Michael Morrell, the sitting head of the CIA, said in December that the films depiction of torture as key to finding bin Laden is “false.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein along with two senior members of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D) and John McCain (R), co-wrote a letter calling the film “grossly inaccurate.” Considering that the filmmakers initially stated that the film is “reporting,” and thus exemplary of journalistic integrity, if the depiction of torture is indeed untrue, Zero Dark Thirty has the potential to greatly mislead the viewing public.

In response to these criticisms Boal and Bigalow said that they were simply taking “artistic” liberties. Last week, while on stage accepting a New York Film Critics award, Boal had this to say:

"It's a movie. I've been saying from the beginning – it's a movie. That shouldn't be too confusing," he joked. "It's in cinemas, and if it's not totally obvious, a CIA agent wasn't really an Australian [Jason Clarke] … and Jessica Chastain isn't really a CIA agent; she's a very talented actress. But I think most American audiences understand that."

Critics arguing that torture was not presented as key in the film have been using the below seen to make their claim. The problem is that Ammar, who has been tricked into believing he gave up information while delirious, is given this meal and told that if he doesn't answer a question he could be hung back up on the ceiling:

 

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Although today’s 24 hour news cycle and rampant blogosphere may lead some to believe that falsifying reports is ok in the field of journalism, or if it’s not “ok,” it’s par for the course, many including myself call bullshit. Just this year journalists such as Fareed Zakaria have paid higher prices for lesser crimes. What’s more, how can a factual account of the hunt for bin Laden actually be made at this time? The CIA claims to have filmed their interrogations with suspected Al Queda members. A mountain of data collected by hundreds of individuals over the last decade, is still classified. Bigalow and Boal initially claimed to have had special access to classified information prior to the film’s release, though now they've changed their tune. Argo could not have been made prior to 2007 because the information of the covert op to rescue the embassy staff had been classified for nearly thirty years. It should then be no surprise that the complete story of history’s largest and most expensive manhunt is something we will not know much about for quite some time, if ever.

Worse than the historically inaccurate portrayal of torture as a means to find Abu Ahmed, is that there’s only one perspective presented for the whole film, that being of the CIA and its wannabe Homeland heroine, Maya. There's no presentation of internal agency conflicts, Congress, presidents Bush or Obama, vice presidents Dick Cheney or Joe Biden – really anything pertaining to Washington DC – international cooperation and/or opposition, the media.The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are essentially absent. The film doesn't even show the weight of executing a covert-op in Pakistan. Any one of these things could have been added, factually, and to the betterment of the overall film no matter the intention of the filmmakers. Omittance is a failure of journalism. It's also bad writing. The characters are left one-dimensional, boring, and unbelievable. We already know how the story is going to end, why do we need to see someone's watered down reenactment?

Another journalistically problematic technique of Boal’s is that he used “composite” characters, that is, he took hundreds of people and turned them into characters such as Ammar and Maya. Instead of seeing the scope of a decade long international investigation we get a distorted and narrow view of culture, the conflict, and the people involved. Sure, it’s hard to cram everything in a film. But even in five minutes of an episode of Cops we get more angles on a fistfight at a gas station than Zero Dark Thirty gives us in its 2-½ hours.

If the film is to be taken as “art," then is every cliche hollywood film where the good guys are innocent victims who slay the bad guy in the end seriously art? That seems to be the filmmakers claim. If it is purely art then what about symbolism? There is one particular scene that sticks in my mind as defining what the film is trying to convey. Seal Team 6 enters bin Laden’s compound. Everything is pitch black. The only way the Seals can see what they’re doing is through night vision goggles. After killing several people inside, one of the soldiers comes across a frightened child. He tries to assure her that everything is ok. As she’s sobbing he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a glow stick, and cracks it. It turns bright yellow in front of her eyes. She’s amazed. Her sobbing slows. Later we see her in a room with all the other kids from the compound. She’s sitting amongst them holding the glow stick to her heart. It appears that the soldiers entered into this dark world and through a gift of technology so the children can see the light. The sentiment is one of hope for future. “Here you go. Rave on, kids.” After all, nothing gives more hope than receiving a toy that will soon fizzle out in a few hours while your father bleeds out on the floor in front of you.

There is no justification for bin Laden’s actions; he earned his death. However, if the point of Zero Dark Thirty is to artistically show us that justice has been served, it surely misses the big picture. And for that Zero Dark Thirty is a picture worth being missed.