On the Use and Misuse of Zero Dark Thirty

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Zero Dark Thirty. Not, perhaps, since Oliver Stone’s JFK has an American film generated such widespread censure. Hollywood insiders, seeking adherents, waged a public relations campaign to deny the film a possible Oscar for best picture. From The New York Review of Books to Rolling Stone, the Atlantic to The New Yorker, the Huffington Post and beyond, Zero Dark Thirty has been maligned, denounced, and dismissed. Jane Mayer concludes a moralizing assessment by declaring: “Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ should care a little bit more.” Matt Taibbi finds the storytelling problematic and asks “all the people defending the movie, what do you think Dick Cheney’s review is going to be?” As if that rhetorical question weren’t enough, Taibbi adds, redundantly: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Alex Gibney, literally unable to control his indignation, adopts a similar moralizing posture: “I feel I must say something. Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible…” As for their film, “it is fundamentally reckless.” Politicians have also gotten into the act. Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain have ripped the film for its factual inaccuracies and demanded the studio make changes to it. Why these extreme reactions? Zero Dark Thirty, in short, supports or endorses torture. It’s as simple as that. Or is it?
Many of Zero Dark Thirty’s critics condemn the film for blurring the putative line between fact and fiction, history and creative storytelling, for invoking the verisimilitude and authenticity the one provides and the artistic license the other affords. Gibney, representing many, is succinct: “You can’t have it both ways.” This is a peculiar position to take not just because some combination of fact and fiction composes all of our lives, but because in this film the indecipherable combination mimics beautifully the post-September 11 understanding of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and those doing their dirty work. Nevertheless, with this unexamined interpretive first principle securely in place, Mayer proceeds to criticize the film for being consistently wrong, comparing its account of events to “reality,” with reality always winning. Not only is the depiction of torture and the results it produces false, Mayer also rebukes the film for failing to convey the actual character of the torture debate within the Bush Administration, where the FBI, among other institutional players, rejected the CIA’s brutality and refused to participate in its interrogation program. This is just one example Mayer cites of dissent within the Administration. The lack of dissenting voices to American torture further incenses critics. It, too, is tantamount to endorsement. What’s worse, according to Mayer, the film offers a scene in which President Obama, in the background, denounces torture on “60 Minutes.” Given the success that torture has (allegedly) already enjoyed in the film, Mayer insists this opposition comes across as “wrongheaded and prissy.”
These criticisms suffer from a number of shortcomings, as do their critics, who, apparently, don’t want the assassination of Osama bin Laden needlessly spoiled by torture’s taint (might that make it more difficult to dance and cheer in front of the White House?). Principal among them, I would like to suggest, is genre confusion. Mayer calls Zero Dark Thirty a “police procedural.”  Taibbi thinks it’s a “detective story” with an “action-movie plot.” Gibney and Steve Coll think of it, with prodding from the filmmakers, in journalistic and historical terms. It’s not that these categories might not offer productive interpretive lenses, but they not only seem designed to set up the angry criticisms that follow, they also miss important opportunities for a more dialectical engagement with the film.
What if we read Zero Dark Thirty as a revenge tragedy? What if we read the film as revealing a country informed by a sense of rightness and victimization hell-bent on retaliating for wrongs done to it and thus blind to any possible consequences for itself, let alone the world? These imperial presumptions animate Zero Dark Thirty’s two main characters, Dan and Maya. They practice torture as a matter of course, living in a culture of torture: publicly speaking, results alone matter. Following the September 11 attacks, they presume its necessity as well as its efficacy. The film also displays torture as a reassertion of American power and mastery. We are entitled to the world; we will take it (back) on our terms and enjoy doing so. Dan, for one, revels in the power torture expresses. It feels right, even good following 9/11. Still does the film itself endorse any of this? Characters in a film may believe something to be true and act accordingly with conviction—that, however, doesn’t make it true. Nor does it mean that this is the film’s perspective. Gibney insists that “Maya is a glamorous heroine [and] we identify with her.” Do we? This is not clear to me, but it isn’t necessarily problematic, especially given the film’s conclusion, as long as the identification is weak and temporary, since she is a criminal awaiting her day in court, whether it ever comes or not.
Torture, then, plays a prominent (visual) role in the film, but what does it mean to say that Zero Dark Thirty supports or justifies torture? This (alleged) aspect of the film is particularly galling, so the argument goes, because torture played no role in locating or eliminating bin Laden. It is thus historically inaccurate, morally repellent, and politically dangerous. Whether the film effectively advocates the use of torture is not only a question difficult to answer, it may actually miss the point.
The case for torture tends to rely, ultimately, on the coercive power of a ticking time bomb scenario. “Who would not agree to torture as long as it would save (an untold number of) innocent lives,” advocates demand to know? Once such agreement is exacted, it (supposedly) opens the floodgates to an otherwise forbidden practice. Torture, then, justifies itself along narrow instrumental lines. We need to know something now to stop an unspeakable atrocity from happening and torture alone can produce the necessary knowledge. Proponents of torture, that is, do not justify it by claiming that if enough people are captured and subjected to criminal treatment, sooner or later a piece of information might be generated that, in turn, might prove useful at a later date, even ten years later, for another purpose altogether. Yet is that not roughly the brutal, ugly scenario depicted in Zero Dark Thirty? Doesn’t the torture depicted feature a man, Ammar, who may or may not be a Saudi, being questioned on a matter having nothing whatsoever to do with Osama bin Laden or his location? What’s more, torture does not actually get Ammar to talk. Two C.I.A. agents trick Ammar into believing he has talked (but has no memory of it), thus leading him actually to talk. True, they are clever enough to take advantage of torture’s manifest failure, but it did fail. They seem surprised by this realization, but they do—because they must—adjust to it. The film thus depicts the corruption of two C.I.A. case officers, standing in for America, who cannot see how far they have fallen as they can just as easily waterboard or feed another human being (Ammar) under their control. What’s more, throughout the film terrorists implement one successful terrorist attack after another (in London, Saudi Arabia, Islamabad, an American military facility) despite the widespread torture being practiced to prevent it. Still, the torture continues.
At the close of the film, following bin Laden’s execution, Maya is seen sitting alone in a C-130, weeping. This follows a scene in which she confirms it is bin Laden who has been killed, a moment that brings her no apparent satisfaction, let alone joy, which is remarkable since a great enemy has been defeated. What might the tears mean? Does she finally appreciate the cost of the ten-year mission-cum-obsession she pursued? The very moral and political values she swore to uphold were repeatedly violated, even destroyed. She has become, at best, not at all dissimilar from the enemy she hates. Does she sense that this convergence was too high a price to pay, that she cannot justify what she condoned and committed? In the wake of bin Laden’s death, she might be remembering the ugly confrontation she initiated with Joseph Bradley, C.I.A. station chief in Istanbul, who told her that bin Laden was an irrelevancy, old news, no longer a prominent player in the new al-Qaeda. Bradley was focused on defending the country against real, active threats, not old ghosts. Maya was only able to see her grand obsession to its conclusion by effectively threatening Bradley with public career suicide. Bradley, recognizing a deranged fanatic when confronted and assaulted by one, relents. This did not make what he said wrong—anything but, since Maya barely makes a case for her obsession. Bradley recognizes that she cannot hear what he is saying and merely chooses a pragmatic course of action when giving her the resources she demands to (possibly) consummate her hunt. Maya does succeed; bin Laden is assassinated. 
Yet as an act of revenge it is unsatisfying, impotent even: it can’t undo bin Laden’s 9/11 triumph. Nor can it be said convincingly to enhance America’s security. He can and will be replaced. Moreover, as Taibbi notes, bin Laden succeeded along another, more insidious dimension than the attacks themselves. He wanted to provoke the United States into a barbaric response, committing deeds that revealed its true character. Taibbi concludes (and this accounts for his outrage) that Zero Dark Thirty celebrates this response; I would argue it exposes it.
As the film concludes, the futility, perhaps absurdity of Maya’s actions may suddenly be dawning on her, at least at a visceral level. The somber mood of the film peaks and exudes a feeling of cold emptiness. Taibbi rejects this reading (of regret) of the film and does so, oddly enough, because it is a “reading in,” as if he is not also interpreting the film as he condemns it. Critics like Mayer and Taibbi want to be able to moralize; they want a film like Zero Dark Thirty to rebuke and castigate torture in no uncertain terms; they don’t want (or trust) the audience to do any difficult, critical interpretive work, to discern the tragedy (the self-destruction) unfolding before them and their own implication in it. But isn’t that the only way to prevent future self-inflicted disasters, to come to a realization on our own rather than through another’s hectoring?