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Zero Dark Uncertainty.

Fortnightly Comment on

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong
Anapurna Pictures | Columbia Pictures
157 minutes | US Release 19 December 2012

By A. Jay Adler.

Zero Dark Thirty. Dir: Kathryn Bigelow. 2012.ON 21 DECEMBER 1817, John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas that “at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The capacity to be in uncertainty, without any – how apt the adjective– irritable reaching after fact and reason: how best to describe that penumbral sphere of presence reaching toward meaning that is the realm of art. How not to describe the world of politics. How not to describe GOP members of Congress over many months insisting upon the certain nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. How not to describe the irritable John McCain, the irritable Lindsey Graham, irritable others insisting that there were facts that the Obama administration was obscuring, facts different from any facts to which the administration itself laid claim, even damning facts, such as that the President had watched the attack in real time from the White House situation room and done nothing. The point is made still clearer: the dominion of politics is a far land from the realm of art, one in which facts are irritably asserted and reasons reached at, even if they need to be manufactured. So, then, the response of some, the purely political response, to Zero Dark Thirty.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have produced a depiction of modern intelligence and war craft that is austere, tense, and riveting in its power and sense of reality. In its restraint neither a glorification nor a facile critique of the national security danger zone, its mission is to tell an essential story of perhaps history’s greatest manhunt and to depict the concentrated focus of those professionals who dedicate themselves to such tasks in their lives at a level approached by few. It does not champion or excoriate them, though it does at times honor their dedication and expose – for the viewer to judge – their excesses.

Politicians and ideologues cannot have this complexity.

Acting CIA director Michael Morrell has written of the film that it “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques…were the key to finding Bin Laden.” He asserts, “That impression is false.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein along with Carl Levin and John McCain, the two senior members of the Armed Services Committee, jointly authored a letter calling Zero Dark Thirty“grossly inaccurate.” The letter also said,

Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Yet G. Roger Denson, who has written on this subject several times for The Huffington Post has recounted (in “Zero Dark Thirty Account of Torture Verified by Media Record of Legislators and CIA Officials“) just how much evidence there is in the public record of the many claims contrary to what Morrell, Feinstein, Levin, and McCain assert. Officials of both the Bush and Obama administrations, including Leon Panetta, CIA director at the time of the bin Laden mission, have claimed a role for information obtained from torture in ultimately locating and killing Osama bin Laden.

LET US BE clear, however, just what such a dispute is about for those of us who will never have direct knowledge, or access to sources of knowledge, about what “really” happened. This, so far, is a dispute about what members of the government and the intelligence communities claim really happened. It is a dispute not about the truth of events, but about what accounts have been offered of events. It is a dispute about what any kind of dramatic depiction of events can reasonably represent as accurate without tendentiously slanting that depiction to make an ideological case. Many opponents and critics of the U.S. torture regime, in order to maintain their critique and advance their moral argument, will not tolerate suggestions that torture might at any time have been, not justifiable, but effective in eliciting information. In contrast, many proponents believe that any case for the effectiveness of torture justifies its use and makes in itself the moral case for it. This conflation of ethics with efficacy is itself yet one more partially buried argument in the attacks on Zero Dark Thirty.

In contrast, Boal and Bigelow made the intellectual and artistic judgments, based on available evidence and the inside sources they interviewed, that no honest depiction of events could represent torture as having been completely ineffectual and useless at all times and in all cases. More, even if it is true that torture produced no valuable intelligence, that is not what various authoritative sources have claimed, and Boal and Bigelow are in no position to render any independent, definitive judgment among the competing claims. The two made the additional, balancing judgment that ultimate success derived from myriad forms of intelligence gathering. Nothing makes this point more clearly than that according to the film’s time line, six years passed from the time any information may have been gleaned from torture and when Osama bin Laden was finally killed.

About the  post-9/11 torture regime it may be true that any final determination of its efficacy will be impossible: what better indicator of that likelihood than that the videotapes of all torture sessions were destroyed at the direction of Jose Rodriguez Jr., then head of the CIA’s directorate of operations. Despite this reality, and despite the filmmakers’ fair-minded approach, taken with a sense of responsibility to the uncertainties of historical truth, partisans, including journalists, have turned a work of art into a political battlefield. No status is surer to distort truth, far beyond even disputed fact. Consider in this regard Steve Coll’s “‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’” in The New York Review of Books.

Coll begins:

It is not unusual for filmmakers to try to inject authenticity into a movie’s first frames by flashing onscreen words such as ‘based on real events.’ Yet the language chosen by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to preface their film about events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden is distinctively journalistic: ’Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.’

Indeed, the practice Coll cites is a commonplace in film, and just as common is the negative reaction to it by individuals with real-life connections to the events or fields of expertise depicted. Thus, generically, doctors are always objecting to the inaccuracy of medical procedure and terminology in dramatic representations of their work and lives – so, too, lawyers, and athletes, and so on. People whose lives are represented in art frequently are just unable to detach themselves from the facticity of their lives in order to gain sight of an artistic vision of the truth of their lives. Coll, a journalist and the president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, reenacts this typical response to a further degree. He cites the particular onscreen language of Zero Dark Thirty as making a claim beyond even reality to what he treats as somehow adhering to an even higher level of fact, “journalism,” and he seeks thereby to remove Zero Dark Thirty from the realm of art and to critique it as journalism. Yet in asserting this privileged claim for journalism, Coll misses how fictive narratives in the realist tradition do generically begin – are grounded – in just this deceptive appropriation of facticity in the service of truth.

“Call me Ishmael,” the narrator of Moby Dick opens his tale. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” begins The Good Soldier. “Mother died today,” Meursault informs us at the start of The Stranger. Still better, we have Huck: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” So in Huck we have a figure who in his own voice claims to be already renowned, even to have reality that precedes and stands outside of the new fiction in which we encounter him.

Or move over to film and one of the most successful low-cost publicity campaigns ever mounted, for the kind of story in which the confusion of reality and dramatization aims at the most visceral experience: “Everything you’ve heard is true” was the tag line for The Blair Witch Project, which pretended to be found film footage.

Of course, Zero Dark Thirty is no mere horror story entertainment. It claims to portray recent and profound historical events, so Coll cites the film’s use of actual 9/11 audio in order to transpose the film to the field of journalism and then to proceed explicitly to refer to and criticize it as journalism throughout. Yet Coll fails to note a countervailing characteristic of the film: none of its characters are referred to by real-life names. Call me Ishmael, but my real name is Jacob. Call me anything because I do not really exist. Call me the Al-Qaeda operative Anmar because I am a composite of several people. Call me Joseph Bradley even though someone who fulfilled my role in real life is actually named Jonathan Banks because the facticity that name would call up is problematic. Are these departures from exactitude slippages of journalistic execution or are they purposeful acts aimed at a different form of truth than that sought by journalism? Coll and others who cite the film’s opening play for authenticity, by its invocation of “actual events” – the common practice – neglect to acknowledge the invariable and contrasting ending denial, the “all persons fictitious disclaimer.” No claimant to journalistic practice would make such a disclaimer. On the other hand, it is the task of any dramatic artwork in the realist tradition to play for the credence, the suspension of disbelief, of the audience, that it may tempt the audience with the body of fact so as to shadow for it the ghost of the truth.

SO MUCH OF the public discussion and criticism centers on Zero Dark Thirty’s scenes of torture, depicted, according to Morrell, as “the key to finding Bin Laden.” For Feinstein, Levin, and McCain, “the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information.” However, few critics examine – though Coll does – exactly how information associated with the torture sequences is revealed in the film. Those with political agendas have criticized the film more precisely for not providing a fuller account of the torture program. That is their agenda because of the anti-torture tendentiousness the film does not offer. Zero Dark Thirty, however, is not a film about the torture program. It is a film about the hunt for bin Laden. Neither does the film give a full account of the CIA presence in Pakistan or the extended war in Afghanistan, both of which factor in the film. It is a film about the hunt for bin Laden. The first illegitimate act of art criticism is to critique the work of art for not being something other than it is.

What the film does portray in the scenes of Anmar’s torture is that during the torture he reveals nothing. He does not blurt out the pressing truths he knows in order to halt his pain. Under the most extreme forms of duress, nearly a shell, Anmar, who is presumed to have information about an upcoming attack – which in the film we are shown is the July 2005 London bombings – actually feebly taunts his interrogator, Dan, in answer to the question “when,” by providing successively in his fading voice every day of the week. In precisely the extreme hypothetical case often posed to test the limits of opposition to torture, the “ticking bomb” scenario in which many lives may be immediately at risk, Zero Dark Thirty shows torture to fail.

It is only after Anmar’s torture has ceased, when in recovery and during the pretense of a friendly meal, that he is tricked into revealing something. He is told that while in a state of delirium he did reveal the details of the bombing. (He has no knowledge of the actual events and the bombing’s success.) Then, in responding to easy questioning about how he escaped Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, he provides the names of his traveling companions. All but one are known to his questioners. The one unknown name is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. From this name Jessica Chastain’s “Maya” takes her lead, which will produce, in fact, a dead end, to be reopened some years later by other forms of intelligence.

These scenes, then, do not show, according to the popular imagination, torture extracting good information from a victim seeking surcease from pain. Is it, in contrast, a depiction of torture “working” because the victim, grateful for a period of recovery and dreading a resumption, will now with a clear head cooperate to avoid further pain? How can we know?  When the first rumors of an American torture regime began to leak out, there were many interviews with military – not CIA –  interrogators, including veterans of the Second World War, who gave their accounts of how successful non-physically coercive interrogation can be. Might Anmar have been deceived and lulled into casually cooperative conversation without many rounds of torture, but through other methods of interrogation? Coll writes that, one way or the other, “[t]here is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning.”

People are accordingly left to form their views of torture’s effectiveness on grounds something other than scientific, and we see from the debate over Zero Dark Thirty that what often influences claims about the effectiveness of torture are people’s ideological tendencies and political views, most specifically their moral view of torture.

Jessica Chastain.A BROADER AND more profound insight into Zero Dark Thirty’s representation of torture is in the journey of the film’s protagonist, Chastain’s Maya. Through both prior knowledge and retrospection from later in the film, one can lose sight of the position she stands in at the outset. According to the film’s chronology, Maya would be in her early twenties at the film’s start, not that long after 9/11. Though Chastain is at least ten years older, her pale beauty reflects a quite youthful tenderness. Despite how tough Maya is in time revealed to be, we see her – are with her – as she witnesses her first torture. We see the shock and discomfort of what she witnesses roil across her face. She reacts for us. In that regard it is important to note, in one response to some of the more hysterical criticisms of the film’s torture scenes, that there is nothing viscerally shocking in them. Any film and television viewer who has seen some of the militaristic and intelligence action-adventures of recent decades has seen worse. The torture of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Casino Royale will elicit a more visceral response from any male. It is the idea in Zero Dark Thirty – the idea that these tortures were real, not play, and that they were done in our name – that will produce a reaction.

It is, actually, the “in our name” aspect of Maya’s journey that is so instructive about Zero Dark Thirty and torture. It helps – whatever any factual correspondence to reality there may be – that we stand from the start with Maya, and her tender-faced beginnings, and not, say, Jason Clarke’s more directly brutal Dan, who performs those early tortures. If we are not too restricted by political or moral alienation from entering into sympathy with Maya, and the overall mission to avenge 9/11 by bringing justice to Osama bin Laden, at least as the film’s characters experience it, then Maya’s journey becomes partly our own. How obsessed were any of us over those ten years, in our lingering disturbance and darker imaginings, with an ultimate vengeance against Osama bin Laden?

In her beginnings, the torture is difficult for Maya to view, but she will not be spared it or turn away from it, even when the offer is made. Neither, one might argue, did any American who, learning of the torture – reading, daily, American journalism’s acquiescence in the use of the euphemistic “enhanced interrogation” – did not protest the torture. Then, from those beginnings, Maya arrives at a pivotal scene.

By the time of the interrogation portrayed as that of Abu Faraj al-Libi, Maya has become the interrogator. She no longer looks on as Dan tortures. She is in charge. However, Maya has not the physical endowment to engage the torture herself. She interrogates, but a male counterpart sits across a table from al-Libi. The counterpart is the muscle. Whenever Maya is dissatisfied with al-Libi’s answers, she forcefully bumps the right arm of her male colleague, who then reaches across the table and bashes al-Libi in the face with his fist.

Maya at work. Image: eonlineJournalists concerned above all with exactitude in reportage of the facts, politicians favoring some versions of the facts over others in support of the policies they advocate, protect, defend, or excuse – they do not pause to consider (they have not publically) the meaning of such a scene. The protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty is not Rambo in thirsty pursuit of last blood, as some of the most rabid and reflexive critics of the film almost suggest. It is not Dan, a large and fierce, but composed and unwavering inflictor of pain. It is a young, beautiful, vulnerable looking woman, recruited into the CIA, we are later told, right out of high school (which is an alteration, an accentuation, of the character’s precocious but unformed nature from the college recruitment we are to understand about Maya’s real-life counterpart) whose facial muscles first recoil at the torture she observes. By midstream, full into the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, Maya, our stand in, cannot perform the torture herself, but willingly, intensively prods the arm that does.

CRITICS OF THE film ignore all of the elements that argue against their insistent treatment of a dramatic film, a work of art, as an historical record or film documentary. So how often must it be said? No, if you wish to learn the biography of Lou Gehrig, you do not watch Pride of the Yankees. If you care to study the details of JFK’s assassination or Richard Nixon’s life, you do not view Oliver Stone’s JFK or Nixon. Evaluate that last as you will, it does not provide a comprehensive and reliable record of Richard Nixon’s career – but it does offer a vision of the truth of who Richard Nixon was and what his career amounted to.

Because some critics of Zero Dark Thirty come to the film seeking in it the simplicity of an ideological stance rather than the human complexity of art, they seek to tally factual representations as politics on an abacus of acts. They lose interest in the behavior of humans. So even as Maya is advancing toward torture, Dan retreats from it, not as any moral judgment on himself, but from spiritual fatigue. The monkeys he has maintained as pets, in an emotional relation he has withheld from his victims, have died, and it is at that time that he tells Maya, “I’ve seen too many guys naked…I’ve got to do something normal for a while.” He warns Maya, too, in one of very few and brief references to the home-front politics of torture, that those politics are changing, and she does not want to be left holding the “dog collar.”

Later, at CIA headquarters, Dan, seeking financial support for Maya’s ongoing pursuit, tells a superior that he is prepared to defend his interrogations. He has not lost his belief in the justness of what he did, anymore than has Jose Rodriquez, Jr. – and that is a fact. The film does not traffic in such facile character development and thematic resolutions as to suggest loss of faith and conversion. But Dan is altered. How he is altered is not estimated here by the tallying of fact beads or a record of confession, but through the human calculus of art. For if all we needed to find our way through the maze of the world were the facts, we could leave our lives in the hands of the crime scene investigators and the forensic accounts – and the reporters. However, it is once we are finished arguing the facts, if we ever are, and while we are arguing over them, that we need to make meaning of them, and of their absence, and of the arguments we make with facts, and art is one of the ways we do that, whether it gets you reelected or a cheer from the platform police.

IN ITS CLOSING, regretfully, Zero Dark Thirty offers its one truly trite scene. Mission accomplished, Maya flies home at last on an empty troop transport. She is its only passenger. That much is good and as it should be. She has been alone all along. It may be that this and what follows is factual; it may not be. If so, only the real Maya would know. It does not matter.

What does follow?

Seated and buckled in for takeoff, reflective and in close up, Maya begins to cry. Tears run down her face. This is the trite part. Like a character who gives herself a long hard stare in a bathroom mirror, to suggest her self-questioning, self-doubt, self-alienation, the release of tears as the signal close at the end of a long, vital struggle, in order to reflect painful catharsis, has been dramatized too many times to deliver the emotional power the tears are meant to convey. Nonetheless, they are there for us to make meaning of. What do we make of them?

Soldiers who return traumatized from war – and Maya has been one kind, her own kind, of intelligence soldier – are scarred by experience. But experience, in war and out, is not just what a solider has witnessed or had done to her. Experience is also what she has done, to others and to herself, the acts she has committed as well as those committed against her. We do not know why Maya cries. We project. How much of the story just dramatized must we tendentiously omit from reception in order to tell ourselves that she cries only from some simple release of long contained tension and not for reasons greater and more complex?

The following passage from the December 25, 2012, New York Times obituary of actor Charles Durning is instructive in this regard. Durning was in the first wave of soldiers to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. ‘I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,’ he said. ‘A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.’

They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.

Mr. Durning said the memories never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else.

’There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,’ he told Parade. ‘There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret.’

Bigelow and Boal.WHAT IF – I am merely being hypothetical here; I make no declarations – what if torture sometimes does work? Oh, then it is ever the curse to be human and a moral agent, is it not? How much easier it is to make the ethical argument against torture if one may confidently assert that torture does not work. One may even begin to confuse the two arguments, of efficacy and ethics: since efficacy seems, at least, empirically grounded, whereas ethics reside in the geospatially unlocatable ether of the ideal, how easy to resort as a moral cheat to the adamantine assertion, as the ground for its immorality, that torture is ineffective. One may even then resort to denouncing films and people, to declaring them out of order so as to insist upon a ruling order, to preserve a geocentric universe.

Ideologues, politicians, and all the case-makers are thus to the artist like the scorpion to the frog, passengers unto death. The life of a frog is a perilous one.

Late in Zero Dark Thirty, Maya has made her claim, among all the intelligence equivocators, including Dan, that it is one hundred percent certain that Osama bin Laden is living in the complex in Abbottabad. She alone before the national security advisor and the man who would be Leon Panetta, but who is not named as the CIA director, has staked her claim with confidence. Leaving the meeting, Panetta and an assistant are about to descend in an elevator when the assistant declares to Panetta, to account for Maya, “She’s very smart.”

Panetta quickly glances at the assistant, responding to dismiss that offering as any kind of adequate account of who Maya is, or in this instance needs to be, among the perennial best and brightest at the tip of the national sword.

“We’re all smart,” he says.


A. Jay Adler is professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College and contributing poetry editor of West. His recent fiction, “La Revolución,” appears in The Ampersand Review. He is currently at work on a memoir of his father’s life, The Twentieth Century Passes. Adler blogs on politics, art, and culture at the sad red earth.

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