I have a fascination with procedurals about terrorism. I have watched The Baader Meinhof Complex and the miniseries Carlos three times each and have now gone to see Zero Dark Thirty in the theater twice. These movies have much of the appeal of standard crime procedurals: they’re action-filled and twisty and give the audience the vicarious experience of living outside the law. For me, though, terrorism movies inspire an extra level of personal interest. I am not the sort of person who will ever knock over a liquor store or pull off a daring jewel heist, but could imagine engaging in asymmetric political violence given some sufficiently horrible Nazis-conquer-America scenario. I’d like to think that my terrorism would be limited to attacks on government and military targets, perhaps with a callous disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders, as opposed to a 9/11-style attempt to kill as many civilians as possible, but who knows? It was good guys like me who firebombed Dresden.
I saw Zero Dark Thirty for the first time in early January, soon after its wide release but a few weeks after the controversy over whether the movie is either CIA propaganda and/or condones torture. I’m not going to be able to say anything new about those specific issues. If you care, go watch Glenn Greenwald, Emily Bazelon, Glenn Kenny, and Jane Mayer slug it out. But there are a couple of tangents on which I may have something novel to add concerning the nature of propaganda and the depiction of professionalism.
Do you have a hankering to see a contemporary action movie about the War on Terror that features a heroic female CIA agent, grueling torture scenes, and a thrilling Navy SEAL assault on a terrorist compound–a film that was created with the assistance of the Department of Defense, which gives the events on screen an extra kick of verisimilitude while at the same time opening it up to the charge of being propaganda? Well then, check out Act of Valor, a film about the exploits of a team of Navy SEALs that stole in and out of theaters in early 2012 with all the stealth of a highly-trained commando. Act of Valor’s gimmick is that the lead characters are played by real-life SEALs. This stunt casting gives Act of Valor a certain authenticity, but doesn’t save it from being a mediocre movie. Though the action scenes are well executed, it has clunky dialog, indistinguishable protagonists, laughable made-for-cable villains, and a level of corniness that matches anything produced by Hollywood during World War Two. If you’ve never heard of it you’ve got plenty of company.
The U.S. government assisted in the creation of Act of Valor (which started out as a recruiting film and grew into a full-length feature), and the filmmakers pay them back by staying firmly on message. The Americans are all square-jawed heroes. The villains are either disposable extras or sub-James Bond baddies. U.S. military force is lethally effective, but never disproportionate. Mustache-twirling bad guys torture a female CIA agent with sadistic relish, brave SEALs rescue her, and everyone they kill along the way clearly had it coming. Act of Valor is definitely propaganda, but is it effective propaganda? The customer reviews on its Amazon page are uniformly positive, but they come from people who either approach it as a quasi-documentary about small arms tactics or a ritual gesture of respect for the armed forces. No one’s mind is being changed. Act of Valor is patriotic and safe.
The makers of Zero Dark Thirty were likewise granted access to many of the players they depict, and screenwriter Mark Bolan was previously an embedded journalist in Iraq. The film has been accused of being CIA hagiography and an endorsement of torture, in short of being a particularly unsavory bit of American propaganda. But it’s an odd kind of government propaganda that gets publicly condemned by high level members of the government, including both Dianne Feinstein and John McCain and the acting director of the CIA, an organization whose agents it depicts as heroes. I guess we can’t fully rule out the possibility that Langley is only pretending to dislike Zero Dark Thirty (and to be fair, members of the Bush and Obama administrations have all kept mum), but it certainly appears that plenty of powerful U.S officials wished Bigelow and Bolan’s movie–and specifically its depiction of the enhanced interrogation of detainees–either never existed or would just go away.
In comparison to Act of Valor, which has all the ambiguity of a Bruce Lee movie, Zero Dark Thirty takes place in a world of moral murk. The only torturing is done by the protagonists, and is an ugly business that evokes sympathy for the tortured even though we understand them to be 9/11 plotters. American soldiers and intelligence agents are heroes, but are also prone to dithering, stupid mistakes, and bureaucratic infighting. The final segment of the film is a near real-time depiction of the SEAL Team Six raid on the Abbottabad compound that is about as good as action filmmaking gets and plenty cathartic (they kill bin Laden, after all), but still worlds away from James Bond dispatching a cartoonish villain with a quip, or Bruce Willis tossing Alan Rickman off the side of a skyscraper in the first Die Hard movie. The Americans move through the house nearly unopposed, methodically killing all the men and any women who get in the way. Bigelow emphasizes their unhurried ruthlessness, the way they calmly pump rounds into the bodies of a husband and wife while their weeping children cower in the next room. In another movie, this would be visual shorthand for Bad Guys, but Bigelow depicts it dispassionately, as just the way things are done. (And in fact this sequence is a faithful dramatization of the first-hand account of the raid given by SEAL Matt Bissonnette in his book No Easy Day.) Bigelow invests these scenes with enough emotion to make them work as conventional drama, but leaves an unsettling quiet around the edges.
In short Zero Dark Thirty is a good movie. It has a distinctive style, interestingly flawed protagonists, and a viewpoint that doesn’t reduce to any set of ideological clichés. So again does that mean it’s not propaganda, or that it’s particularly effective propaganda? Ignoring the when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife form of that question, I guess I’d say the latter. Act of Valor is just choir-preaching, but Zero Dark Thirty might end up winning some recruits.
Zero Dark Thirty is controversial because it depicts CIA agents torturing captured al-Qaeda agents in order to gain information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. The scenes are brutal, but they also put the audience firmly in the shoes of the torturers, who are sympathetic, well-rounded, major characters. Another movie would have either made them cold-blooded sadists or given them a third act revelation that torture is wrong. In Zero Dark Thirty the heroes torture, are sickened by whole business, but then steel themselves and go back to torture some more. It’s a smart middle road guaranteed to make everyone uncomfortable, in no small part because it feels true. There is a heated debate about whether the movie depicts torture as an effective intelligence technique. I think it is artfully ambiguous on the subject (one broken detainee is shown babbling useless information out of fear, and a key clue comes not from an interrogation but a misplaced file) but in the end comes down on the side of “yes”. Stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and beatings are shown to be possibly effective, but since every technique in an intelligence agent’s arsenal is at best possibly effective this comes off as an endorsement. The controversy has ignored the fact that you could grant that torture is effective but still believe we shouldn’t do it in the same way we believe search warrants are a good idea even though they make it harder to catch crooks. The only way in which Zero Dark Thirty stacks the deck is by making it clear that all the men we see interrogated are in fact al-Qaeda agents. We never witness rough treatment of innocent people or low-level footsoldiers. For the record, I am in favor of torturing high-level terrorists who are actively plotting to kill civilians provided you can give me 100% assurance that you’ve got the right guys. But at the point you have 100% assurance of anything, the time for torture has probably passed.
Even with its stacked deck, though, Zero Dark Thirty does something novel in its depiction of terrorist villains. Because you only ever see them helpless you empathize with them, and not just on the most basic flinch level like you do with the early disposable victims in a slasher movie. Even though with one exception the interrogated are shown only briefly, each resisters as an individual. We see an array of men, different looking, of various ages, speaking a variety of languages. Some are broken, some are compliant, some are terrified, and some are holding it together, but in watching this range of responses you naturally wonder, how would I hold up in the same circumstances? Could I remain calm, or defiant, or dissemble, at least for a little while? One of the themes of Zero Dark Thirty is the way people rely on professionalism in order to face violence, and that goes for the al-Qaeda prisoners too. The movie tells us that these men are terrorists, but they come off as just other soldiers.