Delusions of torture
This post has plot details and spoilers.
It’s an ironic world that views movies as release and engorges its senses with reality television. Yet, when a movie like Zero Dark Thirty holds up a mirror, we’re so appalled we turn away and throw stones at it. It sounds silly to defend a movie but I’m fascinated by allegations that ZDT endorses torture. The controversy surrounding the movie has only gained momentum as awards season dawns on hollywood and some of the opinions about it grow more ridiculous. It’s also ironic that the people who cheered Bin Laden’s death are suddenly repulsed by a chronicle of events that got them there in the first place. The rush to pass judgment on the moral character of what is basically a faithful re-telling that takes no sides, escapes my understanding. I watched the movie yesterday and I must confess I did so as a complete fan. I view Bin Laden’s killing as my generation’s superhuman fable. A gutsy mission that exemplified a nation’s resolve and years of struggle. Not only does the movie do justice to that heroism, it also poses many uncomfortable questions about the process that got us there.
The movie opens with a water-boarding scene taking place at a purported CIA black site. Maya, the dogged protagonist chasing OBL, asks to be present during the interrogation. As the ghastly act unfolds, she cringes, but forces herself to watch. Later she justifies it as a sin permissible in the quest of greater good – that of protecting her country from terrorist threats. In another scene the suspect being tortured has spent many hours in darkness, with heavy metal blaring it him. He is dazed, has soiled himself and the indignities continue. He’s paraded with a dog collar and has to endure the humiliation of being stripped naked in front of Maya. I squirmed uncomfortably, wishing for that scene to pass quickly. It didn’t. The suspect is questioned about the date of a terror attack and blurts “Sunday”. He refuses to say more and is then shoved into a small box. As the door comes down and the interrogator yells at him to tell him the exact day of the attack, he replies “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday…” before passing into incomprehensible and pained noises. The attack happens anyway and innocents are gunned down by AK-toting terrorists. There is defeat and frustration among the torturers. Then, Maya suggests they lie to the suspect about the attack and trick him into thinking his information helped prevent the attack. The subterfuge works and the suspect is more cooperative once he realizes his obstinacy has been meaningless.
Much of the leads in the movie are obtained through such subterfuge which involved treating the suspects as humans, not animals. Was there no information obtained through torture? Of course not. In the years of travesties like Gitmo it’s hard to believe such methods didn’t yield a legitimate clue or two. Despite these “leads”, it still took ten painstaking years to find OBL. The movie charts this path of frustration not just through the emotions of Maya but also by meticulously describing the bureaucratic setup facilitating the detention and torture of detainees – vast installations of black sites with prisoners holed up like animals. Dan, the chief interrogator is asked by Maya to assist him in another suspect’s torture. He refuses, saying that he’s heading back to Washington to wear a suit and tie and be normal. “I’ve seen too many naked men” he remarks satirically. There are cues throughout this movie that make it amply clear the perpetrators of torture were themselves conflicted by its effects, not just on suspects but also on themselves. In another scene, the CIA chief played by Mark Strong complains to a member of the President’s staff that the restrictions on detainee interrogation put in place by Obama are hampering efforts to locate OBL. This New Yorker article uses that scene to prove the movie endorses torture but cleverly leaves out the next sentence in the dialogue. The advisor replies “You’ll find a way”. And they do. With scenes reminiscent of sleuth movies and clue-collecting and by not waterboarding prisoners or perpetrating indignities on them. A clandestine group locates Bin Laden’s courier through months of tracking his cellphone, not by kidnapping and torturing random suspects in Peshawar or Karachi. It’s real detective work and none of the moral ambiguity.
As the thrilling thirty-odd minute assault scene concludes, Maya identifies her nemesis lying dead on a stretcher at Jalalabad air force base. There’s an indescribable emptiness in that scene. Later, as she’s boarding a plane to go back home, the pilot asks her where she wants to go. Maya cries. It’s probably at that moment she realizes there’s ambiguity even in her goal. Did she destroy so many lives through torture so she may protect Americans or because she wanted revenge? Was it all worth it? There’s a price to be paid for every success but at some point we need to ask ourselves if it’s too high. It’s the same theme Kathryn Bigelow explored in The Hurt Locker.
You cannot defend an ideal of justice and liberty by denying it to people who threaten it. Zero Dark Thirty is a movie with the courage to celebrate the fall of a country’s enemy and question the validity of the process that got them there. For this reason it’s a movie worth watching.