Why Zero Dark Thirty?

I went into Zero Dark Thirty with several preconceptions. I followed the debate between film critics and political journalists very closely. I was aware of the movie’s major plot points and already had a list of key moments, and other people’s interpretations of them, floating around in my head by the time the hunt for Osama bin Laden opened in a theater near me.

And yet none of these preconceptions about Zero Dark Thirty prepared me to confront what would be my ultimate reaction to it: casual indifference. (Note: Spoilers)

As a member of the millennial generation, perhaps no single individual has shaped my America more than Osama bin Laden. I was in middle school when the the World Trade Center towers collapsed and I am several years out of college today. Countries have been invaded, wars continue to be fought, and a national security apparatus conceived of in the after math of that terrorist attack continues to expand its scope and authority in ways both unprecedented and unchallenged.

Yet as engrossing as its cinematography and scoring, its precisely executed suspense and consummate acting, Zero Dark Thirty left me emotionally and conceptually starved.

Why Zero Dark Thirty?In the movie’s final scene, CIA protagonist Maya finally breaks down emotionally after her near android like stoicism the previous two and a half hours. The movie goes out of its way to keep her, and the rest of its characters, at arms length emotionally and psychologically. So while I was always invested in Maya’s quest, one which she devotes herself to uncompromisingly and at great peril, I couldn’t identify with her personally. Which makes this final scene all the more enigmatically unsatisfying. It’s clear that Maya is crying because, having committed the last decade of her life to the capture of bin Laden, his death has deprived her of the only thing she had left. But by this point the movie has reduced everything and everyone into sterile moving parts in Bigelow’s ruthlessly plotted procedural, leaving no larger narrative arcs into which Maya’s intimate revelation can be incorporated.

At no other point does the movie stop to consider Maya outside the context of the hunt for bin Laden. As a result, there’s no way to make heads or tails of this concluding moment. Maya might be the workaholic who ultimately sacrifices too much of herself for her job. Or she might be the resolute and focused operative that we need to be protecting us on that wall. Or she might be any number of other things. In the end, having encountered no context clues throughout Zero Dark Thirty‘s thematically barren sprawl there was nothing for me to do but scratch my head and wonder what the point of the movie is beyond providing an entertaining romp through contemporary psuedo-history.

Why offer no other moments of character development only to have Maya cry at what we might otherwise assume is a joyous, and perhaps the most rewarding occasion of her CIA career?

Why make a procedural thriller, of which there can be no debate that Zero Dark Thirty is, about one of the most political set of events of the last decade? Why decontextualize the quest to find bin Laden until it had been distilled into nothing more than an incredibly well financed and artful episode of Law and Order, special terrorists unit?

Why take events that spanned a decade and compress them into less than three hours, when a quarter of the entire project alone depicts events in something approximating real time? A lavishly allotted HBO mini series might have been able to devote at most an hour to each year of the hunt for bin Laden, but Zero Dark Thirty seeks to address the issues of torture, international diplomacy, CIA “Tradecraft,” and Washington politics, to varying degrees, in only 157 minutes.

I ask these questions not out of my own volition but because the movie Bigelow and writer Mark Boal created makes them impossible to ignore. After all, the two wanted to take a “journalistic” approach to dramatizing events, giving the audience a final product that would be agenda-less, not judging what it depicted, but merely rendering for movie-goers a “boots on the ground” feel for what actually transpired. In her own hunt for objectivity, Bigelow delivers beautifully directed scene after beautifully directed scene which nevertheless come together to form an overall directionless movie.

Perhaps most of you are aware by now of the part of the movie which has inspired the most controversy: the degree to which it shows torture yielding information crucial to the eventual killing of bin Laden. More telling than anything that happens on screen though has been Bigelow’s response to this criticism off it. As a recent profile in the New York Times noted,

“But Ms. Bigelow…was not particularly keen to discuss torture over lunch, she said, partly because she wants her work to speak for itself and partly because she is aware that any public comments could just add fuel to the fire (and partly because she was eating lunch). No, on this chilly Los Angeles day, over her bowl of mushroom soup at a secluded restaurant near Mulholland Drive, Ms. Bigelow wanted to discuss her “Zero Dark Thirty” crew, people like the production designer Jeremy Hindle.”

Bigelow’s explanation for the movie’s approach to torture has relentlessly been something along the lines of “let each viewer decide for themselves.” This generally sophomoric defense of the movie is especially disheartening here because the subject is one which deserves attention. Having gone to such lengths to not only include torture in the movie, which Bigelow claims was necessary because it really was a part of the nation’s history, but to have it result in the single most important piece of information upon which the main characters base most of their future actions, is to take unequivocal responsibility for its protrayel and significance.

As Noah Millman argued, it isn’t enough to simply depict torture in the context of Zero Dark Thirty, because its form as a procedural thriller necessarily locates the events which take place within it as either helpful or harmful to the end goal,

“if it’s not in the story for a reason, then why is it in the story you are telling? There has to be an answer for that question – the audience will look for one if you don’t provide one. And if your point is to say “this has nothing to do with the story” then I’m afraid that point is going to become your story, and will eclipse the story of the quest. So long as you are telling a story fundamentally about the quest, everything else is going to be understood in relation to that story.”

There are many different ways the hunt for bin Laden could have been cinematically dramatized. One could, for example, make a film like Syriana, which despite a generally positive reception was criticized for the confusion resulting from its subtle layering of loosely interwoven narratives. Syriana was in fact so good at just letting the images on screen be taken as is, something Bigelow claims to have been striving for, that many viewers ultimately couldn’t piece them together into a coherent vision. Thematically knotted and narratively disorienting though it was, Syriana was however able to convey a sense of the dizzying inadequacy of real world espionage and “Tradecraft” precisely by denying the audience a linear story with easily comprehended chains of cause and effect.

Reviewing the movie at the time, Richard Corliss noted that, “Successful movies are, it’s said, the ones whose story and appeal can be  expressed in a single sentence. To summarize Syriana, writer-director Stephen  Gaghan’s drama about petro-politics, you would need a book the size of The 9/11  Commission Report.” Corliss referred to how the movie achieved this as a kind of “illustrated journalism.”

Bigelow has decided on the phrase “imagistic  version of living history” instead, something the Washington Times called “a new kind of timely fusing of filmmaking and journalism.” But the result is entirely different. Whereas Syriana is diffuse and indeterminate, Zero Dark Thirty is direct and infinitely digestible. And even more importantly, whereas the former is fictional realism based on made up events to capture a larger truth, the latter is a realistic dramatization made up of “first hand accounts and actual events” with the effect, if not intent, of obscuring more than it reveals.

Why Zero Dark Thirty?

Several times Bigelow and Boal have defended any liberties they took in the making of the movie by reminding of us of how much “compression” was necessitated in making the biggest manhunt of all time short enough to be viewed in one sitting. But this was a necessity born of a more basic choice, one Bigelow and Boal made when they decided to construct Zero Dark Thirty as a strictly linear plot progression, split into three acts, separated by two important discoveries.

The first occurs when Maya learns from a broken and tortured “detainee” the name of Osama’s courier. The second occurs when this courier is finally discovered, and seen driving into an ominous residential compound. Everything that happens is the painstaking result of everything that already happened. Clues build upon one another, leads are explored and exhausted, until an overall case for where bin Laden might be located, and the probability he is actually there, can be presented to the White House in a request for an assault.

The “police work” that is carried out by a handful of fixated CIA operatives is methodical and unflinching, utilizing everything from “enhanced interrogation techniques” to conventional surveillance anyone who’s watched the Wire will be familiar with. The investigation has hiccups, and sometimes stalls, but is never deeply mistaken or required to backtrack. The march to bin Laden’s “fortress” in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as depicted by Bigelow, is unidirectional.

Every scene moves the team that much closer to apprehending the number one target. It has to–that’s how a fiction of the form Bigelow has chosen functions. And our knowledge as omniscient viewers only applies more forward momentum because we know how the movie will end. In retrospect then, and due to what Bigelow decides to include in her retelling, as well as exclude, things cannot end any other way than with the eventual discovery and execution of bin Laden.

This formal necessity, maintained at every turn by the movie’s heroine and its director, is in part why a surface level reading of the movie is incontrovertibly “pro torture.” And by pro torture I mean that the movie contends, beyond any reasonable doubt, that without the torture you don’t find bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty would certainly not be the first to suggest this. Bush Administration officials have been claiming this for years.

Why Zero Dark Thirty?But this is no surprise. For a movie steeped in CIA ideology, only ever allowing its audience to inhabit the points of view of its CIA operatives, ones all-consumed by the mission to find bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty‘s pro torture agenda isn’t an agenda at all. It’s simply another fact on the ground necessitated by the subjects Bigelow has chosen to focus her lens on.

I call the pro torture reading a surface level one because it could easily be argued, and has been, that Bigelow isn’t really trying to tell the story of bin Laden’s capture, but just a story. And in so far as Zero Dark Thirty is one of the possible stories about how bin Laden was found and killed, Bigelow does indeed remain the neutral observer.

And that again is the reason I’m left asking: why Zero Dark Thirty? Why take a journalistic approach to a movie with such a narrow subject matter (how one kind of CIA operative hunted bin Laden)? Why make a movie about such politically important events in which the characters and the conceptual landscape they inhabit cannot even imagine another way of doing things; in which the very facts and arguments necessary to reflect upon and critique the subject cannot even be admitted as an ontological possibility into the universe of its fiction?

Only those people who have actively resisted being pulled into the world of the movie’s characters will walk out at the end feeling legitimately appalled by its protagonists. Nearly every character we are invested in is to some degree a war criminal. Maya should be in jail. As should her mentor, and many of her closest colleagues. But you will not leave the theater thinking that. It will not even be a question that gets raised (except again by those who fail to let Zero Dark Thirty envelop them). The movie never raises the issue, and never gives a reason for you as a viewer to do so either.

For Bigelow, the hunt for bin Laden is settled history. I assume this because if she thinks the history of what happened is actually unresolved, then she has actively misled and deceived in the vile kind of ways that only bad art can. Of course, the matter is far from settled. Whether you agree with former Bush officials of the world, or the Sullivans and Greenwalds, its indisputable that this subject is still hotly contested. So why then does Bigelow stoop to offering us a revenge flick served at an artificially cold temperature? Why no internal dissent about the best means for locating bin Laden, or even a better realized discussion of the merits of continuing to search for him so doggedly in the first place?

Bigelow’s movie is based on “actual events” but not the “actual discussions” which took place. And having locked itself into an epistemically closed loop of procedural drama driven by one-dimensional characters, it has yielded nothing new that might contribute to the cultural discourse surrounding its historical subject matter. We will all be having a conversation about torture, the CIA, and international terrorism thanks to Zero Dark Thirty, but it will not be a better conversation than the one we’ve already had so many times before.

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36 thoughts on “Why Zero Dark Thirty?

  1. So are you saying you’d like there to have been a movie on this broad subject matter but you’d like its whole approach to have been different? Or are you saying that you’re indifferent about whether there should have been (or even think there shouldn’t), but that if there was to be, it ought to have been made in this other way, so as to raise what you believe are the correct questions to raise about the subject matter?

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    • Something like the latter.

      In defending the movie’s amorality, Bigelow has said she didn’t want to judge one way or the other…just present things as they are–i.e. imagistically report on them.

      But, she hasn’t even successfully done that, because the kind of straightforward procedural thriller she’s presented us with isn’t even just “there.” It’s fundamentally locked into a very specific and narrow ideological and historical view.

      So I think the movie’s a wasted opportunity because its entertaining by nothing more, and in fact, potentially much less, in so far as less critical audience members will take away the wrong things from it’s indisputably distorted version of history.

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      • Any movie that tries to show real events, or events like ones that were real, is going to have an approach that is from one place or another. It’ll have one view or another. It can’t have them all, and as you say, it has to have one. But it can really, I think, only have one (even those that try to get around that problem by splintering perspective and narrative a la Syriana still I think come from just one ideological place). So I don’t think that’s a well-formed critique. And there’s no “universal perspective.” You can’t show everything, and you can’t show it all from God’s perspective.

        So I think to show this is a problem (which I’m sure you;re right that it is), you have to show not that the film has an ideological perspective (and it really doesn’t matter if Bigelow claimed it didn’t have one or not, that’s just marketing blather) – of course it does, and it should, even if it only claims to be a neutral procedural; rather, you have to show that this is in fact the wrong ideological perspecive/view/set of assumptions. If the film had a set of assumptions that better agreed with your politics, I doubt you’d be positing simply the fact that it has any ideological perspective at all as a major, debilitating problem for itself as an artwork.

        And that raises an interesting problem once you set out to do this, because any work of art, however much it related to events with profound moral valence in the real world, finally does not aspire to be taken only for whatever value it has as an essay on political morality – otherwise the filmmakers would have written an essay. Or in any case, not very many artworks aspire only to that, and fewer good ones do. So you have to decide how much whatever degree of failure as political morality essay you find in the work causes failure in the artwork to achieve its artisitic aims. And yes, to stake out this subject matter territory and then fail as political morality essay I would think will tend to be a greater part of artistic failure than a lot of other subject matter areas. But you can’t ignore the question altogether. Well, I mean, you can. You can say that art that fails your political test fails your artistic test. That’s been called Artistic Stalinism by some.

        And I’m not saying you do that, because you do create a category for this film that would have allowed it to avoid that: neutral procedural. The problem is that the criteria you give for entry there makes it a null-set category: the film would have had to eliminate its own perspective. As I say, I think that’s where your review (which I agree with Prof. Hanley is excellent)L stops short. It’s not enough to say that the film has an ideological viewpoint: for that to be a problem, you have to show why it’s defective. In other words, if you want to say that the problem with the film is that it has a defective ideological viewpoint, you gotta get in there and do it, and prove it (and, as I say, you gotta do that on artistic terms if you’re not to be accused of Artistic Stalinism). You can’t just nod to it. And the alternative you offer is also illusory: No film about all this could ever just not have politics, whether its makers claim it doesn’t is completely irrelevant. The only alternatives are to correct the artistic problems the politics present if you think the project is worth (critically) salvaging, or condemning it to the ash heap of morally doomed ideas that seemed good at the time.

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        • …It may also be that you kind of bury the thesis statement. I can’t tell if you’re saying that the approach to torture is the whole of the ideological viewpoint defect, or if it’s a instantiation of a higher-concept problem with the film’s politics.

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        • Mike, thank you for the thoughtful and critical comment. I think there might be something in what you say, but to better see it I’ll see if I can work out a defense:

          “Any movie that tries to show real events, or events like ones that were real, is going to have an approach that is from one place or another. It’ll have one view or another. It can’t have them all, and as you say, it has to have one.”

          Whil I think a movie by default can only take *one* approach, I’m not sure that it can’t have multiple views. That is, it can be *more* or *less* open in how it deals with its own approach and the views it provides, more or less critical of them. Even if one is granted more time and more skew, there can still be elements of the work that appear to work against itself in certain ways.

          While, for instance, the Syriana’s overall ideological perspective might come from the same place (or places, since there are so many people involved from source material to final production), I think the form the movie takes, while obviously giving more weight to one set(s) of politics, certainly tries to actively subvert its own preferred ideology in different places, and/or make it so diffuse as to provoke more criticism than it eschews. ZDT is a movie that not only eschews certain criticism–it is so narrow that it rejects them from the start, keeping closed the possibility that such opposition could reasonably be raised.

          Bigelow might say that she wants people to “talk about the movie,” but that’s very different from the movie “adding” to the conversation. Anyone wanting to have an intelligent conversation about the movie will have to bring that intelligence, and a lot of outside information, themselves. Nothing in the movie encourages a critical stance, if that makes sense.

          This is why I don’t think it’s a matter of the movie having the “wrong ideological perspective,” because it’s not the movie’s surface pro torture reading that bothers me. I can imagine a movie like Zero Dark Thrity that has one character we like argue against another charater that we like, and the latter makes a great pro torture argument while the former, due to what the writer has writen for them, makes a horrible anti-torture argument. This movie, in so far as it address the issue of torture, and makes a much more convincing case for pro torture, would have an ideological view in favor of torture.

          But, it would still not be Zero Dark Thrity, because the possibility of disagreement would have been raised by a part of the movie we as an audience can identify and, to a point, empathize with. In Zero Dark Thirty, the possibility is never raised. And, per Bigelow, that is not because she intentionally wanted to make a pro torture argument, but rather because it was true to the subject matter she wanted to depict. In which case she could be argued to be ideologically neutral (in so far as we bracket her meta-views on what count as good artistic and epistemological practices, e.g. how a movie ought to be made and how a movie trying to reveal something about a real subject ought to, or at least can be made).

          The issue then isn’t that she is so ideologically one-sided, and I disagree with that ideology, but that she chose to neutrally cover specific subjects (one type of CIA op who was hunting Osama), to the point of undermining her broader “journalistic” ambitions. I would not seek to reveal something about a beach by limiting a movie I made about it to one grain of sand. What Bigelow decided to do was tell a story about a another subject by doing just that: looking at one grain (or a couple of grains) of sand.

          Now we might say that this is her artistic perogative; she can make can make a movie about whatever she wants. And that is true. But the movie is billed as being a journalistic approach to “the hunt of UBL.” She chose a the broader subject, but did not likewise choose to widen her lens enough to do in any kind of interesting or helpful way. Not interesting because a predictable thriller, no matter how well directed, is nothing new at this point. Not helpful because it contributes nothing to the subjects it covers other than to provoke those who already know about the subject to remind us of what they know.

          I think it is telling that the most interesting conversation about ZDT happened before most people had seen the movie. And that’s because the most interesting thing to talk about with regard to the movie did not require seeing it at all. And when the most interesting or important part of your film can be discussed without seeing it (which it very well can be–not least of all because it’s a psuedo-dramatic documentary) then you have a problem on your hands.

          Which is why my biggest problem with the film isn’t something in the film (like Greenwald), but the fact that so many resources were wasted on making something that is so boilerplate and devoid of seriouis artistic or cultural merit (which is different from saying that the movie is not 1. artfully constructed and 2. culturally important, in so far as it happened and people will see it and it is therefore important now–which is why I decided to see it in the first place).

          Perhaps I did not communicated it well in the post, but for being beautifully shot and thrilling to watch, the movie fails for me artistically because lots of other movies which no one need regard as serious artistic pursuits (Taken, Battleship, Bourne Identity, etc.) have done the same.

          If a chef is only, to some degree, as good as her ingrediants, than Bigelow is, to some degree, only as good as her subject matter. If she were dramatizing a Brad Thor book, I wouldn’t have a problem…but she chose to take on one of the biggest political events of my lifetime and not only completely decontexualize it, but actively resist giving mine or anyone else’s politics any *possibility* (rather than actual facetime) of existing in the universe of her film.

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          • Jane Mayer makes the same point – that the arguments were excised. I’m not sure I agree that presenting a story and saying it can be argued over is not valid, though. It’s something of a quirk if history that there was a loud argument over torture where and when it first happened. There just as easily could have been strained acquiescence. So as a matter of history, Mayer and you are quite right that the film ends up being pro-torture (perhaps even more simply, pro-CIA proaganda). But as a matter of storytelling, I’m not so sure you’re right that a work excludes or silences arguments about its content just by not putting explicit arguments about its contents in the mouths of its characters. If it happened in history that these arguments didn’t happen on the very sites depicted, I’m not sure the movie would be improved even morally, much less artistically, by writing them out and having the characters say them with actorly passion. Actually, we can be the ones to supply that part of the viewing experience.

            Now, the fact that in this case they literally occurred and were excluded changes the whole moral, and therefore artistic, calculus around that choice. it becomes basically propaganda. But I don’t think that’s a general rule, and I think that’s it something of an idiosyncratic fact about this particular history that the argument apparently happened right there, right then. It’s even possible that excluding those arguments improves the viewing experience in a way – properly reenacted, they may come across as rather trite or some such. But the fact would remain that in this instance excluding them makes the film propaganda.

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            • Yes, and I think Jane Mayer addresses the historical and political dimensions rather well.

              “But as a matter of storytelling, I’m not so sure you’re right that a work excludes or silences arguments about its content just by not putting explicit arguments about its contents in the mouths of its characters.”

              I agree with you here. I’m trying to say something much more subtle, and which is definitely above my pay grade as someone who doesn’t have a Phd in art criticism or narrative structures. I agree that just because a certain character doesn’t get up at some point and make a speech, a certain view point is being needlessly maligned and ignored. Indeed, I think one of Syriana’s major strenghts (sorry to keep going back to it) is that its able to allow the space *between* dialogue, and *between* action, to give rise to reflection and alternate interpretations.

              As a diffuse movie with no strong narrative thrust or cohesive plot, a lot of how we as an audience consume what happens on camera is less controlled. In ZDT, because it’s a fast-paced and methodical procedural, the outlines of the puzzle are always rather clear and obvioius, so as we are presented with new scenes, new information, we already know where all of it is suppose to be. These puzzle pieces we are handed already come with a shape, and their place in the larger scheme is already decided for us, both due to Bigelow’s choice of narrative form, and because as people with some knowledge of history, we also know what’s *suppose* to happen.

              With a movie like Syriana, we’re handed blurry objects and a poorly defined structure into which to place them. The result is that the multiplicity of voices and interpreations in Syriana are much greater than a movie like ZDT. And for a simple action thriller, that’s fine, but as a movie about the hunt for UBL, ZDT is, we’ve agreed, no simple action thriller.

              It’s the spaces in-between, which Syriana is committed to creating, but which ZDT is not, that I think allow for other viewpoints to be explored, and the possibility for divergent criticism to develop, even without a character explicitly making a speach about something.

              Put it another way, Syriana is much richer when it comes to developing contrary interpretations. In so far as this is a continuum, I think that ZDT is on the shallow end of the “multiplicity of interpretations” pool, while movies like Syrina (and movies like The Insider/Letters from Iwo Jima) are at the deeper end.

              In so far as ZDT is based on real events, I think it only makes it’s position more precariouis, but doesn’t fundamentally change its responsibility as a movie. It’s a controversial claim to put forth, but I would argue that when it comes to the merits of art works which are generally regarded as “serious,” multiplicity is not a perogative, but a duty.

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              • I reread after I wrote that and saw you weren’t talking about having it spelled out. As I say below, surely what you’re describing has to be seen to be understood. I’m a little skeptical, though, that there isn’t room for individual judgement of the film’s message and that it is so morally closed. Even if it in a sense rehabilitates the use of torture to make it look effective in the pursuit of bin Laden than it was in order to point up ethical questions about it (if it were rightly portrayed as ineffective, it would be easier for the audience to embrace torture’s immorality – and this blurring is the propagandistic step), I wonder what it would have to do narratively beyond that to convey that it is completely at ease with those moral premises – to make it impossible to see the work as leaving open the question of whether what was done was worth what it was done for. That’s still a slanted question, because it assumes that torture should be judged on a means-ends test, but I don’t see how it amounts to an eliminative moral monism – a zero-dimensional moral universe. But I’ll have to see it to know.

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          • …It’s still not January 11th s and I don’t live in NY or LA, so I haven’t seen the movies. Hence I probably can’t really understand what it is the movie does to make you feel that, beyond from not hearing them articulated, it completely eliminates even the possibility that other moral possibilities other than the ones presented could even exist in its universe – i.e. that somehow the knowledge and views on its subject matter that you bring to the theater can have no bearing or impact on what the film means (to you?).

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            • I’m interested to hear what you think once you’ve seen it. I was lucky in that we have a big United Artists theater near us that just happened to be showing it outside of New York and L.A before its wide release nationally.

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  2. Sorry this is going to be tough to read. I am using google translate as much as possible.

    As a US veteran, I am not comfortable with this film. It is too easy for the film to enter the social mind of people. Our collective memory of the past is too soon. (sorry for this part. I think it makes no sense).

    We have not had enough time to collect ourselves and reflect on what has occurred. While many movies about WWII came out during and after the war, none of them implied that it was the factual truth. This film implies that the US government committed this action, in this way.

    Even if the torture was used, without thousand and thousand of man-hours to check and check again, none of the intelligence is actionable. I think of Oliver Stone’s “JFK” which is a very cool film. I am a conspiracy fan. What is interesting is that Mr. Stone made new theories to fit in the film. What I like about the film is that so many conspiracies are thrown in it. He combined many for the first time in one big theory. Now, the small theories he made to make script work are now held by many nuts on the internet. We know this movie made people think it is truth.

    Crap. All over the place. Too soon to the event. Not enough independent news people have reported on it in books and stuff. Many people will take this as truth when truth is much cloudy than this. Good fun film though.

    Side note, how bad ass to be the dude that double tapped Geronimo? No US military member got Hitler or Stalin or Castro. Some dude got to see the terror in his face before he died.

    I want to buy him a beer. And the rest of the team.

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  3. One of the points of Bigelow’s films is that the universe is ontologically empty and “meaning”(including morality) is purely subjective, a story we make up and tell ourselves. There’s no objective way to judge between one opinion, one made-up story and another. Opinions are like the posterior orifice; we all have one, and few bear close examination.

    So dude, your politics (and anyone else’s) can’t exist in the film, because they don’t exist in the -world-. Except in your head.

    And in your head, they’re alive and well.

    You’re complaining because the film doesn’t impose the meaning you’re invested in on the film, doesn’t suggest that it’s somehow “true”. But Bigelow doesn’t do that: she just lets the world be the way it is. Empty, meaningless, and non-human.

    It’s no wonder that people react with rage and hostility… 8-).

    “Zero Dark Thirty” is all told from the viewpoint of US soldiers and spooks. It has -their- meaning in that sense.

    Torture: it’s amazing how people who usually wouldn’t believe CIA spooks, bureaucrats and politicians if they said the sun was going to rise in the East fall all over themselves accepting their word as “authoritative and final” if they say something that’s politically useful. That lawyered-up exercise in butt-covering from Feinstein et. al., for example, or the even more weasel-worded non-disclaimer (read it carefully and you’ll see what I mean) from the assistant CIA chief.

    Eg., the “torture is always ineffective” meme.

    In point of fact, as we all know (even if we refuse to say it) torture is like any other technique: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, all depending on the circumstances. It’s been used all throughout human history because skillfully employed and combined with other techniques it does work fairly often. Sometimes it fails… just like any other method.

    I could respect someone who admitted this and then said that we shouldn’t do it because it’s wrong, consequences be damned.

    But the attempted imposition of the “ineffective” meme is rather transparently based on a fear that the morally inferior sweaty bigoted masses will rush out of the film and start tearing out the toenails of some random passing Arab if they’re allowed to doubt the Sacred Meme. It’s a semi-self-confessed exercise in rhetorical dishonesty, in other words.

    Diablo: concerning conspiracies: dude, the reason people believe in conspiracies is that it’s comforting. It means someone is in charge, making things happen in a comprehensible fashion, even if it’s the bad guys. Alas, that is not so.

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    • I’m trying really hard to figure out what “ontologically empty” might mean, outside of some strict logical formalism or shit like this. Though I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty, I can’t think of anything in any of Bigelow’s past movies that would warrant describing them in either way.

      Also, I’m not sure I can think of any reasonable theory of rhetoric or aesthetics that treats the content of a work of art or a rhetorical device (we can probably think of film as either or both at the same time) that treats the content of the work, including what it denotes, or what it refers to, or the message it is trying to convey (or convince us to believe), is all in the viewers head. If we start down that path, we reach the edge of the known world and the map only says, “There be solipsism.”

      Bigelow is neither ignorant of the context in which she is making, and her audience will be viewing, her films, nor is she ignorant of or trying to avoid the ways in which the content of her films will be interpreted within that context. If she were trying to avoid it, she’d probably make films about unicorns that sing songs about strawberries, and not films about the war in Iraq or the hunt for Bin Laden, or other such inherently political subjects. That is unless she’s a complete idiot, which I highly doubt she is.

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    • S.M. Stirling, I’ll address your comment at length because I think you misread me (I’ll also refer you to Mike Drew and I’s useful exchange above).

      “One of the points of Bigelow’s films is that the universe is ontologically empty and “meaning”(including morality) is purely subjective, a story we make up and tell ourselves.”

      In so far as you think that this is the point of her film(s), and in so far as you think she achieved this: what would be the point of that point? Is it just an experiment in cinema? If so why repeat it in each film she does? I think your suggestion here begs the question…what is the larger point behind making a film ontologically bereft of meaning?

      “So dude, your politics (and anyone else’s) can’t exist in the film, because they don’t exist in the -world-. Except in your head.”

      One of the things I’m agruing against is the de-politicization of a political event for no apparent reason. Extracting politics from the film’s subject is an artistic choice. As such, it’s one that needs to be justified. So I ask again what is the interesting result of such a choice?

      “You’re complaining because the film doesn’t impose the meaning you’re invested in on the film, doesn’t suggest that it’s somehow “true”. But Bigelow doesn’t do that: she just lets the world be the way it is. Empty, meaningless, and non-human.”

      Refer to my discussion above and in the comments about Syriana. I’m not attacking the film for not “imposing meaning.” I’m attacking the film because it does not cultivate *any* meaning (or to put it less dramatically: nearly enough). It is not that I think ZDT has the *wrong* politcs, but that it has none, yet has little to show for this sacrifice.

      ““Zero Dark Thirty” is all told from the viewpoint of US soldiers and spooks. It has -their- meaning in that sense.”

      Wait, so now the movie has meaning and sense? This is closer to what I said above, so maybe we actually agree on this. One of my points above is that she unjustifiably limits her scope to not even just US soldiers and spooks…but particular kinds of US soliders and spooks; a limited point of view within a limited point of view. This is an artistic choice not made in the service of interesting character exploration, or the sociological reportage of a documentarian, leaving me to ask again: what justifies limiting her lens to subjects which represent such a narrow band of the ideological spectrum of those involved in the larger subject?

      “Torture: it’s amazing how people who usually wouldn’t believe CIA spooks, bureaucrats and politicians if they said the sun was going to rise in the East fall all over themselves accepting their word as “authoritative and final” if they say something that’s politically useful. That lawyered-up exercise in butt-covering from Feinstein et. al., for example, or the even more weasel-worded non-disclaimer (read it carefully and you’ll see what I mean) from the assistant CIA chief.”

      You’ll notice I do not cite the sources, nor do I make the unsubstantiated claim that these people aren’t lying in this case. Rather, I make the obvious point that there was vigorous debate and disagreement at the time these events occurred, and still now, given the historical record is still so fresh and inconclusive.

      “Eg., the “torture is always ineffective” meme.”

      Not something anyone on this post has thus far claimed. Perhaps you meant for someone else to read this?

      “But the attempted imposition of the “ineffective” meme is rather transparently based on a fear that the morally inferior sweaty bigoted masses will rush out of the film and start tearing out the toenails of some random passing Arab if they’re allowed to doubt the Sacred Meme. It’s a semi-self-confessed exercise in rhetorical dishonesty, in other words.”

      Making the claim that torture is never effective is not the same as making the claim that people will leave the film more inclined to believe it is necessary in a range of circumstances, which, since the targets of torture currently are overwhelmingly Arab, would indeed mean that some people are worried that the film will create greater public silence, if not support, for the torture of dark skined peoples in lands far away.

      That is what I would point out, at least, if anyone here were making the strawmen claims your seem intent on tilting your keyboard at.

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  4. Incidentally, the other reason conspiracies aren’t credible is that they’re based on the supposition that it’s possible to keep secrets. Specifically, in many cases, that the US government can keep secrets.

    The US government can do many amazing things; nearly anything, if it’s really determined.

    But one thing it demonstrably -can’t- do for long no matter how hard it tries is keep anything important from leaking.

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    • “But one thing it demonstrably -can’t- do for long no matter how hard it tries is keep anything important from leaking.”

      Yes, but from all of the conspiracy theory related stuff I’ve seen about lately, in the age of the internet it appears that it’s pretty easy to talk yourself into believing just about anything one comes across is “leaked.” The two Obama/UN conspiracies we wrote about recently (coming to get your guns/coming to get your children) seem to be based on what people believe to be actual documents.

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  5. I’ve seen the movie and I found it to be powerful. Yes, this is a movie in which people’s lives are defined by the task at hand, but so what? I would also suggest that Maya’s character may have been one single mindedly obsessed with her “mission” but she did in fact seemed real, and she did have emotional depths.
    I don’t accept the notion that movies can only speak to forgotten history, not present events. At any rate, what may seem ancient history to one person may seem very emotional and current to another. (The first few minutes of Argo felt very real and present to me, but were a history lesson to Ben Afflack who was a few years too young to watch the news during the Carter administration. Hyde Park reminded friends of mine about how worried they were about how America would or would not participate in World War II, etc.).
    As for the controversial torture scenes, a number of public officials and reports (mostly Democrats or those attached to the current administration) have said that no information obtained through torture assisted in locating Ben Laden. Others (most Republicans attached to the Bush Administration) have said that information obtained through torture did provide clues.
    If you watch the movie carefully, you will note that the torture provided virtually no information. Maya and Dan are never able to obtain the emails of suspects/dates of intended operations or “real” names of identities while torturing the suspect. They obtain a description of how the communications work, once they try a more “friendly” approach with the detainees and learn the courier’s identity from a colleague who has undertaken the very traditional task of carefully analyzing data in written reports received. They then use electronic, ground surveillance and satellite data to follow up the lead. In fact, in several scenes Maya argues to her superiors that the detainees failure to identify the courier even under pressure demonstrated how important the courier was. That comment is an admission that the “enhanced” interrogation was not effective in securing the information sought

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