Friday, January 25, 2013

The Politics Of: Zero Dark Thirty

What If These Actors Fought the Actors From Act of Valor?
This article discusses the politics of Kathrine Bigelow's hunt-for-Bin-Laden Zero Dark Thirty. There will be spoilers.

The Movie
Zero Dark Thirty is military speak for "that unholy hour of the morning when you are woken up to go and kick someone's ass." Or, maybe, guard an empty motor-pool with your freedom at stake should you fall asleep. Something like that. The movie tells the story of the hunt for Bin Laden ending with the night-time raid we've all read about where, finally, the special operators got their man.

The story is told through the eyes of CIA analyst "Maya" played with a cold-fire intensity by Jessica Castain (the real person was, apparently, called "Jen" in the Navy SEAL written book No Easy Day--so who knows what the actual human who did this stuff was like) whose dedication to the hunt breaks it open. The film bills itself as a fictional account of real events--but it's shot almost documentary style in some ways and it wants us to believe that it gets everything right it can (the nighttime raid, if timed, comes within minutes of the real raid).

The actors are pretty crisp and hit their mark as inhabiting people who (a) we believe are real people and (b) are usually not all that likable. We see the bosses at the CIA playing politics. We see interrogators torturing people. The enemy, for the most part, is never seen (save for the beginning with a lengthy interrogation / torture scene where Reda Kateb plays "Ammar," the detanee who gives up a key lead that begins the road to Abottabad and Bin Laden.

The direction is nearly flawless. From the near-dark raid which contrasts with the super-well lit bottom of the mountain caverns in The Hobbit to the use of close-ups on hands or necks to create tension we get a sense of a world where trade craft is what keeps you alive and you have to be on constant alert for deadly threat whether you are eating dinner with a friend, going to work in the morning, or debriefing an agent. Bigelow knows her stuff and she pulls us through almost three hours of film effortlessly. She makes it look easy.

ZD30 is not a fun movie. It opens with a black screen and 911 tapes of people calling from the upper levels of the World Trade Centers on the morning September 11th 2001. We hear the operator telling a panicked woman that she'll be okay--that people are coming for her--not to panic. That's until the line goes dead and you hear the shaking voice of the operator asking if anyone is still listening. Then starts the torture scenes.

Three hours later we see terrified crying children corralled by the inhuman-looking special operators who have assaulted their home and killed many of the grown-ups. Bin Laden barely appears: his killing is a perfunctory thing--a mechanical thing--the SEALs, once they have gunned him down, immediately set about the work of confirming it's him and then grabbing all the electronics for analysis. They are not machines--but they are consummate professionals and their job is to end the life of their target. If there is such a thing as gripping anti-climax which may leave you ambivalent about what was accomplished this is it.

ZD30 has won near universal acclaim and most of its detractors have problems with its content (torture) which we will talk about next. You should watch it as an example of the art of film-making and a look--a hard look--at our nation, our values, and our actions. It may not be for the faint hearted but it is a story that has, in one way or another, touched almost all of us.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of Zero Dark Thirty
There are three major political questions that ZD30 raises and one which I brought to the table. These are:

  1. Does the movie glorify torture?
  2. Does the movie have a pro-Obama partisan bias?
  3. Did the movie access restricted information?
  4. Is it right-wing or left wing (mine)?
We'll take them in order.

Zero Dark Torture

The first question--one which has haunted the film since before it came out is this: does it glorify torture? The depiction of torture is reasonably unflinching: we see a man who has personally committed no atrocity (he is involved in money movement) being subjected to water-boarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and so on. This segment brings us to a point where he is tricked into revealing a key element of the organizational structure of Al Queada: the name of a courier for Bin Laden.

This starts Maya on her 10 year quest despite others believing the clue is more or less a dead end. The film's detractors say: "If the film says torture gave us the clue to killing Bin Laden then the film says torture was worth it." It's notable that intelligence sources differ on whether or not this reflects reality.

Despite some voices from the left going ballistic on the film, a nuanced look at it suggests an ambivalence on this count. The facts are:

  • It is, in the end, trickery (and the fact that the subject has been sleep-deprived) that breaks the case open--not water-boarding per-se. While sleep-dep is definitely torture when done for 96 hours (subjects in soviet gulags subjected to lengthy sleep deprivation have said it was worse than physical beating) it is not what everyone was up in arms about. That was water-boarding--and while we do see it done* it isn't where the clue comes from.
  • The torture scenes are flat from the point of view of the camera: they camera doesn't hate the subject. It doesn't love the Americans. It shows a messy, unpleasant business that to a degree degrades everyone. It doesn't give us a sneering villain who has killed children. Torture isn't some form of college hazing either. The movie's a wash on that count.
  • As I heard noted in the Slate political pod-cast, the movie's plot may need torture because it establishes the character of Maya: she is given the chance to sit things out--wait outside--and she doesn't. She's willing to play with the big-boys and so the drama of her witnessing and even helping with (she fetches water for water-boarding) torture is possibly more central to why we see that than anything else.
So from the above, one might say that despite the yowls from Glenn Greenwald, the movie is reasonably even-handed.

Not so fast. While I don't think the movie 'glorifies torture' I do think it 'glorifies torturers.' That is to say: the character Dan (Jason Clarke)--the main interrogator--is one of the "good guys." He's humanized (he has some pet monkeys and is sad when they get killed). He mentors Maya (she uses his words when she gets to interrogate her own subjects). He is pro-Maya back at the CIA when she is being cross-examined. He gets burnt out on torture (he says he's seen too many naked men) and goes back to America ... and nothing ever happens to him.

That's the first thing. The second thing is this: he's shown as reasonable and reluctant to inflict pain. He tells the guy "When you lie, I hurt you." The message is supposed to be: "When you tell the truth, you'll be okay." This is the lie that all torturers tell their victims: You Are Making Me Do This. It's a lie when Udday Hussein terrorized and brutalized Iraqi soccer team for failure to win. It's a lie when a rapist or rape apologist says "She was asking for it--look how she was dressed." It's a lie here.

We know that there are techniques besides dog collars and water-boarding that get results. The FBI interrogators use them all the time on hardened subjects. We have pictorial reason (Abu Ghraib) and psychological studies to suggest that torturers get off on abusing their victims--that they are intoxicated by the power--that they may even become literally sadistic. 

The movie gives us none of that. Dan is a reasonable guy. He doesn't like doing a dirty job--but hey, someone has to protect us. Someone has to make the hard calls. This is where the movie fails us. Bigelow has said publicly that depiction is NOT the same as endorsement. That's her defense--and it's true--but it's not the whole story. She has chosen what to depict and chosen what to show as the after-effects. In The Hurt Locker her camera showed us those bomb-squad guys coming home shattered from Iraq. In this case the guy gets a soft landing at CIA headquarters. 

In the Bigelow-verse I know which job I'd rather have.

Zero Dark Obama
The second question (now, pretty much settled, I think) was this: was the movie going to be a campaign-ad for Obama. The release date (in limited release) was right-before-the-election and conservatives were freaked out. Hollywood was going to stick it to them again! Hollywood always does, doesn't it?

Now the answer is clearly "No." This is no Obama-booster. Obama virtually never appears save to be seen on TV talking (in halting cadence) to some interviewer about how we don't torture anymore to regain our status in the world (global-test?). This later comes back a few times in the movie (Dan warns Maya that the administration is cracking down and she needs to be careful. She doesn't want to be the one "holding the leash" when the investigation starts. Another time a senior guy says that without enhanced interrogation  how are they gonna prove Bin Laden is in the compound ... exactly who were they going to torture anyway--only one person who ever left the walls knew who was in there).

I'm going to go a little further: I think the notable absence of Obama is interesting. Something else is missing too: Bush. Most of the time-table of the movie (and the torture) takes place under the Bush administration. We never see any reference to either that administration or the election itself. As far as the movie is concerned the beginning might've been under Obama too. The movie does make it clear that going in was a risk (almost everyone but Maya puts Osama at 60% chance of being in there--if that's what they really thought, for Obama, it was really a gutsy call and a nail-biter of a decision)--but it doesn't show Obama making the call. 

Bush described himself as "the decider." That's true--that's the executive role. For the movie to leave out the executive decision-making is key. Bigelow might tell us (truthfully) that her camera doesn't go that high up (and, really, do we want to see actors trying to play Hillary and Obama in the command center during the raid? No--we do not). However there is never even any mention that Obama has made the decision. It's notably absent. From what we can tell (if we didn't know) the CIA director made the decision and the president rubber-stamped it.

My conclusion: while Bigelow was probably never going to make a solid piece of political boosterism for Obama, her decisions here lead me to believe that she doesn't really want to credit him for being at the top of the decision-making food chain--and the bearer of the real political risk should it have gone wrong. In her world it's Maya's reputation that's on the line--not the president's.

Zero Dark Leak
Much was made about whether or not the administration gave away classified data.There have been accusations and  counter-claims and the final analysis seems to be (more or less) no. Notably there were some leaks prior to the movie: the Pakistani doctor who ran a data-gathering operation gets only a few minutes in the film and it never says what happened to him (he was arrested for collaborating with the Americans). There have been all kinds of claims that the administration was leaking intel (around the Iranian nuclear plant virus, for example) to make them look good.

While I wouldn't say this couldn't be true it smacks to me of conspiracy theory. Considering that the Republicans have basically repudiated anything that makes Obama look good (and only grudgingly give that he seems a devoted family man) I don't see much to go on there.

If the Obama administration did leak data to make themselves look good they certainly didn't get their money's worth.

Zero Dark Right / Left Wing
As it's my call to make, I will say that I think Hollywood (in the form of Bigelow) has made a right-wing movie about Obama's signature foreign-policy achievement. To be sure, she is skillful and nuanced. There is no massive smoking-gun to prove this--but I believe that her movie tells this story:
  1. Under Bush a plucky, driven CIA Analyst with the help of her friends (one of whom was a torturer) got a lead.
  2. Despite being hindered by Washington she developed it into a case for action against Bin Laden.
  3. When she finally presented her case to the CIA director, her strength of conviction led him to authorize the raid--and she took a huge gamble that paid off for her ... and America.
This is a personal story, yes--but despite no dearth of facts, it is also a very narrow one on a canvas that is otherwise huge. Bigelow is certainly no proponent of war and violence. I would guess she eschews brutality (the interrogation scenes are nasty--but not brutal--the victim is not, for example, beaten to a pulp where we can see it). But she also clearly does not find the administration's rhetoric on torture positive either. Perhaps she feels Obama did not do enough and therefore denies him credit for doing anything? I don't know.

But my conclusion is that this is a film that gives us a lens with a right-wing tint.

* I want to note that the water-boarding left me slightly baffled. While I am no expert my understanding is that a key element of water-boarding is done with the subject slanted so their head is below their chest. This is not the case in the movie. Notably: while some depictions show a subject simply on their back, actual reading about the technique suggests (almost universally) that it is properly done at an incline. This is not how the movie did it.

Is the depiction in the movie more like reality? Or the write-up? If there's a difference? Why?

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