Bright Lights Film Journal

Unreliable Narrative: Zero Dark Thirty, Torture, and Truth

“If Bigelow is not assembling the story, who is? The darkest implication of this is that Zero Dark Thirty takes no stand on the events of the last decade because the sources on which it relies believe that there is no stand to take. Her sources believe that the existence of war is a value-free fact; so this is what Bigelow believes.”

Upon its release, political commentators had a field day with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. From Glenn Greenwald to Michael Moore, the talking heads agreed that the most important aspect of the movie was its presentation of torture, even if they couldn’t quite agree on the nature of that presentation. (Greenwald and many others wrote that it unabashedly promotes torture; Moore argued that no one can walk away from the film without the idea that torture is sickening and wrong.) In response to this, there was something of an outcry among professional film writers and cineastes. Representation does not equal endorsement! critics like Glenn Kenny and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cried. Depicting torture in a film is not the same as insisting that it was effective or necessary — nor is it the same as insisting that torture is abhorrent. What is revealed by a close reading of the grammar of the film, these critics argued, is far different than the spin that the political commentators tried to apply.

The debate grew acrimonious enough that, as Oscar night approached, Bigelow herself was drawn into the fray. She maintained that the film takes a “journalistic” approach, and that to the utmost of her abilities she tried to present the facts as they happened. She wrote that she is a “lifelong pacifist,” that she is “proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition,” and that her goal in Zero Dark Thirty was “to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history.”

What is at stake in this debate is not simply the thorny relationship between art and politics. It is also the question of the ways in which we read film. At base, what the cineastes are saying to the political commentators is that they do not know how to watch a movie. While these are common issues surrounding any piece of art that takes on a contentious subject, in this case, they are exacerbated by the film itself. Because the longer we think about Zero Dark Thirty, the more clear it becomes that the film’s central attempt is to resist offering any kind of a foothold for interpretation of its own subject matter.

We are told at the start that Zero Dark Thirty is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” This is a standard filmic approach, one that attempts to imply that there are facts here, a reality, a “true” story that is about to be revealed. We are then given another title card announcing that it is September 11, 2001. For several minutes we watch a black screen and listen to recordings of emergency calls and radio dispatcher responses from that day. These build in such a way as to create a brief narrative: we start with confusion about what’s happening, and then come reports of the explosions, and then come the voices of the people affected; one call in particular is apparently being made from within one of the towers and is terminated when the tower falls.

This is a powerful opening, and deeply effective. It works to establish a documentary quality to the film, as we assume that these are actual sound recordings. Another way of putting this is that the voice recordings reinforce the film’s initial claim to an intimate connection with reality. A second, and more subtle, effect is to force us into replaying the events of that day in our memory while we stare into the darkness. In this sense, the film maneuvers us into performing a neat substitution: we provide our own visualization of what happened, instead of watching images provided for us by the film. This works to lodge us halfway between the reality of our memories and the world that the film will present.

Next, the sounds fade, and we are given two more title cards. The first informs us that it is now two years after 9/11; the second, laid over a shot of a dusty military base, reads: “Black Site: Location Undisclosed.” Again, this is standard action movie fare, designed to build tension. By telling us that we are entering, along with the camera, an “undisclosed location,” the director is implying that she’s allowing us access to behind-the-scenes material, to the hidden spaces where dark things happen. In combination with the black-screen opening, we can already feel the basic tonal moves of the film: it will claim an authority based on insider knowledge of real events; it will attempt to tie itself, as a fictional world, to our memories and our understanding of history; and at the same time it will marshal the techniques of filmic tradecraft (to use one of the film’s favorite words) to convince us of its authority and nearness to reality. These are the moves that lie at the heart of the debate the film has engendered. After all, no one wants to debate the politics of the opening of The Naked Gun, in which Leslie Nielsen infiltrates a meeting of the world’s great villains, pops off the Ayatollah Khomeini’s turban to reveal an orange mohawk, and then rubs the birthmark from Mikhail Gorbachev’s head, looks at the camera, and declares, “I knew it!” (This is not to say, incidentally, that The Naked Gun does not make its own kind of claims about reality: if it did not present cogent, recognizable human situations, none of its humor would be legible to us.)

It is these self-generated claims, then, that prime us for Zero Dark Thirty’s much-debated torture sequences. Over the course of several scenes, a detainee is beaten, waterboarded, forced to wear a dog collar, and confined in a box small enough to make it impossible to move. In another, we see this detainee after his memory has begun to fail because he has been deprived of sleep. The interrogators feed him a good meal and, taking advantage of his cloudy mind, convince him that he is being rewarded because he has already cooperated with them. This, in turn, brings about his actual cooperation. A third sequence features another detainee saying that he will cooperate fully because he doesn’t want to be tortured again.

But how exactly are we to read these scenes? Do they set the stage for the entirety of the film, casting the specter of torture over the whole film? Does their position at the opening of the movie imply that torture was responsible for the capture of Bin Laden? Or do they actually present a more ethically complex account, one that because of its brutality is meant to condemn, or at least call into question, the actions of the Americans responsible?

The difficulty with many political readings of the film is that they have proceeded in a reductive manner. That is, they want to insist that the best way to understand the film is to try to understand its causal workings (where can we see the ways in which torture resulted in the killing of Bin Laden), or view certain scenes in isolation from the whole (we see a scene in which one of the torturers looks sad; this means that the film condemns his actions). But these seem to be inside-out ways of understanding a film, particularly one that, like Zero Dark Thirty, is obviously under the control of someone with a great deal of technical ability. Instead, the approach should be to try to grasp and articulate the impact, or tone, or feel, of the film itself, in its entirety as a work, and from there to start to tease out how one specific sequence or another contributes to that feel. As a case in point: the problem is that Zero Dark Thirty is not a film that feels as if it has anything at all to say about the effectiveness of torture, the ethics of torture, or even ethics at all. Its dominant modality is instead one of a disinterested, unemotional flatness.

Another way to put this is to say that the political questions relating to torture, at least on the surface of things, run counter to the aim (or belief) of the film. This aim, primarily, is to assert its own realism and authority, while trying to deny the ground for an interpretive stand on the rightness or wrongness of its narrative. The best reading of the torture sequences, I think, is that they represent a film that wants to take no stance on the relationship between the use of torture and the capture of Bin Laden, except to say: “We know we tortured. We know we caught Bin Laden. Both happened, so we will show both, but we will not attempt to decipher the connection between them.” This is why these sequences are so carefully and ambiguously constructed in terms of efficacy and morality. The scene in which the detainee is tricked into giving information, for example, is fitted into the narrative in such a way as to prevent us from judging whether it is the torture itself or the kindness of the offer of food that convinces him to comply. Is he making his decision because of the horror he’s been through or because of the kindness he’s now being shown? The film would like us not to be able to answer this question. Further, the information he does give his interrogators in the scene is only a tiny piece of a larger, vaguely defined, puzzle. It is soon lost in the wash of all the other data, meaning that there is no way for us to judge its importance in the larger hunt for Bin Laden.

There is a disjunction here: how can a movie present itself as an authoritative, realist enterprise and yet take no stand on the relationship of the events it portrays? Why is it so authoritative on some things (the procedures, for example, of the final raid that kills Bin Laden) and so unauthoritative on others (the effectiveness of torture)? These questions take us back to the opening minutes of the film, with its black-screen radio calls and the title card that tells us that the location of the first scene is “Undisclosed.” But undisclosed by whom? If this is an authoritative account, why doesn’t the creator of the account know where the action is taking place? It is, after all, her movie.

This, in turn, brings us back to the tricky relationship between authority, fiction, and reality and begins to make clear the double game that Zero Dark Thirty plays. At certain points, the film wants to insist that it is an authoritative account, based on a deep, inside knowledge of real events. But at other times, it wants to claim the opposite: some of the things being shown to us, it says, are beyond its knowledge, and thus its purview. In these moments, the film does not claim authority over its own material. The U.S. government has not disclosed the location of the initial black site, and so the film does not know the location of its own opening scene. The government has not said whether the torture of detainees was effective, or ethical, so the film will not take a stand.

We see this refusal to claim authority again and again. When President Obama is shown in one scene stating, “We do not torture,” the response is a faint headshake delivered by one of the CIA agents who understands the reality of the situation. But is this a shake at Obama’s naïveté or at his dissembling? What do our characters feel about their own actions? There is no indication. In another scene, the entire hunt for Bin Laden falls under debate. The film’s protagonist, a CIA agent named Maya, is obsessed with this hunt. But years have passed since 9/11, and her boss is now insisting that the hunt is becoming a distraction from the agency’s important work: the other terrorist cells out there that are planning to kill Americans. Maya responds that it’s Bin Laden who is inspiring them to kill Americans: if we kill him, we will annihilate this inspiration. Who is right in the end? The film takes no stand on the question.

A final place this comes into play is in the treatment of character. Maya is not a rounded character in the traditional sense. We see little of her life outside the realm of her consuming pursuit for Bin Laden, and indeed the film implies at several moments that she has no life outside of the manhunt. When she is asked if she is sleeping with a coworker, she says, tellingly, “I’m not the kind of girl who fucks.” (She does not say that she’s not the kind of girl who sleeps with a coworker. She says she’s the kind of girl who doesn’t sleep with people at all.) We are given no backstory for her, either; at one point, she notes to the director of the CIA that she was recruited by the agency out of high school. He asks her if she knows why they recruited her, and she replies that she’s not allowed to divulge that. Neither she, nor the other CIA operatives, show a great deal of emotion toward the torture sequences; this is presented as something that at first makes Maya squeamish, but to which she quickly becomes accustomed.

Some commentators have argued that this flatness represents the desperate costs of her ambition, or of the desperate costs of the War on Terror. But we do not see her particularly unhappy in the film. She is driven from the start. She is driven before her friend is killed in a car bombing; she is more driven afterwards. At the end of the film, after Bin Laden is dead, we see her climb onto an empty cargo plane. The pilot appears, says that she is the only person on the manifest, and then asks, “Where do you want to go?” She does not reply, we close in on her face, and a tear rolls down her cheek. Aside from the awful line of dialogue, slapping us in the face with that which the construction has already made clear, we are again given a scene that certainly feels portentous — she is crying, the first real emotion other than determination (if that counts as an emotion) she has shown — but does its best to be unreadable. Is her life as she understands it over? Is she disappointed? Free? Relieved? Perhaps all of them, but the film does not know.

There is an aspect of this flatness that is part of a long American tradition, running back through Clint Eastwood’s westerns and hard-boiled American New Wave films like Point Blank to characters like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The operative factor in the best of these films is a deep cynicism: this is what produces the flatness of the characters. What makes Bogart’s Sam Spade memorable and convincing is the fact that we read his flatness — his immorality (or amorality), his lack of emotion, the savageness with which he repudiates Mary Astor’s plea for clemency at the end of the film — as cynicism; that is, as a judgment about (or reaction to) his own moral condition and the moral condition of the world. Often, as in The Maltese Falcon, this cynicism arises from the character; in other films, particularly those of a generation later, from Point Blank to Two-Lane Blacktop or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, we read it as more centrally the director’s response: the character is less emotionally accessible or understandable to us because the act of separating character and audience is an attempt to come to grips with the alienation to which the film is responding. Here, it is the director who is reacting to the moral condition of the world, by presenting characters who are uncaringly violent, or act without readable emotional response.

Conversely, the flatness of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty is tied to a striking lack of cynicism or judgment of any sort. It is not that the characters do not have inner lives; it is simply that we cannot know them. More importantly, the film does not regard its characters as particularly moral or amoral; it instead presents them as simply operating in the world the way it is. It is not cynical about violence but instead presents it, on the part of both its protagonists and the terrorists, as a fact of the world. In the same way she does with the connection of torture to the capture of Bin Laden, what Bigelow seems to be asserting with her characters is not that they are flat out of some reaction or belief; they are flattened because the possibility of reacting to the moral conditions of the world lies outside the purview of the film. This is, ultimately, what prevents the film’s presentation of its characters, or its relationship with violence or war, from rising to the level of a thematic statement. It is not a film that wants to say something about our relationship with the War on Terror. It just wants to present that war without comment.

It is this air of non-accountability, I think, that should be at the center of the debate about the film. Kathryn Bigelow is telling a story in which a decade of history is boiled down to something over two hours of screen time. Everything that appears in the film is there because she has chosen it, and made a judgment about its importance in the story she is telling. She has omitted thousands of possible angles, and she has chosen to show the torture in a certain way, and certain aspects of it. We know, for instance, that there were often doctors present in the actual interrogation rooms — why are there none in the movie? We know that one thing done to “soften prisoners up” was to strike them in the thighs repeatedly while they stood — why do we get a dog collar but not thigh-striking? The answer, obviously, is that Bigelow chose to show us her version, in carefully constructed scenes, ordered in a precise and meditated way. And yet again and again she constructs a text that would like to decline authority over its own material — a text that would like to pretend that it can be a realist or authoritative enterprise, but not one that takes any kind of a stance on the implications of its own events.

There are several accusations that could be made here, none of which I think is quite right, but each of which I think ought to give us pause. The first is that Bigelow, by adopting both the practices and approach of what she seems to understand as “journalistic” filmmaking, has thrown out what is valuable in art, as a medium, and taken on what is useless. That is, it is certainly “journalistic” in some sense to make a film that takes as its central premise the idea that it is telling a “real” story, a story that it can neither know the entirety of nor judge precisely. But to do this truly would be to make a human, thematic statement about the world, and this is precisely what Bigelow will not do: she avoids in every possible way the attempt to offer a vision of human truth. The question then becomes this: What prevents Zero Dark Thirty from being simply the best reenactment TV show ever made, like Witness to Waco: Inside the Siege with a $75 million budget? Has Bigelow naively wandered into the territory of bad documentary, which exists only to titillate under the pretense of informing and never to offer any indication of meaning? Perhaps she has, and perhaps and there is nothing wrong with this; perhaps we ought to read the film as no more than thrill-ride-a-minute entertainment. But it feels as though it wants to offer us something more than just a taut pursuit narrative, would like to be seen as something more significant.

A second accusation might come on ethical grounds. Even if we grant the proposition that the film posits — that the relationship between torture and successful intelligence operations is an unknowable one — ought we to say that the film is negligent insofar as it avoids taking a stand on its own material? Should a film about torture and interrogation try to dodge its own central questions? These issues center on the idea of the moral responsibility of the artist, which is a far more complicated subject than can be treated in this context, but they may be worth considering in terms of the question of Zero Dark Thirty as a war film. What are the implications of a film that presents the answers that this film does to the questions that lie at the center of any serious consideration of war? How would we understand this attempt in relation to a film like Army of Shadows, which attempts to explore these same set of questions as they pertained to the French Resistance, and yet does so with a deep and unwavering focus on the humanity of its characters and the ethical impossibilities they face? Are we troubled by the fact that Zero Dark Thirty, as The Hurt Locker did before it, seems to believe that the existence of our specific wars, and by extension war in general, ought to be treated as a fact to be accepted, rather than judged in one way or another? Again, I don’t think these are easily or readily answered questions, but I do think they help frame things.

A final accusation might be that Zero Dark Thirty is almost wantonly, or willfully, naïve in its understanding of the operations of a story like the one it tells. This brings us back again to our starting point, back to the questions of authority and reality. At this point in history, it seems impossible, and impossibly callow, to believe that we will ever have access to the entirety of the “facts” in something as complicated as a clandestine, decade-long manhunt for one of the most famous fugitives in world history. And yet this is exactly the notion that Bigelow promotes: her job is not to tell us a story, it is just to lay the facts before us. But this notion is openly belied by the film itself, which is clear about its dependence on source material. These are not facts but information, much of it offered up by the government itself. So if Bigelow is not assembling the story, who is? The darkest implication of this is that Zero Dark Thirty takes no stand on the events of the last decade because the sources on which it relies believe that there is no stand to take. Her sources believe that the existence of war is a value-free fact; so this is what Bigelow believes.

This brings us to the issue that I think can be said with certainty to lie at the heart of the film, and that is the relationship between art and communication. At base, what I have been trying to articulate is that the film resists a kind of communication that is, if not essential, then at least central to narrative art. The attempt to forward human truth; the taking of an ethical stand; the admission that the artist is the author of the work — all of these are modes of communication between artist and viewer that this film works to reject. And perhaps we ought to read this as some larger statement about the world. But I cannot help but feel that, as tremendously well made as the film is, this tough flatness and lack of communication may be little more than cheap effects and run the risk of being found ultimately hollow. I am reminded of Ralph Ellison, who wrote that technical ability in art is “not a mere set of objective tools, but something much more intimate: a way of feeling, of seeing and of expressing one’s sense of life.” This, finally, is what Zero Dark Thirty resists. The film is not cynical or distressed or even particularly glorifying; its deepest belief is in the idea of a judgment-free accounting that avoids any ethical or human engagement.

If this is what we are now to take as a “modern, rigorous film,” then we may be in for a distressing moment. As William James once argued, the meaning of an idea lies in its practical consequences, in the way it affects our subsequent judgments about the world. Zero Dark Thirty seems to attempt to offer no perspective on the meaning behind a tumultuous moment in our history. It does nothing to change our subsequent judgment of that moment, and so runs the risk of having no meaning at all.