Zero Dark Thirty or the Day Nothing Changed

ZeroDarkThirty2012PosterFor the first time in a least a decade, I actually got around to seeing most of this year’s Oscar nominated movies: Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty. Most of them (with the exception of Life of Pie which was not American and Silver Linings which was not per se about being American) were all formulaic, almost delusional homages to American Exceptionalism. Lincoln was probably the most boring of the lot, with all of Spielberg’s trademark dramatic finishing touches (roll call included), saved only by Daniel Day Lewis’ remarkable acting. Django had moments of brilliance from Christoph Waltz and the beautiful Kerry Washington to look forward to, but as a friend told me, it wasn’t like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which you could watch the next night all over again. Once Waltz was off the screen, it was just a lot of blood. Tarantino is fun, but surely no Sergio Leone.  Meanwhile, Silver Linings doesn’t even merit special mention. Two nice people with mental illnesses solve their mental illnesses by finding each other? Are we supposed to believe crazy times two doesn’t beget even more craziness? What, was mental illness the only prop missing from the RomCom wardrobe?

Now the two most entertaining films were actually the two most unabashedly Red White and Blue pro-CIA propaganda pieces, both with dubious (and arguably dangerous historical re-scripting): Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo despite its unashamedly fictionalized account of almost all of the historical events depicted in the film, was fun, suspenseful and kept me interested up until the end. But at no point in watching the movie did it ever cross my mind that Argo was going to or even should win the Oscar. It just didn’t feel like that good of a flick. It was, like Ben Affleck himself, completely mediocre and completely acceptable. Then again, mediocrity and acceptability are what it takes to make it in Hollywood.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, had more elements that were closer to the real historical events and was an all around much better film. And if taken as pure fiction, at least from my own humble perspective, was the most entertaining and engaging of the movies nominated for Best Picture. Having said that, Zero Dark Thirty was also plagued with a series of gross flaws which are the crutch of what I want to be writing about here.

There are many excellent pieces already written on this subject by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Samuel Freedman, and others (including a post here about John McCain’s letter to the film’s producer). But after watching the movie for myself, I can say that there is nothing in the film that does not lead you to believe that torture was in fact effective in tracking Usama Bin Laden. Nowhere in the film do you see

  • the hundreds of Guantanamo detainees and potentially hundreds of other detainees elsewhere at blacksites who were tortured,yet never produced any valuable information; or
  • the hundreds of Guantanamo detainees and potentially hundreds of other detainees elsewhere at blacksites who were tortured, yet only produced fabricated, misleading, or useless information (because that is what torture makes you do: say anything to make the torture stop), thus hindering the search for Bin Laden and War on Terror, or
  • the hundreds of Guantanamo detainees and potentially hundreds of other detainees elsewhere at blacksites who were tortured, yet were never involved with Al Qaeda, never convicted of a crime, and were otherwise wrongly and severely abused with no recourse or redress whatsoever and who were completely denied access to the U.S. courts to have their cases even heard, or
  • the hundred or so detainees who died in custody as a result of their torture without any serious investigation or judicial review of their unlawful deaths.

And as Timonty Egan points out,

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing. This is a crucial point, because the film is likely to end up as the most popular version of the singular trauma in the first decade of the 21st century.

. . . In Bigelow’s defense, she says the film is neutral, and that detractors are “confusing depiction with endorsement.” No doubt, some of the critical piling-on is hysterical and misinformed. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, are right in asserting that they could not have presented the manhunt without showing torture, one-sided though it is. But shouldn’t the same logic apply to the huge missing elements of the story?

Any definitive account of the 10-year trail from 9/11’s grief to bin Laden’s end has to include some central events, from letting Al Qaeda’s leader slip away in Tora Bora to the invasion of Iraq over a made-up terror link. A quick reminder that President Bush all but gave up on bin Laden — “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said less than a year after the murder of 3,000 of our citizens — would have plugged a vital hole in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Then there were the other points that I found bothersome:

  • Anti-Muslim Propaganda: in almost every street scene anywhere the Muslim World was being depicted, there was the ominous, omnipresent and terrifying Muslim call-to-prayer looming over the good guys as they risk their lives managing their way through a dark, clandestine world.
  • There is a reference somewhere towards the end of the movie that if Guantanamo detainees were asked further questions about the CIA’s lead, their American attorney’s would find out and tip off Al Qaeda back in their home countries. In other words, we are lead to believe that both pro-bono civilian American attorneys as well as the uniformed military defense lawyers assigned to represent the detainees were covertly Al Qaeda sympathizers and thus traitors. I cannot think of anything more degrading to the spirit of the American judicial system (other than, of course, Guantanamo) and the legal practice.
  • There is also a reference at the end of the film that implies that since Obama has prohibited “enhanced interrogation”, the CIA’s hands are tied and can no longer access the type of intelligence it needs. This, of course, only serves to perpetuate the inherent falsehood that (i) torture procures useful information and (ii) any useful information that was attained could have only been attainable through torture (and not via other means).
  • You betcha: the highly-trained, skilled and prepared God and Country SEALs are a bunch of down home country boys who spend their waiting time tossing around a football and carving wood. Funny how in real life they have all become disgruntled, fame-seekers looking to sell their stories for a buck. Too late, though, the CIA already sold-out to the film’s producers. It’s important to get a heads start on history, lest history beat you to the bunch.

Nevertheless, the film does one good thing: it puts on record in the popular American imagination that we did in fact use torture and use it at blacksites around the world, off the radar with the specific intent of evading the law and our moral obligations.

But take the controversy surrounding torture off the table for a moment, and I still think that this film – as entertaining as it may have been – ultimately fails. And here is where it fails, and here is where the American War on Terror fails.

During the course of the film, each time there is an act of terrorism – bombings in London, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the suicide bomb that kills the CIA operatives at the U.S. military base, etc – we are supposed to have a sense that the search for Bin Laden is imperative to stopping this carnage. The problem here is that that case is never convincingly made. First, it is very hard to actually ague, especially as time goes by, that Al Qaeda is directly or even indirectly linked to say the bus and tube bombings in London. Then when you think of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, well, come on, we are at war in those countries, so we can only expect that people fight back. And those bombings have more to do with the local infighting, perpetuated of course by our military presence, than with an Usama Bin Laden led Al Qaeda plotting attacks in Europe or America.

Then towards the end of the film when Maya is trying to convince the U.S. ambassador to pursue the lead she is convinced will take them to Bin Laden, he tells her point blank that the real threat of terrorism is no longer in Afghanistan or Pakistan but from domestic terrorism. In other words, this whole hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is no longer relevant. What he doesn’t mention, of course, is that the threat of domestic terrorism is completely fabricated by the FBI. We groom young, impressionable Muslim men at home, give them some phony plot and explosives, and then entrap them and declare that we have bravely foiled a dangerous plot.

So the way I read the plot unfolding was that the longer Maya was on the hunt for Bin Laden, the less important it actually became to find him. Al Qaeda was no longer a relevant player in terrorist attacks in the U.S. or Europe and had little to no impact in the Middle East either. All of the suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan could and should be directly linked to our presence those countries and not with the more global threat of terrorism or any real risk to the U.S. domestically.

The fact of the matter is that when Bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda had already essentially been dismantled, and his death had absolutely no affect or repercussions whatsoever on the Muslim World. To be frank, no one cared. Muslims all over the world were simply not interested in Bin Laden or his message. And ironically, the American government couldn’t have cared less either; we have not decreased our defense spending as a result.

To me it became the story of a woman who couldn’t let go — though you never really learn her motive — even when there is no longer national security reason to keep up the fight. The sole reason to make the final decision to go in for the kill was ultimately a purely political calculation.

So as the movie unfolded and as I watched this lone woman, Maya (apparently a composite of a team of women hunting for Bin Laden), spend her life away (since graduating high school) on the singular minded pursuit of a villain who with each passing day became less and less important, I wondered what was it all for.

What was the purpose of it all? At one point in the movie, there is a clip of Mayor Bloomberg giving the American Exceptionalist mantra: “they hate us for our freedoms”. So after all of the torture, after all of the dungeons, due process-free detentions, the wire-tapping, the state secrecy, and the final, triumphant execution of Bin Laden in the dead of night (as opposed to a trial a la Nuremberg), Zero Dark Thirty simply fails to make the case that the Bin Laden execution gave the American people justice, reinforced our values (and “freedoms”) or improved our security. Did Americans get their day in court with Bin Laden on the stand? Did 911 victims and their family members  attain closure? Did the Arab Spring start, end, or relate in any way to the death of Bin Laden? Would America have really elected the overly stiff and overpaid Mitt Romney had Bin Laden not been killed on Obama’s watch? Highly doubtful. I mean come on, Messrs. Zero Dark Thirty, did the world change for for the better because Maya persisted and fulfilled her mission? Did the end justify the means? A bad guy was killed. Nothing else.

At least that was my ultimate impression in watching the film, and ironically, if the viewer comes away with that feeling – that Maya’s obsession with finding and successfully killing Usama Bin Laden was justified but historically of little consequence – then maybe the movie was a success after all.

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