22/01/2013 03:47 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Zero Dark Thirty: A Film Review in Two Halves

What's the message (presuming films have 'messages')? Is it that torture works? Seemingly, yes. That allowing detainees lawyers only gets in the way? Seemingly, yes. That you need to be able to round-up and question detainees in secret to get results? Again, seemingly yes.

The Intro

First, cards on the table. I don't usually like Hollywood films, especially of the modern, hard-boiled 'action' variety. So, OK, Kathryn Bigelow's much-talked-about Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty was never going to be my cup of tea. But, that's aesthetics (or something). You're probably not reading this post to find out whether I prefer Bergman and Cassavetes to Spielberg and Ridley Scott (take a guess). Instead, what about Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture?

The First Half

Right, here goes. I reckon the film's portrayal of torture is ... questionable. But first let's take a brief tour through the film as a story and piece of cinematography (warning: plenty of plot spoilers here). In ZD30 we're shown or told about some of the well-known mechanics of torture - beatings (briefly), waterboarding, suspension in painful positions, sleep deprivation, withholding of food and liquids, threats, assaults with deafening music, denial of medical care, humiliation (putting a victim in a dog-collar) and forced nakedness.

Some of the torture scenes are distressing to watch and, in one sense, the film could be said to show something of the 'reality' of torture (though not that much when you think what it's actually like, a beyond-dark reality a UN report on Afghanistan was reminding us about only yesterday: electric shocks, twisted genitals and all the rest of it). So, onto Maya, the film's heroine. Initially she's shown looking appalled by the torture of detainees, but doesn't do anything to stop it and later oversees her own interrogations where torture is being used to 'break' people. (A sign of her supposed 'humanity', incidentally, is that we get to see her looking worn-out and distressed after an interrogation session). Later, though, she's seen diligently looking through countless video recordings of interrogations/torture, scouring them for clues in the search for Osama bin Laden. (These, one presumes, would be some of the real-life 'torture tapes', later illegally destroyed by the CIA).

As the film progresses, the key story is Maya's relentless pursuit of evidence to back up her theory that a messenger called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti is the key to Bin Laden's detection. Against a backdrop of global atrocities (shootings in Saudi Arabia, the 2005 London bombings, the attempted 2010 Times Square car bombing), the search is increasingly desperate. The drama is personal and international. But, of course, our film's heroine is right! She never lost faith in the value of 'detainee reporting' (the euphemism for torture evidence) and, seemingly against the odds, she becomes the "motherfucker" (self-described) who locates the compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan where Bin Laden is hiding.


So that was great. Two hours of cranked-up drama (plenty of mood music, noirish wise-cracking, big-ego showdowns, tough marines in body armour with lots of weaponry), but what's the 'message? OK, onto part two...

The Second Part

So now it's time for a quick think-through of the issues. What's the message (presuming films have 'messages')? Is it that torture works? Seemingly, yes. That allowing detainees lawyers only gets in the way? Seemingly, yes. That you need to be able to round-up and question detainees in secret to get results? Again, seemingly yes.

Then again, the film shows us torture. At some length. So maybe it's actually anti-torture or at least, as critics like Tom Shine argue, a darkly ambiguous film. One that "does indeed make a case for torture" but also one that "looks surprising similar to a movie making the case against it", what with its "sickening and prolonged" torture scenes. Bigelow herself, caught up in the 'the does it?/doesn't it' furore, has said that "depiction is not endorsement."

OK, fair point, but watching the film left me with a different feeling. What's happening, it seems to me, is that the film's showing us some of the 'regrettable' aspects to the CIA's work (torture, killings are also referred to), but puts a lot of effort into showing you how important it all is. After the early torture scenes the film presents us with the supposed dilemma that information 'based on detainee reporting' (ie torture) is now in danger of being disregarded by politicians and CIA top brass increasingly worried about a lack of tangible results (and maybe even its illegality). Two-thirds of the way through, the film's key conflict has become the one between the CIA people lamenting the 'loss' of the 'detainee programme' (ie secret 'black site' detention centres) and Washington politicians who doubt Bin Laden will ever be caught. "Who are they supposed to question now?", asks a frustrated CIA man. "Some guy at Guantánamo who is all lawyered up?"

Character development seems to support this interpretation. The film's main torturer, Dan, Maya's fellow CIA interrogator, is an ambiguously malevolent figure when we first meet him. He seems to revel in taunting his victims ("In the end everybody breaks, bro'", "When you lie to me, I hurt you"), yet he's also a tough-but-caring role-model for the newly-arrived Maya. As the film progresses it's clear that Dan, the hardman with a PhD, is actually a top interrogator who has questioned (ie probably tortured) 100 detainees. He's one of the organisation's most skilled operators and it seems only right that he resurfaces in Washington later in the film as the net closes in the hunt for Bin Laden. In other words, in character and plot terms, Dan seems to be a 'good guy' - signalled by his tough-but-respectful behaviour around Maya and his attachment to some caged monkeys (really!).

(Incidentally, another way of thinking about character development in the film would be to consider how it portrays the torture victims themselves. Are they shown as rounded-out people, someone, for example, like the real-life Shaker Aamer, the UK resident currently detained at Guantánamo? I don't think so. Their lives aren't fleshed out. They're shown as either defiant or 'compliant' suspects, with information to either withhold or reveal).

Meanwhile, there's also the small matter of the fact that the film's depiction of torture producing breakthrough evidence over Bin Laden appears to be flatly at odds with what actually happened in real-life. Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the time of the Bin Laden operation, has strongly downplayed suggestions that torture led to Bin Laden's detection, a point reiterated by well-informed US politicians like John McCain and Dianne Feinstein. Indeed, Amnesty in the US has even been giving out factsheets about this outside cinemas screening the film.

Anyway, when Dan in the film gives up the bloody business of interrogations, he offers a warning to Maya, saying "you don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." Dodging responsibility from pesky politicians seems to be in the DNA of these CIA operatives. Maybe my take on the film is naïve and fails to give due credit to its ambiguity as a work of art, but to me it doesn't seem to portray anything but the necessity of committing multiple human rights abuses in the fight against al-Qa'ida. Or, finally, is this wrong? Is Bigelow's film having it both ways, giving you the CIA side of things but deliberately showing them as law-breaking mavericks? Am I copping out in my review now? Maybe. (I'd love to see Bigelow putting her cards on the table though, maybe by supporting something like Amnesty's campaign for justice for Shaker Aamer).

The End

Hmm, after that roller coaster I guess I'll stick to my arthouse films in future. Don't take my (equivocating) word for it. If you like this kind of thing, go to see the film yourself. At least there's plenty of ... action.

Roll credits ....