Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Zero Dark Thirty


Here we have a movie that went from favorite to also-ran at the Oscars in the space of about a month. Which is sad, because I regard the winner, Argo, as nothing more than a pretty good movie, while this is a masterpiece. And it was all over politics. Specifically, over two questions. The questions are, did this movie glorify torture and/or assert that it’s a good way to get information from a prisoner? And two, did it glorify the raid that killed UBL, CIA-speak for Usama bin Laden? The answers are (and this is all IMHO) no to the first, and yes to the second. And to the second, I say hip-hip-hooray. If ever a sonofabitch needed killing, it was him. Does it worry me that he didn’t get a fair trial? Not a bit. We really are at war with Al-Qaeda, September 11 was an act of war if ever there was one. Nobody gave those 3000 innocent people a fair trial. (Did 9/11 justify our idiotic war in Afghanistan—the longest in American history, by the way—much less the even more idiotic war with Iraq? A whole ‘nother question, to which I answer a resounding NO!)

It’s a shame that instead of pointing out the film’s many glories, I feel I have to address the politics first. But so it goes. The first part, say the first half hour or so, shows the torture of prisoners by American CIA agents, and it’s just as ugly as you expected it would be. It consists of waterboarding, and in one case stuffing a man into a tiny box. Food is withheld, men are strung up by their wrists.

People who are opposed to torture (and I am emphatically one) point out three reasons it should not be done. The first, and the strongest to me, is simply that it is morally wrong. Hear, hear. I don’t want anyone tortured in the name of me, the American People. It’s flat-out wrong.

Reason two is that if we torture, if we give up that moral ground, we can’t really object if others torture our own prisoners of war, and in fact we have given them license to do so. Works for me. Only if our own hands are clean can we stand up and condemn what is done to our own men and women prisoners of war.

The third is a lot more iffy. They say that it yields bad information. This idea is endorsed by no less than the FBI, who were appalled at the things the CIA was doing in their black sites. And it is certainly at least partly true. At some point even the toughest person can be broken, and will say absolutely anything just to make it stop. He will make stuff up. He will agree with anything you tell him to agree with. In short, it does not work. Well …

Actually, it can work. A nasty little secret, but in the hands of a skilled torturer, good information can be obtained. This doesn’t make it the right thing to do, not even close, but I just can’t let the assertion that torture never works go unchallenged. It can work. Sorry, but it can.

So we see the torture, and so does Maya (Jessica Chastain, and I haven’t seen Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook yet, but she will have to be insanely good to be better than this performance), a newly-minted CIA agent, who I believe is a composite or maybe even totally made-up character. She sees it, she grimaces and looks away, but she never objects. Not that it would have done any good, being one person and a rookie, but my impression is that she has no huge problems with what they’re doing.

Information is obtained, and here was another controversial point. Were the writer, Mark Boal, and director, Katherine Bigelow, implying that information obtained by torture was critical or even instrumental in finding UBL’s hideout? Well, I really can’t tell you. One reason is that the sound system in the theater was not the best, not really loud enough, and with my failing hearing and no subtitles I missed some dialogue. The other is that it was all pretty complicated, and I couldn’t follow all the details. But my impression was that the first hour of the movie was mostly devoted to the fact that nothing was working very well, that the info they obtained through “enhanced interrogation” was getting them nowhere. What I can say for sure is that, in the second hour, it clearly was old-fashioned tradecraft that led them to UBL. Bribery (with a high-end Lamborghini!), then some high-tech cell phone work and some very low-tech Pakistani assets watching for a white SUV to pass, until they had the UBL compound. All this was handled very well, fascinating to watch.

Then we come to the last half hour, where the actual raid on the compound was re-created. It was riveting. How do you do that when everyone knows exactly what happened? You do it by fanatic attention to detail, by amazing camera work, and by creating an atmosphere of extreme tension. There is no music to hype it up. It’s all exactly what you would have heard if you were there. The Navy Seals in all their creepy high-tech gear work together like a fine machine. They have trained and trained, and are ready for every eventuality. One of the super-secret stealth helicopters crashes? No problem, they’ve come prepared to blow it up so no one can study it. Room by room they move through the building until they come to the spider’s lair, and they stomp on him. And good riddance to one of the all-time monsters. This was one of the best action-thrillers I’ve ever seen.