(Note from the Review Editor: We’re pleased to welcome this film review by Lawfare’s own Alan Rozenshtein; the Book Review also handles occasional reviews of media other than books. Other Lawfare contributors will likely weigh in on different matters raised by the film; we’re happy to start with this straight-out movie review.)
Yesterday I saw Zero Dark Thirty, which goes into wide release early next month. Like many reviewers, some in-the-know senators, and (in a remarkable statement) the acting head of the CIA, I was disturbed by the movie’s portrayal of waterboarding and other forms of torture the CIA used against terror suspects in the initial years after 9/11. (I use the word “torture” for its commonly understood meaning, not as a legal term of art. I don’t mean to wade into the debate over whether the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation tactics” rose to the level of torture as defined in treaties and domestic law.) But I disagree with the growing consensus that Zero Dark Thirty‘s depiction of torture “mars an ambitious project” that is otherwise a “stylistic masterpiece.” Zero Dark Thirty is just not that good of a movie; its treatment of torture is only one of its problems.
First, unless you’ve already mastered the bread-crumb trail of intelligence that led to bin Laden, the first half of the movie is impossible to follow. One disjointed interrogation follows another, and an already overlong movie is padded with unhelpful scenes of CIA agents communicating in a dense, difficult-to-follow code of counterterrorism-speak. The dialogue is an exercise in inside baseball, which works well in drawn-out procedurals like The Wire, where the audience has a few seasons to learn the vocabulary, but fails here. Viewer manage to orient themselves just in time for the field agents and Langley bureaucrats to be replaced by Seal Team Six, who turn the last quarter of the movie into a fairly standard (albeit highly entertaining) shoot-em-up. Of course, the audience’s confusion reflects that of the CIA, through years of cold leads and misinformation. In that way, Zero Dark Thirty usefully depicts the reality of intelligence work. But it’s a movie, after all, and it purports to tell a story; it’d be nice to walk away from it with a coherent narrative of how the U.S. found bin Laden.
Second, for a nearly three-hour movie that focuses on a small cast of CIA agents, there’s surprisingly little character development. Zero Dark Thirty gives little insight into the inner lives of the women and men who spend over a decade hunting one man. You get the standard tropes: an attractive young CIA agent with an obsessive pursuit of justice, a hardened interrogator who displays his soft side — he likes to feed ice cream to monkeys — when he’s not matter-of-factly telling prisoners, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” The effect of a hunt on the hunters is at least as interesting as is its effect on the hunted; it’s a shame that Zero Dark Thirty glosses over it. The one interesting character comes at the beginning: al-Qaeda operative Anmar, whose torture and interrogation brutally show the limits of psychological resilience. (Anmar is spectacularly portrayed by French Algerian actor Reda Kateb in the movie’s standout performance.)
Perhaps asking for brisk pacing and intelligent character development is too much in a movie that’s clearly trying to be authoritative. Therein lies one of the contradictions of Zero Dark Thirty: it can’t decide whether it wants to be a work of journalism or entertainment. It plays too fast and loose with the facts to be the former. As acting CIA Director Michael Morell notes, it took “a decade-long effort [by] hundreds of officers,” not a handful, to track down bin Laden. The real story is as much about the Agency as it is about agents. But the movie hews too close to the actual facts to work as a three-hour feature film.
It’s tempting to stop there, given the over-saturated press coverage of Zero Dark Thirty‘s torture scenes. But it’s impossible to watch the movie and not come away with the sense that something is very wrong with how it deals with this important topic. Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, clearly intended that torture figure centrally: the movie opens with a particularly brutal interrogation, and there are numerous other scenes throughout the first half, as the CIA lurches from one dead-end lead to another. Critics of Zero Dark Thirty (and especially of Bigelow) have been scathing on this point. Some of these attacks overreach, especially those that portray Bigelow as a torture apologist. The film unflinchingly forces the audience to witness the effects of torture: grown men soiling themselves and weeping from fear as they are stuffed in boxes and endure simulated drownings. And it certainly doesn’t explicitly endorse torture. But even a charitable interpretation leads to the conclusion that torture, even if it didn’t directly lead the U.S. to bin Laden, provided important intelligence and was in any case a reasonable way to start the hunt.
Perhaps Bigelow herself believes this interpretation, in which case the criticism is properly aimed at her as a historian. By many accounts, information gained from torture played at most a small role in the intelligence leading up to bin Ladin’s death. (To be fair, such information helped point the U.S. to bin Laden’s courier and thus ultimately to his hiding place in Abbottabad, as Mark Bowden argues in The Finish, his influential account of the hunt for bin Laden. But he concedes that it’s impossible to know whether the U.S. could have obtained the information under standard interrogation techniques, noting that “torture may not have been decisive, or even necessary,” even if “it was clearly part of the story.” The CIA’s Morrel similarly notes, after denying that intelligence from torture was “the key to finding Bin Laden,” that “whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”) If, on the other hand, Bigelow doesn’t think that torture was effective, necessary, or justified, then it was irresponsible to not make that clear, especially in a movie that piles one confusing interrogation on top of another. (Spencer Ackerman views Zero Dark Thirty‘s torture scenes as a subtle argument against torture. Even if this was Bigelow’s intention, which I’m not convinced it was, the movie is simply too hard to follow for that message to come through at all, let alone clearly.) Not all art is political, and Hollywood’s responsibility is primarily to entertain, not educate. But the hunt for Osama bin Laden is a unique story that demands extra caution in the retelling, especially when done in the form of a widely watched blockbuster. If drama butted up against truth, Bigelow should have compromised the drama, not the truth.
Bigelow is an immensely talented filmmaker. The Hurt Locker, her previous movie about a bomb squad in Iraq, is a masterpiece for which she deservedly won an Oscar. But The Hurt Locker wasn’t constrained by a complex, pre-existing story. It could tell its own. Nor did it have to grapple with anything remotely as controversial and polarizing as torture inflicted by Americans. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a bad film; it’s just not a good enough one, especially given the importance and challenge of its subject. I’m willing to accept that no one would have done a better job than Bigelow in making a movie about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. That just means that Zero Dark Thirty shouldn’t have been made. Sometimes it’s better not to tell a story at all than to tell it badly.