Zero Dark Thirty: a hard film to review

Zero Dark Thirty is a hard film to review. It deals with an important issue in recent US history. It’s well photographed, the settings are realistic, and some of the details are technically interesting. But most of the characters are not very likable  and there has been a lot of controversy over its depiction of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty movie poster from Wikipedia
Zero Dark Thirty movie poster from Wikipedia

One of the films major flaws is the lack of likable characters. The female lead, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is single-minded and dogmatic. Being obstinate and dogmatic can be a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re wrong. Fortunately for her, luck – and some clever guess work – were on her side. But the viewer doesn’t feel a great deal of empathy for her. She appears to have no friends, no contact with any family (if she has one)  and no activities outside of her work.

The most likable character in the film was Maya’s fellow officer Jessica, who was killed as she waited to meet a terrorist who had supposedly agree to work with the US. As the terrorist and his driver arrive, they blow up their car. (This based a on a real incident in  2009 at Camp Chapman.)

The photography is excellent. The film does convey  the sense of isolation the Americans must have felt working in these remote, fortified dust bowls. The settings looks realistic: parts of the film were made in India, with certain buildings altered to make them look as though they were filmed in Pakistan.

The tension builds throughout the film as we are shown the bombings in London  and  Madrid, which give a sense of the pressure the main characters must have felt as they tried to find clues to the next likely terrorist attack against the world.

The film implies that torture helped capture bin Laden. The clam that usable information was actually obtained by torture is disputed by many politicians and intelligence officers. Here’s a section from Wikipedia quoting several senior US officials disagreeing about the usefulness of torture:

“In 2012, after three years investigating the CIA’s interrogation program, several officials, including U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, have said that claims that critical information has been obtained through waterboarding are untrue.  But, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, said in February 2013 that critical information was obtained through waterboarding. U.S. Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said upon watching the film that it left him sick — “because it’s wrong.” In a speech in the Senate, he said that, “Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information.”

It’s hard to say if the film should have included torture scenes or not. If they had been not shown, the producers would have been accused of “whitewashing history.” As it is, they have been accused of producing a film that justifies torture. The problem with torture is that once you say ‘yes’ to using torture on a known terrorist to get details of a the next possible attack, where do you stop? What about the guy who is a strong suspect? A weak ‘possible’ suspect? A guy who you don’t think is a terrorists but who knows something about people who may be? And if ‘yes’ to terrorists, would you torture a serial killer suspect like Ted Bundy, while he was still only a suspect? And after that, who?

Overall, the film well made, well acted, and has been nominated for several Oscars. If it wins, the controversy about its depiction of torture will flair again. Is it a “must see” film? No. For all the interesting detail about how bin Laden was tracked down, the film remains a technically well-made film about a group of people it’s just hard to like.

So, has anyone seen the film? What did you think?


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