Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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?


Speaking up for women in Afghanistan. A remarkable story.

I’ve been reading “Raising My Voice” by Malalai Joya, an Afghanistan woman who was
expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for criticizing the presence of
warlords. When she was only a few months old, her family had to flee to Iran
while her father fought the soviet occupation which began in 1978. She grew up
in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Iran did not let girls in the camps go
to school, and her family eventually moved to Pakistan to a town that had a girl’s
school. She intersperses her own story with bits of recent Afghan history: how
the CIA funneled money into mujaheddin groups chosen on the advice of Pakistan’s
intelligence services. When the soviets were defeated many of the groups began
fighting each other for power.

In ninth grade she became a school teacher, which gives us some idea of the level of
education of many of the other women she was teaching; in a word, ZIP.

At sixteen, having completed year 12, she returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban were in power. Girls were not allowed to go to school (again!) and she began a girls’ school
in a basement of sympathetic householder, teaching women the unthinkable: how
to read and write. She smuggled books in under the Burqa she was forced to wear
in the streets. (In an amusing aside she describes how you eat ice cream while
wearing a Burqa: with great difficulty.) The Taliban forbade music and films,
but copies of the movie Titanic circulated among people who secretly had video
players. Street vendors began naming their products after the film: Titanic
shampoo, Titanic onions, Titanic potatoes. But the world is an even stranger
place than most of us would imagine. Even as late as May 2011, America paid the
Taliban $43 million as a reward for limiting opium growing. (Seriously! Just Google

I’ve noticed that although there are a lot of references to Islam in the book, Joya
doesn’t speak about her own religious beliefs or whether she has any. Unlike ‘I
am Najood, Aged 10, divorced,’ (reviewed on one of the pages at the top of this
blog) she doesn’t claim to draw strength from her religion. Nor, like Aayan Hirsi
Ali in ‘Infidel” (also reviewed above) does she describe a religious period in
her teenage years, followed by disillusionment. Here are no references (so far)
to her visiting a mosque for religious purposes, or praying by herself.

So far I’m only up to page 100, where she has been expelled from the Loya Jirga (the council that was to frame the Afghan constitution in 2003.) I know she gets elected to
the parliament in 2005, and expelled from that later in the book. So I’m
waiting to see what else happens.

I’ll do another post by next Friday. For more – Wikipedia has an article on her. This
book is published as “A Woman Among Warlords” in the US and Canada, and “Raising
my Voice” in other English-speaking countries.