Zero Dark Thirty (2012), dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award nominee for Best Picture

Critics around the world are debating on wheatear or not this film’s portrayal of torture as vital in finding first clues on Bin Laden’s whereabouts is actually a lie or not. Bigelow starts her film with inscription: “The following motion picture is based of first hand accounts of actual event”. She even went on publically saying how she took “almost journalistic approach to it“. Boal, the writer of the screenplay said the movie was no documentary, though it is based on extensive research. In the meantime, while waiting for the writer and his director to get their stories straight, CIA is claiming how torture was not how they’ve got to the most vital information which later on lead to Bin Laden’s death. So, who is telling the truth? Like in Argo, it doesn’t really matter, because after all this is just a film. But unlike Argo, this film is pretending to be of almost documentary quality and unlike Argo it is pretending to be very very important and serious. This bares a threat that people around the world, USA in particular, will, instead of doing their own extensive research, actually go to this film in search for answers. And this is terrifying.

Basic premise of ZDT for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing it goes something like this:

In 2003, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young CIA officer who has spent her entire brief career focusing solely on intelligence related to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. She has just been reassigned to work with fellow officer Dan (Jason Clarke) at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. During the first months of her assignment, she often accompanies Dan to a black site for his ongoing interrogation of Ammar, a detainee with links to several Saudi terrorists. Dan subjects him to torture (most notably the waterboarding) and humiliation, and he and Maya eventually trick Ammar into divulging that an old acquaintance using the alias ‘Abu Ahmed’ is working as a personal courier for bin Laden. Maya quickly evolves from a freshman to a veteran officer; she fixates on finding Abu Ahmed, determined to use him to find bin Laden. Along a span of five years: she survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing as well as an attack on her life by armed men; Dan, departing on re-assignment, warns Maya about a possible change in politics, alluding that the new administration may move to prosecute those officers involved in torture (which they don’t); Maya’s fellow officer and friend Jessica is killed in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack…and so on and so on until the very end four years later when Osama bin Laden is found and killed. Happy ending. Maya (who hasn’t aged a day in the course of ten years) cries. Sad. The end.

Whether the torture Bigelow is using in her film extensively (first 4o minutes of the film is in fact a one very long scene of torture with no emotional impact whatsoever) is the truth or in fact fabrication, to me, as the viewer, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that ZDT is in fact a two hour-long ad for CIA agents who are committing crimes against humanity. Furthermore, it makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed these violent crimes against other people based on their race and religion – something that has historical precedent. By claiming that her film is true, real and even documentary she generates media on a mendacious basis. There are filmmakers out there who are actually working really hard, putting their lives in jeopardy to produce films that are actually true and real. These people are called documentary filmmakers. Tainting their name in such fashion is an outrage to say the least. In the spirit of documentary filmmaking my suggestion is that everybody watches Rory Kennedy’s documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which clearly shows that the regime of torture produces false confessions – which Bieglow screenplay claims lead straight to Bin Laden. So the very premise of ZDT is therefor false, not to mention the fact that it endorses a war crime, rendering it a justifiable act on a larger scale. Some people fail to see how this works so let me break it down for you in a simple logical premise we learned in high school: A) Osama Bin Laden is the main antagonist of the film, the ultimate incarnation of evil; therefore, he needs to be caught so the innocent people of the USA can sleep in peace. B) CIA agents – led by beautiful, delicate and almost aristocrat-like Maya – are appointed performers of this complex job C) The only means in performing this job is, well by employing torture, obviously, which leads us to the conclusion that D) torture is good (because it will bring the main antagonist down) which then leads us to the final conclusion that E) people who are performing this job are also good, and therefore, our heroes. Bigelow has stressed on multiple occasions that she had “no agenda” when she made Zero Dark Thirty. Yet she made this film. And she was very reckless in doing so. Jane Mayer wrote: “Unsurprisingly, though, those who have defended the brutalization of detainees have already begun embracing the film as evidence that they are right. Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC’s show Morning Joe, said recently that the film’s narrative, “whether you find it repugnant or not,” shows that the CIA program was effective and ‘led to the couriers, that led, eventually, years later, to the killing of Osama bin Laden.'” Just like Mayer, my guess and my biggest fear too is that this is just the beginning, and that by the time millions of Americans have seen this movie, they will believe that, as Frank Bruni put it in a recent Times column, “No waterboarding, no bin Laden.”

All of this just further shows the state of the world we live in. People will buy in to just about anything served by Hollywood as long as it is visually stunning, which this film is. But most importantly, USA continues to take pleasure in double standards, which this film unfortunately celebrates. Not long ago I was a little girl who had the misfortune of having a true first hand experience of running and hiding in a basement, with my at the time one-year old sister in arms, whilst the US aircrafts were hovering above our heads under the realms of “protection and peace keeping”.  And let us not forget the terrifying act of barbarism when NATO with proud USA in front decided to bomb a European country at the dawn of 21st century (which marks the reign of terror that continues with Iraq, Lybia…and most recently Syria). No one took the responsibility for killing and injuring number of innocent people in these terrible crimes. Bombing of People’s Republic of China Embassy in Belgrade (that almost caused the embarking of the WWIII), bombing of the hospital in Dedinje, bombing of the apartment building in Novi Pazar, bombing of the old people’s home and residential area in Surdulica, bombing of the hospital and market in Niš or bombing of the Belgrade-Thessaloniki train are just few examples of non military targets that were destroyed in the name of peace USA are desperately trying to establish. And just because these attacks are done under the guise of “peacekeeping” and within the “law” doesn’t mean they are less terrorist than the attacks performed on 9/11. To me, this is literally one and the same thing….as long as the innocent lives are being taken, regardless of whose lives, Serbian, Iraqi, French, Saudi Arabian, British, Syrian, German, Japanese or American.

To conclude, this is not a bad film. In technical sense. It is well edited, well shot and visually beautiful. I would be lying if I would claim there aren’t far worse films out there. However, this is not a good film, let alone a great film. As Robert Ebert have put it: “The film’s opening scenes are not great filmmaking. They’re heavy on jargon and impenetrable calculation, murky and heavy on theory….My guess is that much of the fascination with this film is inspired by the unveiling of facts, unclearly seen. There isn’t a whole lot of plot — basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is.” And I agree with him 100%. But despite all that, the problem of this film, however did not arise because the poor quality of it but because of the message it conveys. And this message, it is horrifying and outrageous. Also, those who know me, know that I am not anti-American. In fact, far from it. However, I am, as of this film, a hard core anti-Bigelow. In my eyes, she failed. A person who has this amount of power in her hands, an artist, a film director who has the power to influence many decided to further incite  the hatred and already existing Islamofobia and in my eyes she failed as both an artist and a film director. Lets just hope the aftermath won’t be catastrophic.

text written by: Monika Ponjavic


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  1. C-Dog says:

    So, some issues: ZDT is not a good film, and really, I think most of the problems stem from that. Not extremely well acted (Jessia Chastain stands out amongst a sea of mediocre to terrible performances). Not well directed (people claim that the compound scene is well done, but I don’t buy it; it’s direct-by-numbers. 1-2-3-4, kick down bin ladens door). In the end it doesn’t say anything about the war on terror. They depict water boarding a suspect. Ok, that’s wrong. But they make he point that the intelligence leading to the courier was, in fact, overlooked. In the end this film is 2 stories: 1) a corporate story of a strategy ill suited to the task at hand, finally readjusted by the ageless Chastain, and finally “profitable results” occur after a lengthy and boring search for a workable strategy. SNORE. 2) a bizarre love story between Chastain and UBL. Really, they almost try to make it about her not having reason to live once he gets killed. Guh. “Where do you want to go?” Is the hamfisted final line. Puke. Yes, where is the US going now in the War on Terror? Ummm, fuck it, we’ve got our own problems to worry about until the next terrorist bomb sends us back into the invasion biz. Again, puke, and this film doesn’t even bother asking or answering any substantial questions. It’s just not very good, and it shouldn’t have any power to enrage anyone. Bigelow herself blames the torture aspect correctly back onto the US government, but I dont think it glorifies it. If anything, it makes it look pretty evil, blatantly. But to think torture equals UBL is pretty myopic, and to be afraid that people will connect the 2 intimately is to be afraid of stupid people being stupid, and being American means I don’t have to live in that fear. Live free or die baby.
    Oh, and UBL did 9-11. I say that with 98% certainty. If people wanna believe in the 2%, that’s fine. He needed to get got. I’m happy he’s dead, but it shouldn’t have taken 2 wars and 10 years.

    • mognetic says:

      We agree on most parts.
      However, as for UBL I do not know.
      First it does equate it. It equated it in my eyes. If you can’t see it, that’s perfectly fine but I personally couldn’t see anything but that. Second, the torture scenes are so mild. They are done in such way that made me stone cold. I had no emotional response to any of these scenes. Why? And how is that even possible?
      Second, I am not claiming UBL didn’t do it but at the same time I am having a hard time believing he did that alone, meaning without the help of US government. Why? There are few reasons. First I can’t believe that hitting a tower with a plane in the fashion of Hollywood blockbusters, and in New York, is plausible without some help from ‘within’. Second, he was executed?!? and not captured, taken back to the States and trailed? And his body was, in a mobster kind of way, dumped to keep the company of the fish. I don’t really get that. At all.
      And I am not big on conspiracy theories but since i listened with my own ears the conversation between one of your presidents and the leaders of Croatia/Bosnia/Serbia at the time in the 90s nothing really surprises me. This is way way bigger than us. And the sacrifice of few thousand of people is nothing for some people who have huge appetites and big agendas on their minds. Which leads to the first step after the 9/11, the invasion of Iraq. Gee, I wonder why it took 10 years?
      I personally am not glad he is dead, not because I sympathies with him, far from it. I just wonder what stories could he have told us…and why was he prevented from doing that?

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