Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty opens with a title that declares “The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.” With this title and relentless publicity Biegwlow has suggested “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.’’ However at the same time, Boal has attempted to shirk being held to a journalistic approach to facts, declaring “It’s a movie, not a documentary.” It’s clear from Senators with knowledge of the classified intelligence and Leon Panetta that in fact torture did not produce the information that identified Osama Bin Laden’s courier and led to his capture. However, the information will not become public until the Senate Intelligence Committee declassifies its extensive investigation into the United State’s use of torture after September 11th. You can demand the release of the report through BORDC’s petition.
Reacting to the swelling controversy set off by the film’s depiction of torture prompting a key disclosure leading to the capture of Bin Laden, Bigelow has attempted to set up a straw man. At the New York Film Critics Awards she said:
I’m standing in a room with people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could portray inhumane practices. No author could write about them. And no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.
However, Zero Dark Thirty not only misrepresents the facts surrounding the role of torture in Osama Bin Laden’s capture, it also uses film technique to align the audience with the torturers. The film opens with harrowing audio of the 911 calls of those trapped in world trade center, and then immediately cuts to the brutal interrogation of a prisoner at a CIA black site. This juxtaposition positions the torture program as a reaction the attacks of September 11th. The films’ heroine, Maya a CIA analyst, is present at the interrogation and watches as the prisoner is waterboarded by another CIA interrogator.
During the scene Bigelow employs objective shots (those which don’t come from the point of the view of any of the characters) to show the CIA interrogator threatening assaulting and then water boarding the prisoner. Notably however, the audience is never left alone with the prisoner, the camera comes and goes with Maya’s visits. Bigelow aligns us with Maya but cutting to a reaction shot showing her face in distress as the prisoner is water boarded. The audience is meant to identify with her unease with the brutal tactics being employed. However, this changes.
In the following scenes, Maya is present in almost every one, the consistent point of contact for the audience. She questions the same prisoner and another, obtaining information based on the prisoner’s fear that they will be again subjected to torture. She then reviews videotaped interrogations of other prisoners (many of whom are being tortured) and instead of now cringing at the torture, she simply nods her head as the information she wants is given. Finally in another interrogation, Maya directs a military officer to assault and then waterboard the prisoner she is interrogating. Initially disturbed at the presence of torture, Maya and the audience begin to see its benefits.
All the while, none of the characters object to torture, though we know that in reality many did so. The only voice in the film declaring opposition to torture, is President Obama’s. A few seconds of an interview where he declares that America doesn’t torture play on TV in a meeting of CIA analysts, but one simply shakes her head and then then they go back to operational planning.
Demand the full picture on torture by signing BORDC’s petition to declassify and release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture.