In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ the movie as ideological weapon

In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ the movie as ideological weapon
A scene from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

When the Osama bin Laden-raid film  “Zero Dark Thirty” was coming together last year, right-wing commentators scoffed; after all, any film about  President Obama’s hallmark overseas success timed for a pre-election release had to have partisanship on its mind. Rep Peter King (R-N.Y.) asked whether the administration was getting too cozy with the filmmakers by offering them high-level access. The movie, his questions implied, would be little more than an extended campaign ad for the president as sponsored by Hollywood, the Democrats’ resident Super PAC.

What a difference a year makes. As “Zero Dark” hits theaters next week (well after the election, as it turns out) there’s been mostly silence from the right. And for good reason: the Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal film makes no attempt to idealize the president. The administration is in fact portrayed as initially skeptical of the mission to raid the compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan, but eventually won over by some persistent CIA agents. And Obama himself makes only one appearance—in a background shot suggesting he won’t allow torture, which in the narrative flow of the film comes across more as mission roadblock than ethical triumph.


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 Instead, the noise has come from the other direction. Left-leaning journos such as Frank Bruni and David Edelstein have said that the movie’s suggestion that torture led to  the U.S. procuring key intelligence amounts to a de facto validation of the George W. Bush policy of harsh interrogation. “I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ” Bruni began his column last weekend, going on to say that the movie is “being embraced by many cultural arbiters who are probably at some level horrified by the conclusions it seems to reach.” In seemingly no time at all, objections have swung from right to left, from the legitimacy of an Obama success to the possibility of a Bush failure.


Amplifying the left’s case is a new report from the  Senate Intelligence Committee, as my colleague Ken Dilanian and I explore in a piece in Friday’s Times. Though classified, the report is believed to say that harsh interrogation did not provide key intelligence on terrorism--including the intelligence needed in the hunt for Bin Laden.  (Republicans voted against the majority Democrats’ choice to adopt the report, saying it studied only documents and didn’t conduct interviews.)

So which side does the movie come down on? It’s hard to say. That’s not because the movie is apolitical--as star Jessica Chastain declared at the premiere earlier this week, and as many in Hollywood like to reflexively say when one of its movies gets caught up in a debate like this--but because its ideological hues are deeply shaded.

The very depiction of graphic torture (and it is plenty graphic here) could be read as implicit disapproval. This debate has roiled moviedom for years—is the decision to show extremist behavior a seal of approval or a kind of coded condemnation? The latter has its merits. What’s more, in some cases the torture here produces unreliable results.

On the other hand, Bruni has a leg to stand on: Torture also yields some pretty important intelligence here. And just because you’re showing a tactic’s ugliness doesn’t mean you’re undermining its usefulness.


Complicating the situation—and thrusting Hollywood in the middle of a scrum in a way it’s rarely thrust–is that Boal wasn’t fictionalizing. He wrote the script with the noblest standards of journalism in mind. A former reporter, Boal used high-level sources, researched the manhunt extensively and tried to minimize dramatic liberties. “I wanted to approach the story as a screenwriter but do the homework as a reporter,” he told The Times.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” then, isn’t simply an excuse to trot out a debate—it’s potential evidence in it.

Of course as with anything filmic, even something fact-based, what you see depends on what side of the divide you stand on. “Whose facts?” the adage goes, to which one might add, ”And which motivations?”  There are plenty at work here.  Ethical objections aside, Democrats are eager to jump on torture as ineffective because to do so is to indict the Bush administration.  Republicans, meanwhile, want to claim its effectiveness to defend the former president and his policy (and in the process call out Obama’s refusal to embrace it).

Even some in the nonpartisan CIA--whose agents Boal spent years talking to--have an interest in emphasizing the benefits of harsh interrogation; people from the agency, after all, were among the key figures putting it into practice. (Incidentally, the movie’s deployment as an ideological weapon echoes how the real-life instances of interrogation and intelligence-gathering have been wielded by various camps as well, as the intelligence expert Peter Bergen lays out in this piece.)


Bigelow and Boal have tried to personally remain above the fray. On Thursday they released a statement to The Times that sought to downplay the importance of torture in their Bin Laden narrative.

“Our movie shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes,” they wrote. “One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world’s most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort.”

Well, yes, but how those professionals did that job is where the rub lies. The movie offers some complicated answers. And given its journalistic foundation, many will use it to keep asking questions.


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