Assassination Bureau – CIA – Zero Dark Thirty

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Jennifer Epps
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[See full coverage at: Zero Dark Thirty Scandal Files]


The Assassination Bureau: the CIA and Zero Dark Thirty

by Jennifer A Epps

The cover of the Feb. 4 issue of Time features Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, and dubs her new film ‘the year’s most controversial movie’ in its headline. The article inside makes an even bigger claim, calling Zero Dark Thirty “the most politically divisive motion picture in memory.” Though Bigelow has made a point in interviews to condemn torture as “reprehensible”, her depiction of torture in the Oscar-nominated dramatic thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has created a firestorm, and could create some frissons at the 85th Academy Awards telecast later this month.

I’ve written a separate article on how Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal portray CIA torture of terror suspects in the movie, and this huge issue deserves the attention it’s getting. But it’s far from the only reason to be concerned about the content of Zero Dark Thirty.

In interviews about ZD30, Bigelow has taken to citing Oscar-winning political classics of past decades to suggest that this is the heavyweight context in which her film should be seen, films such as: All the President’s Men, In the Heat of the Night, and, though they are thematic opposites when it comes to the Vietnam War, both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. She has also included in the list the guerrilla warfare docudrama The Battle of Algiers (itself nominated for three Oscars), perhaps because of the scenes of torture, or perhaps because it is obvious that when Marxist director Gillo Pontecorvo shows the brutal repression of the Arab independence movement by French forces, “depiction is not endorsement,” as Bigelow says of her own movie.

But I think a more useful comparison with which to view Zero Dark Thirty is not the high-minded auteur-driven films of that rebellious age, but a commercial, inconsequential, big studio, romcom-adventure from 1969, called The Assassination Bureau.

Though the movie is just an excuse for Oliver Reed, with intrepid girl-reporter Diana Rigg at his side, to dash around foiling assassins with smirking British aplomb, The Assassination Bureau also happens to be about a secret mercenary firm of international hit men. The refined businessmen on its board of directors have happily influenced world events for decades by murdering dictators and other political figures. If it weren’t for the explicit commissions from clients, the private sector status, and the lack of government endorsement, they could remind one of the CIA.

The tone of the comedy is set minutes into the film when the bureau’s board, led by Reed himself, meets in an imposing star chamber. Ivan (Reed) directs their attention to large paintings of historic assassinations adorning their round boardroom: “Look around you at the great deeds recorded on the walls, gentlemen. Each one of them performed in the course of bettering the world, purging it of evil, striking down tyranny. In those days we were all ruled by my father’s basic principle that our bureau would never kill anyone without a sound moral reason.” A board member instantly responds: “He was a saintly man.” Ivan’s only qualm is that they might have begun to stray from “the high moral principles” of their founding — “the torch we once held so high.”

It’s tongue-in-cheek, this proud talk about ethical murder; the poised board members talking rationally in their elegantly appointed star chamber accept murder as completely civilized, and take their right to commit it as a given. (Intriguingly, the film was derived from an unfinished novel by socialist author Jack London, in turn developed from an early 20th-century story by anti-fascist novelist Sinclair Lewis.) But in Zero Dark Thirty, we get very similar scenes, and this time they’re not comedic. Though the CIA operatives in ZD30 don’t bring up ethics at all, they do sit around a conference table discussing, in a very professional and business-like way, whether they’re ready to green-light murder, or whether they should wait until they’re 100% certain they’ve got the correct target. Their authority to go around the world assassinating people is never up for debate.

ZD30 is a far more serious and ambitious film than The Assassination Bureau, but the broad characters in the ‘69 fantasy are (briefly, at least) more honest. When their ethics are questioned, they retort: “Everyone from some point of view deserves death,” and “It’s always possible to find a moral principle for killing someone.” By contrast, the CIA’s philosophy of killing is not on the table in ZD30: the agents certainly engage in analysis, but it’s not any moral or legal justification for their actions that they consider. They only analyze intelligence: photos, videos, interrogations, clues. Meanwhile, the movie’s momentum is very powerful, with everything building toward Act 3 and the climactic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. It is easy to get sucked into this suspenseful forward drive. This risks obscuring the realities behind the system and policies depicted.

Remote-controlled Execution

ZD30 hits theaters at a time when the drone industry is booming, when more and more of the U.S. strategy in the (still underway) ‘War on Terror’ is about using unmanned drones to take out pre-targeted individuals from control rooms on the other side of the globe.

The U.S. multiplied the number of drones in their arsenal 100-fold in the decade after 9/11. In occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, these strikes have been conducted by the Pentagon; in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, where we are not technically at war, they are handled by the CIA. And the next gambit in the ever-expanding drone playbook is Mali; the U.S. has apparently already arranged to base drones in Niger to be flown over its North African neighbor.

Now, ZD30 doesn’t make drone warfare an overt part of its subject, but the ‘targeted killing’ program – the belief in ethical murder — is very much a part of the CIA culture which ZD30’s filmmakers embraced, or at least got into bed with, and the central event of the movie is a pre-planned assassination.

The film does show protests in Islamabad leading to the ouster of the CIA’s Pakistan station-chief, but Bigelow lingers over the station-chief’s defeat, and lead actress Jessica Chastain’s words of comfort to him – accusing the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, of letting him down. The direct relationship between the drone strikes and animosity toward the U.S. is not made clear.

ZD30 also runs news footage on the 2010 Times Square bombing incident that was staged by a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin. Though in real life the bomber referred to the missile strikes on Pakistan as part of his incitement, the movie bypasses that explanation. Instead, NYC Mayor Bloomberg reads the man’s mind, sloganeering on a TV in the background of a shot that it was ‘our freedoms’ which motivated the terrorist plot.

Much later in the film, after CIA agent Maya (Chastain) has discovered bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan and struggled mightily to get an attack on it launched, she declares to a Navy SEAL that she’d really prefer to just drop a bomb on the compound. She has a proud, defiant air at the time that she says it: she scoffs at her supervisors’ concern that ‘UBL’ might not really be there. Since she turns out to have been right about UBL’s location, viewers are given little reason to distrust other people like her, people who prefer to drop bombs and skip all the pesky red tape.

Maya’s attitude is not really much different from that of maverick-warrior types from many mass-appeal movies  — like Rambo, The Dark Knight and 300 – in which the man or woman of action is held back by small-minded bureaucrats or worse. (A kind of detective, Maya is also akin to on-screen sleuthers who obsessively follow their hunches, like the heroes of Chinatown, Dirty Harry and Zodiac.) The usual result is that the audience roots for the maverick. Indeed if they didn’t, they’d be rooting against the very resolution of the story itself.

Bigelow and her screenwriter Boal have repeatedly sworn that they were scrupulous about not judging the methods of the professionals they were documenting. But the trouble with Bigelow and Boal’s pretence of detachment is that Maya’s obsession is the only game in town; again, if the audience were to detach from it, they’d have to go home. There’s more backstory in an Antonioni film. Bigelow and Boal’s previous drama, the Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, felt like a character study despite an intense, action-heavy main storyline. But ZD30 does not delve deeply into Maya’s psyche, and her reactions to events are fleeting and inscrutable. Thus, by default if not by design, the movie lends itself to the well-worn grooves of commercial movie-making, and encourages the audience to side with Maya and her agenda. This is further strengthened by the fact that there are only two other alternatives in this film: a) timid supervisors who just want to delay action, and b) terrorists. Whistleblowers, diplomats, lawyers, human rights observers, and non-terrorist Muslims or Arabs are basically invisible. (When Muslims or Arabs are shown, they are often alien and mysterious – one may admire the beauty of a shot in which chador-clad figures suddenly surround a man in a formal garden, producing rifles from their dark drapery, but Bigelow really ought to know better than to perpetrate the same kind of tired images of exoticism that Edward Said condemned 45 years ago.)


Accuracy is in the Eye of the Beholder

And then there’s the nature of the detective work itself in ZD30. It’s not exactly value-netural, even if you discount the torture. At a key point, an intelligence analyst shows Maya some footage of the Abbottabad compound gained from remote surveillance. As we watch the images, the analyst’s voiceover tells Maya the distinctions between men, women, and children; the specific activities they are engaged in; and even their health and age. The moving shapes he pinpoints look like little more than blurs of pixels, but we take the analyst’s word for it. And lo and behold, he’s right. Thus, we are more likely to believe that the technology and the analysts’ methodology is highly accurate in other cases, too. And it’s likely that the CIA is very grateful for that, since surveillance videos from drones, and the kind of guesswork the film demonstrates as to exactly who is at a site, are a big part of President Obama’s ‘targeted killing’ program.

According to a Democracy Now interview with investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler, U.S. guidelines for drone strikes mean that:

“military-aged males…are considered militia unless they’re proven not to be.”

That includes teenagers. When assassination is green-lit without the certainty we’ll see the bureaucrats in ZD30 bicker over for long sequences of the film, it’s called a “signature strike”; Wheeler explains that these kinds of orders for death-by-drone “involve patterns rather than specific intelligence.”

The Atlantic defines this further: “Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.”

Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings describes the criteria as a group of men “who are behaving in ways that seem suspicious.”

In focusing on a years-long manhunt and months of surveillance, ZD30 puts a lot of patience and precision on display. This may create the impression that the ‘assassination bureau’ run by the CIA is scrupulously careful in who it bombs. This is not at all representative of how the ‘targeted killing’ program is normally conducted, however. In fact, The Atlantic reports that actually most of the CIA’s drones are ‘signature strikes’: missiles launched without knowing the identities of the targets.

Memorable dialogue scenes in ZD30 revolve around discussions amongst CIA big-wigs regarding their percentage of certainty as to the true identity of the elusive resident of the Abbottabad compound. Most of their estimates hover around 60%. Maya, ever the maverick, pegs it at “100%”, then brings it down to 95% to humor her superiors; because, she says, they “are uncomfortable with certainty.” Hahaha. Now, you might think that normal human beings would actually side with her supervisors, worrying about attacking a site and finding out later the guy they want wasn’t even there, but Maya’s humor and ballsiness – she also introduces herself as “the mother-fucker who found this place” — are exactly the kind of movie tropes that prod viewers to pick hard-ass Maya’s side. She’s more fun and more exciting than her stick-in-the-mud bosses. By the time the Navy SEALs bust down the door in Abbottabad and it turns out that the home is full of children, viewers will probably have forgotten that Maya thought it would have been OK to obliterate them.

But more importantly, the exchange of percentage estimates that Boal unearthed as core methodology is apparently the norm in the CIA’s targeted killing program. They do in fact evaluate whether or not they should murder someone based on the percentage of certainty they feel in their intelligence.

Michael Hastings writes in Rolling Stone:

“When it comes to signature strikes, say insiders, the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game: If the agency thinks it’s likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take the shot.”

War Crimes

Of course the only gamble we’re shown in ZD30 is one in which the CIA guesses correctly. If all their cases were like that, then indeed President Obama would be telling the truth when he reassures the public that only “active terrorists trying to go in and harm Americans,” are targeted, and his administration is not “just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”

However, that is not what the reports show.

Just recently, the United Nations announced that a full inquiry will be conducted into drone warfare, examining the drone strikes launched by the U.S., Britain, and Israel. The investigation will be headed by the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, and the team includes war crimes specialist Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The allegations are that civilians are being killed, and in large numbers. The targeting of civilians is a war crime.

Hastings reported last spring:

“For every ‘high-value’ target killed by drones, there’s a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader.”

This year, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women’s peace group CODEPINK and author of the new book Drone Warfare, disrupted a speech by John Brennan, Obama’s nominee for CIA Director, with these words:

“I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old in Pakistan, who was killed because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen, just because his father was someone we don’t like.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drones were directed at a funeral of a militant, who himself had been killed by drone; evidently the U.S. expected a few others on their list to be in attendance. It would be hard to argue that this strike was not a deliberate attack on a mixed crowd of 5,000 – how could anyone mistake a grouping like that on a surveillance video? 83 people were killed, perhaps as many as 45 of them civilians, including ten children and four tribal leaders.

The same article reports that rescuers have been killed by follow-up strikes: bystanders who have come to help have been targeted in at least fifteen attacks between May 2009 and June 2011, as reported by credible news media. “Allegations of repeat strikes coming back after half an hour when medical personnel are on the ground are very worrying”, states South African law professor Christof Heyns, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Executions. Ben Emmerson, head of the upcoming U.N. inquiry, cites allegations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism “that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.” He concurred with Heyns that if such attacks are proven to have taken place, then they are “war crimes.”

To date, the U.S. has fired drone missiles at Pakistanis 362 times since 2004, with 86% of those ordered under Obama. Estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of the total numbers killed (which the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University Law School has deemed the most accurate of the estimates available) range from 2,629 to 3,461. Those confirmed to be civilians were between 475 to 891 – and of those, 176 were children, a dozen of which were only 5 years old or younger. Well over 1,000 people have been injured.

Pakistani journalist Noor Behram, a local in Waziristan – the region where bin Laden was found — documents the drone carnage there. He believes that the civilian casualty rate is even higher. Behram told The Guardian: “For every 10 or 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has used drones in several other countries, including Libya. The other two targeted on the CIA’s watch are Somalia, which, per the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has seen the deaths of 57 civilians since 2007, and Yemen, where 72-177 civilians were killed out of a total of 374-1,112 drone-related deaths.

Even when those killed are adjudged to be militants, the fact remains that this constitutes ‘extra-judicial assassination’ – the kind of thing we associate with despotic regimes. Yemen’s human rights minister has asserted that even terror suspects have a right to a fair trial,
and the more informed American progressives would probably agree – some might even wonder what it would take for the U.S. to get a ‘human rights minister’ in its own cabinet.  But when one sees the care and pains taken by so many suited intelligence officials in ZD30, why worry? The aesthetics of the film are careful not to judge the “ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines”, as Bigelow wrote in The L.A. Times, but Bigelow and Boal don’t seem shy about making public judgments in favor of these intelligence professionals – and reassuring us that it’s all for our own good. For example, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, the director said: “Granted, perhaps not everybody’s perfect, but the real credit goes to the men and women in the intelligence community who dedicated their lives for our safety.” The very fact that she speaks of ‘credit’, so plainly casting the thrust of the events in ZD30 as positive, undermines her other, frequent, attempts to align herself with artists who “delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

John Brennan

Among the men and women shown in ZD30 as dedicated to ‘our safety’ may be, Salon suggests, John Brennan: Obama’s current nominee for CIA chief and his top advisor on counterterrorism during his first-term. The film makes a point of protecting the anonymity of all of its characters, even those with distinctive job titles like ‘the National Security Advisor,’ but CNN reports that Brennan “was with the president when he decided to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.” In the movie, the president’s advisor is played by Stephen Dillane, and benefits from the British actor’s obvious intelligence. The character is initially unwilling to attack the compound without convincing proof of who’s there; he is a cautious skeptic playing it by-the-book, at least until he is swayed by the fear that bin Laden might evade them.

In real life, Brennan doesn’t seem to care much what ‘the book’ says – although if he has input into the new drone warfare manual, the rules might be more to his tastes. Not only did Brennan openly support Bush-era ‘enhanced interrogation’, but he has also staunchly advocated extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and drone strikes.

Though Obama has come down against the Bush-era ‘enhanced interrogations’ (without actually prosecuting any of the torturers), he has embraced the ‘targeted killing’ program. In Pakistan alone, drone strikes under Obama multiplied 600%. Brennan has overseen this skyrocketing reliance on unmanned drones, and has become the sole authority in charge of the ‘kill lists’. This is how he came to be called the ‘Assassination Czar’.

He has also shown little regard for the truth. In an Aug. 2012 statement, Brennan denied that U.S. drone strikes were inciting hostility in Yemen. He said this even though drone missiles had “killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children” in a small Yemeni village in 2009, and had “killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province” in 2010. And in spite of the fact that Jeremy Scahill, the reporter who exposed the mercenary firm Blackwater, had pointed out earlier in 2012 that drone strikes were infuriating the population of Yemen. Scahill quoted a Yemeni journalist’s claim that the strikes ‘have recruited thousands’:

“Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, ‘which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.’ Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused.”

Yet even more outrageously, Brennan avowed in a key 2011 speech that drones are so precise they had not caused ‘a single collateral death’ over the past year. Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, called Brennan’s claim “absurd”; Conn Hallman, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus, deemed it “beyond ridiculous.” Air Force pilot Col. David M.Sullivan, experienced in drone warfare, told the New York Times that year, while on the Defense Secretary’s staff: “Zero innocent civilians having lost their lives does not sound to me like reality. Never in the history of combat operations has every airborne strike been 100% successful.”

At the time that Brennan made his claim, he would have known that 42 Pakistanis, mostly civilians, had been killed in a well-publicized drone attack just three months prior. In fact, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 76 civilians were killed by drones during the period Brennan referenced.

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

What has received the most attention about ZD30 is the fact that Senators Carl Levin, John McCain, and Dianne Feinstein, of the Intelligence Committee, are disturbed by the contradiction between their own conclusion after exhaustively studying the records – finding that torture was not involved in the trail that led to bin Laden – and the allegations the film makes to the contrary. The senators suspect that some in the CIA may have manipulated Bigelow and Boal in order to get a high-profile movie made that gives torture a leg up, and the filmmakers find themselves at the center of a Capitol Hill investigation.

However, the senators’ response to Zero Dark Thirty makes nothing of the contradiction between the movie and the Administration’s statements about the raid on the compound. In the film, Maya briefs the Navy SEALs shortly before their unit is sent into Abbottabad. She tells them they’re being sent in after ‘UBL,’ and that they are “going to kill him for me.”

Though the film doesn’t explain where she got the idea it was OK for her to say that, logic would suggest that Maya could not just issue orders like that on her own, especially not about Public Enemy #1. She could not just make that remark to the SEALs as a casual way to vent her emotions, not if the President had given different instructions. And in fact, in the world outside the movie, official statements about the raid allege that Obama’s intention had been to capture UBL alive if possible — that it just turned out to be impossible. These original orders are debatable, especially considering Attorney General Eric Holder’s comment in March of 2010 that UBL would “never appear in an American courtroom…The reality is, we will be reading Miranda rights to a corpse,” but they are not explicitly depicted one way or the other in the film. And Maya certainly seems unaware of any ‘kill or capture’ orders.

Nor do the Navy SEALs appear to be thinking about capturing UBL alive during the big action sequence. ZD30 shows the absence of a firefight – once a lone shooter who fires through a door is despatched. It shows the SEALs’ professionalism in minimizing, for the most part, the loss of life among the women and children in the compound. It eventually shows the SEALs reaching an inner sanctum and acting fast; firing before they even realize it’s UBL in front of them. The film seems to show that the SEALs could have captured UBL alive.

If Bigelow and Boal believe the orders were to kill him all along, where did they get that information? Was that also from their CIA briefings? This time no senators seem curious.
As Salon movie critic Andrew O’Hehir has sagely pointed out, Feinstein and McCain “have supported every aspect of the Bush and Obama war campaigns, whether secret or overt, with the sole exception of torture.” They are seeking information on the CIA’s briefings of the filmmakers in order to “decontaminate the hunt for Osama bin Laden.” The senators’ disappointment in the depiction of torture in ZD30 is inflamed by their desire to have the “killing of bin Laden…presented not just as a military or intelligence victory over an enemy, but also as a propaganda victory and a moral victory.”

The irony is that Bigelow and Boal don’t deviate much from the fundamental part of that agenda. In the wake of the torture controversy, their defenses of the film don’t even seem to consider that there are moral and legal questions concerning the U.S. conducting extra-judicial assassinations, and in sovereign lands. They, like “the real world of Washington,” as O’Hehir points out, seem to evince no doubts that the end result of the hunt for bin Laden was, “an unquestioned moral and political good” and, in their minds, “one of the few American foreign-policy successes of the last decade.” Indeed, they have lots of encouragement to do so. The Time magazine cover story on Bigelow, for instance, refers to the real-life manhunt as “a saga that received a triumphant, Hollywood-perfect finale from SEAL Team 6 on a moonless May night.”

Though the filmmakers like to present themselves as intellectuals, it’s clear they don’t follow renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky. He told Democracy Now that he’s in the minority which considered the ‘finale’ of the saga “a crime”:

“I don’t think you should have a right to invade another country, apprehend a suspect—remember, he’s a suspect, even if you think he’s guilty—apprehend him, after he’s apprehended and defenseless, assassinate him and throw his body into the ocean. Yeah, civilized countries don’t do that sort of thing.”

Chomsky also points out the huge gamble of the operation:

“[I]t was undertaken at great risk. The Navy SEALs were under orders to fight their way out, if there was a problem. If they had had to fight their way out, they would have gotten air cover and probably intervention. We could have been at war with Pakistan. Pakistan has a professional army. They’re dedicated to protecting the sovereignty of the state, very dedicated to it, and they wouldn’t take this lightly. A war with Pakistan would be an utter disaster. It’s one of the huge nuclear facilities, laced with radical Islamic elements. They’re not a big part of the population, but they’re all over.”

Viewers of ZD30 hear nothing about any of this. No-one raises any objections to the U.S.’ sovereign right to go around invading the sovereignty of other countries. No-one mocks the ‘high moral principles’ of the assassination bureau. There are no whistleblowers, and the one person who drops out of the torture game (played by Jason Clarke) doesn’t seem to do so because of a twinge in his conscience but because the policies are changing. I understand very well that Bigelow and Boal didn’t want to preach, and were careful to stake a position as neutral observers. This is perhaps another reason why Bigelow cites The Battle of Algiers to the press. But Pontecorvo didn’t just show the French forces’ point-of-view and then take a neutral stand on that; he showed both the French and the Algerians’ sides. And despite his restrained aesthetics, Pontecorvo wasn’t actually politically or thematically neutral about the Algerian Revolution. It wasn’t a mystery where this anti-imperialist stood. (He also directed Burn!, a searing political movie about slavery, British colonialism, and the Caribbean sugar trade, starring Marlon Brando.)

There’s no room in ZD30 for whistleblowers going out on a limb, however, because Maya is already the lone wolf. She is unsmiling, married to her job, and relentless, annoying her co-workers with her stubborn obsessiveness. She bucks the system and fights her bosses throughout a long section of the film. But she’s certainly not doing it over any moral or legal concerns; she just wants them to hurry up and kill UBL, already. And though flawed, she’s the protagonist of the movie.

Since Maya is in intelligence-gathering and has seen it all from the inside, she might have thought there’d be some intelligence benefits to capturing alive the figurehead of an international network the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting. Lead actress Chastain reminds interviewers that ZD30 “ends with an unanswered question, ‘Where do you want to go?’…It’s not just for Maya, it’s for us as a society of people, as a country…Where have we been in our history and where do we intend to go from here?”

But a symbolic question asked obliquely by a transport pilot giving Maya a ride home isn’t a very effective substitute (in a wide-release film seen by a mass audience) for a literal question asked in the foreground by a significant character, one that could give the audience a chance to truly ponder what lies underneath what they’ve just seen. A question like: why does the U.S. continue to keep Guantanamo open and incarcerate ‘high-level detainees’ indefinitely without trial, in violation of the Magna Carta of 1215? Especially when, given a chance to capture the highest-level detainee of all, they smoke him instead? Or if not anything so direct, how about the question in the kids’ joke: “Where can a 12,000-pound elephant sleep?” (The punchline is: “Anywhere it wants.”) As it is, most viewers will not leave ZD30 thinking about the U.S.’ massive girth, or what kind of tiny creatures might get squashed underneath it. On the contrary, throughout the film, the U.S. and its allies are constantly victimized by terrorist attacks. They are the underdogs, if anything, and their victory at the climax is the long-delayed result of a great deal of effort and resourcefulness.

Perhaps Bigelow doesn’t care much for the Iraq War movies that preceded her 2008 drama The Hurt Locker (for one thing, she doesn’t mention any when she cites Hollywood films that question war). Perhaps her aim in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty was to avoid telling the audience anything that she thinks should already be obvious to them. But Lions for Lambs was then; this is now. When the Iraq War movies began to proliferate, Americans already knew there were no WMDs in Iraq, public opinion had turned against the war, and Bush was reviled. But these days, many Obama supporters assume that the bad old days of the Bush era are over, and that the U.S. is back to respecting human rights again. So when Bigelow and Boal are so discreet in Zero Dark Thirty as to avoid critiquing what’s going on, and to conceal its meaning and ramifications under a patina of normalcy and standard movie tropes, it sure doesn’t seem much like artistic courage.


Related post:

My companion piece on Zero Dark Thirty focuses exclusively on its depiction of torture and the controversy over it.

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