The cinema release of Zero Dark Thirty gained a vast amount of publicity. It was even discussed in Congress. This all revolved around the debate about the film’s depiction of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, or torture as most of us call it. Now it’s out on DVD and Blu Ray, we can examine the matter in greater detail.
It would be remiss to get stuck into the debate about torture before first mentioning that Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping thriller, whatever position it may take regarding water boarding, extraordinary rendition and other dubious CIA practises. The performances are strong, especially from Jessica Chastain as the uber-focussed Maya, the intelligence officer shown to be responsible for finding Osama Bin Laden (or Usuma Bin Laden/UBL as they call him). Events move at a terrific pace; the hunt for the world’s most wanted man is shown as utterly nail biting, when much of the time it must have been frustrating and unendurably slow.
It is hard to avoid the torture however. The film starts with a black screen and the recorded voices of 9/11 victims, to remind us of the horrific background for this hunt. But torture dominates for the next 45 minutes. One thing that should be made clear is that the film does not glamorise these activities, it is really horrible. And from video footage Maya watches, it seems that virtually anyone who might have some useful information was given the treatment by the CIA. This was torture on a massive scale. So, to the extent that other espionage techniques are given less screen time, they are portrayed as as being secondary to violent interrogation – at least for the first few years of the hunt.
In reality, rather than one female CIA agent at the heart of the hunt for UBL there was a few of them (known as The Sisterhood). For the sake of a tidier plot, distilling this down to one person is effective. Maya is a compelling character, intelligent and driven, someone who is willing to swim against the tide of intelligence thinking. Chastain’s alabaster skin and vivid red hair create a striking look too. Much sense of a personal life – or story related to it – seems to be abandoned however. Apart from a couple of work friends, Maya is solely devoted to her work. The high stakes spy story is enough to keep our interest.
Good old fashioned sleuthing replaces waterboarding after the first quarter of this more than two and a half hour long film, which then makes for a much more enjoyable watch. This brings us to the question of whether the film gets the importance of these techniques right. There is one critical piece of information (about UBL’s courier, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, who led them to the man himself) that Maya and her colleagues appear to learn from one of their interrogation subjects. This is however not something that the man actually tells them, but that he explicitly tries to deny, which they then take as being an indication of its importance. Whether this suggests the effectiveness of these techniques is hard to discern. According to Mehdi Hasan in The Huffington Post, one of the key sources of information about al Kuwaiti was not the man shown in the film but someone else, and this person spilled these vital beans without having been tortured.
As we all know, eventually UBL was tracked down to his compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. We also know the rest of the story – US Navy SEALs go and kill him in special stealth helicopters. This is finale is both interesting and exciting. We see, what one imagines to be, a relatively realistic version of what happened that night. Unlike with the role of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, there is less debate about this event. A pulsing, almost Hans Zimmer-like soundtrack sustains tension, thankfully without whipping up a frenzy of emotion.
Perhaps it is too early to make a film about such recent history as Michael Atkinson put it in Sight and Sound. Certainly, as he goes on to say, Zero Dark Thirty‘s single minded focus on catching and killing Bin Laden does reduce complex political realities to the level of a first-person shooter. However, as entertainment the film is a success. It also passes the Titanic Test for creating a gripping drama from a historical event about which we all know the outcome. But not only is Zero Dark Thirty a decent spy movie, it also comes with a whopping debate attached. Not bad.
Zero Dark Thirty is out on Blu Ray, DVD and Ultraviolet on Monday 10 June, 2013. The Blu Ray version contains long version of the raid on the compound, No Small Feat – a making-of documentary, Geared Up that show the cast training for the storming of the compound, and Targeting Jessica Chastain which looks at the star and her role.
See the trailer here: