WARNING: If you have not seen Zero Dark Thirty and do not like the plot revealed, do not read past the first six to eight paragraphs. The essay is also attached.
Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13
There has been an enormous amount of paper spent on the ethical question of torture as portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal’s (the screenwriter) movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Some questions were raised about whether the torture scenes should have been portrayed with such realism, whether the claims to journalistic or historical accuracy should have been made in a fictional film that was a slender selection from historical events (the movie opens with the undeniable assertion that the film is based on firsthand accounts of actual events), about how the filmmakers obtained access to all the information and whether the release of the film was initially scheduled to boost Obama’s chances of re-election, especially since both John McCain and Mitt Romney had opposed the hunt for bin Laden.
I am lucky that the distributor decided to postpone the release until after the November election or there would have been a lot more material for me to read. In any case, none of the above questions yielded the quantity of copy, even when put all together, as the question of whether the film said that torture revealed crucial information that enabled the Americans to hunt down Usama bin Laden (UBL in CIA tradecraft). Did the movie take a neutral stand on torture or did the movie condemn torture or promote it?
Those are not my questions. I was fascinated by a very different question. In all my reading I did not see one reference to the issue of my concern – and I really looked, so if you have seen any, please send them to me. But before I discuss that issue, I offer an overview of the torture debate if only to prove I did my homework as well as offering an opportunity to summarize the first quarter of the film, thereby providing necessary background for my question. If you, dear reader, have not seen the film, if, further, you detest commentators who reveal the plot, I offer a fair WARNING; this is an essay using the film as fodder for the issues discussed. It is not a review written with the clear norm in mind that a reviewer should not spoil a movie by giving away the plot. On the other hand, if you are a lover of films, in particular, if you are a lover of gangster movies and know that you can watch The Godfather over and over because the plot itself in a gangster movie is as irrelevant as the details of that plot, then enjoy. The plot is standard with enough novel innovations to make it fascinating. That is why the events could be borrowed so easily from actuality to make the movie. In any case, virtually everyone knows in general what happened. The pleasure is in the details of how what happened is executed. I will, of course, ignore all the copy on how the movie’s chance of winning Oscars dropped precipitously as a result of the controversy and political backlash over the torture topic. And I will not prophesy how the film will do at the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday.
Some of the comments on the torture issue were outlandish – like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) calling Bigelow America’s Leni Riefenstahl and suggesting she too would go down in history as being a handmaiden to torture. Naomi Wolf published an open letter in The Guardian on 4 January 2013 asserting that the film was an apology for torture. "By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist… now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden."
Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in ‘the global war on terror’, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent. Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the ‘information’ it ‘secured’, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee program’.
Naomi Wolf went on to speculate and suggest that, in order to get the cooperation of the military – necessary Naomi believed to get the shots of the high tech secretive stealth helicopter program – in turn necessary to get financing, Bigelow had to offer a pro-military message. Then Bigelow compounded her crime, according to Wolf, by claiming the film, though not a documentary because it interspersed fiction with reality, was akin to one. But it was not, according to Naomi Wolf. There are no sources to be corroborated. There is no evidence that the regime of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib got the information that led to bin Laden as the film claimed. And then Wolf went into a long screed about what she witnessed in visiting these torture sites. It is a wonder she did not see a plot against herself since Wolf is the name of the Head of the Counter-terrorism unit in the CIA in the movie.
Admittedly, Wolf’s take on the torture issue was one of the more extreme interpretations, but it led me to my own speculations. Was this the equivalent of watching women’s mud wrestling among the chattering classes? Does it enchant because of the pleasure of seeing the beautiful Naomi Wolf throwing mud balls at the equally beautiful tall and willowy Kathryn Bigelow? On a deeper level of suspicion, was Naomi’s screed an attempt at revenge against Kathryn Bigelow for undermining the founder of third-wave feminism’s thesis that images of female beauty have become crueller and even heavier weights as women crash through barriers erected by the male dominated establishment? After all, when Maya breaks through the ramparts of the last and strongest holdout of male superiority in Langley, Virginia, and feels great rather than lousy about herself (though, in the last shot, clearly very lonely) and, even more importantly, gets the viewer to feel terrific about what she has done, even if it is only to become the de facto kingpin of one mafia group knocking off the leader of the rival syndicate, was this just Naomi Wolf’s way of showing she could direct a drone missile at Kathryn Bigelow whereas Kathryn’s hero in the movie never achieved the top prize?
There were many others who attacked the film for its portrait of torture and declared the film to, at the very least, misrepresent the contribution of torture to capturing terrorists and, at worst, prescriptively suggest that the use of torture was both useful and ok. Some even suggested a boycott. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were reported as backing David Clennon’s appeal along those lines, but Martin Sheen later backed off his endorsement of Clennon’s stand and Clennon himself subsequently also insisted he did not mean that people should not see the film, only that Bigelow should have been more forthright in condemning torture. Michael Moore then praised the film as fantastically well made, defended Bigleow and said the film will make you hate torture. And so it went on from a myriad of commentators.
Get serious, fellas! This is a gangster movie. It is a movie, not historiography. It uses historical events, but part of the hysteria and mania in America is about the misuse of history and the narrative that 9/11 was so searing that it radically changed America forever. 3000 were killed, not all of them Americans. 1 in 100,000 died! I do not want to diminish the importance and pain of any who died in the World Trade Centre or in the Pentagon, but how can we view this event as equivalent in historical importance to 1 in 10 Yankees dying and 1 in 4 Confederate males dying in the American Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died in that conflict, not 3000. Six million did not die! That is the equivalent number that would have had to have died if 9/11 is to be compared in historical importance. And recall that in the American Civil War, many, many more were maimed. Admittedly, the Civil War was different. Americans were killing one another. In 9/11 a small group of bearded religious fanatics who were not Americans had killed Americans, and perpetrated the crime on American soil. Some symbols are far more powerful than actual number counts reveal.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film recognizes that fact. The film opens with a black screen as we listen to a collage of actual telephone calls after the World Trade Centre was attacked by two hijacked planes. We do not have to see those iconic pictures of the hits and the collapse of one tower after another. The voice of the panicked woman screaming and asking for help as the she feels the increasing heat sends chills down one’s spine. This is going to be a very personal story of the hunt for bin Laden and not the suggested quasi-documentary that might have been expected by the opening credits. And we are emotionally held in detention before we even see the first visual.
Ammar (played brilliantly by the French actor, Reda Kateb), an alleged al-Qaeda is in an interrogation room at a Black Site where he initially is just beat up, though for some initially unexplained reason, one of the smaller hooded CIA men does not join in on the beating. Though there are subsidiary scenes, in the main protracted scene of torture Daniel Stanton is the chief CIA operative in Islamabad played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke (he was the cop in Rabbit-Proof Fence) as a mixture of a PhD psychological expert and hip American dude with an impeccable accent and tattoos; he switches from mean physical and psychological abuse to humour and empathy in an instant.
His hooded partner, the smaller one who did not participate in the beating, leaves the interrogation room with him. After the ski mask is removed, we see that the presumed ‘he’ is a somewhat squeamish she, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who carries the film and takes some time to adjust to the use of torture under Daniel’s tutelage, but adjust she does as she turns into a taut, determined and singularly focused agent on her first assignment that will unexpectedly last years. The mask or towel is put on Ahmed to "waterboard" him as if paying homage to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” ("The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman, 389. I have borrowed this quote from a new book that my daughter Rachel is writing.)
We are introduced to torture as a matter of using a variety of techniques in addition to waterboarding, but all geared to humiliating the other. Initially Ammar verbally fights back and calls Daniel "a garbage man in a corporation" and Daniel calls him just "a money man, a paperboy". In Pakistan, Daniel pulls Ammar’s pants down as he is strung up and exposes what he calls Ammar’s "junk" and then guffahs as he observes that Ammar has shit in his pants. Daniel puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around as his dog. The symmetry has very quickly become asymmetrical and, subsequently, Ammar is hung up, put into a small wooden box, sleep deprived but when repeatedly questioned about the sate and place of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia by Daniel Stanton as the CIA’s man in Islamabad, Ammar says nothing. And then the attack in Saudi Arabia takes place. A bearded man enters an apartment tower and shoots two westerners (it is not clear whether they were targeted), then in the pattern of a serial killer, walks down the hall killing others. Endorsing torture because it yields results!!!
Contrast that story line with the one in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, the much lower budget rival to Zero Dark Thirty released about the same time but completely obscured by the fog over Beigelow’s film. In Seal Team Six, the same female agent goes directly for a torture session to the chase for the Usama bin Laden’s courier. The message in that film is unequivocal. The clue to the big break came from enhanced interrogation techniques.
In Zero Dark Thirty, the torture scenes shift into the background as we are given a ten minute college 101 introduction to intelligence gathering from various sources – other countries such as Jordan, satellite feeds, human informers, intercepts — and still the bombings take place, in London in the tube and on the buses, the Marriott Hotel where Maya is almost killed. Against this background we watch how intelligence is gathered and collated and interpreted at enormous effort, brain-power and expense. Still the bombs get through. In praise of the value of intelligence let alone torture – hardly!!! Naomi Wolf must have seen a different film than the one I watched. But she never described the film so we will not know. She focused only on denunciation.
Then the key little bit of information comes out, the only intelligence retrieved from someone tortured, and it comes out not by using torture, though the past torture ambiguously may have played a part. The information is obtained by using empathy, playing on the fallibility of memory and Ammar’s inability to know what he had said and what he did not. Through these psychological methods helped by trickery and a lie, Maya and Daniel learn something – the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier.
The scenes shifts to military interrogations through questioning, Turkish interrogators with a hint but only a hint that they are even more ruthless torturers, then Maya in a black wig visiting a black site on a rusty old ship in a Baltic port where she meets Hakim, a very valuable asset who adds to the corroboration that Abu Ahmed is indeed a high level courier. So perhaps torture was critical to putting the story together. We are not told that, but it allows the viewer to easily draw that conclusion.
Should torture have been used? I believe it is not justified even if it is proven to be effective and there are a plethora of studies about its ineffectiveness. Does the film have anything to add to that debate? No. It does help portray what we are debating but not how the debate could or should resolve itself or even how it affects those who participate in its use or as its victims. But this film is not about torture. And the question about the utility and ethics of using torture belong in another context.
What matters in the story is that torture was used and then was prohibited. It’s Obama’s prohibition that is important. In a brief scene Obama is being interviewed on 60 Minutes on 16 November 2008, and he asserts unequivocally, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture." We are told very clearly that many CIA operatives believe that they now have to work with one hand tied behind their back. Worse yet, they may be exposed for whatever they do before a political inquiry. The shut down has made them all über cautious. That is the point other than that torture was used and the ambiguity about the degree that torture contributed to that result. When an almost broken Daniel has decided to go back to Washington to take a desk job and is grieving over his pet monkeys because his superiors believed that they could possibly escape – "Can you believe that?" – Daniel warns Maya, "you gotta be really careful with detainees now. The politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar with the oversight committee."
This is why that background is so important, for the key part of the film is the third section after using CIA assets to track and find the courier in the second section. The core of the film is the decision to attack the compound where Maya alleges Usama bin Laden is holed up, though the only evidence she has is all indirect – a high level courier for bin Laden lives there, it had no TV, cable, satellite or telephone access. One inhabitant never appears and is assumed to be there because there are three wives and only two husbands. The third man is never even seen by satellite imagery. The evidence is all circumstantial.
How can I perversely claim, against all other accounts of the movie that I have read, that the key is the decision to attack the compound not the torture issue. First, because how technically some key information was obtained is interesting, but it is not the core of the drama unless the characters themselves wrestled with the question of whether torture was or was not effective or ethical. They do not. It is just a given. The ‘how’ – in this case, how information is obtained and used – is very critical to a chase movie or a heist movie, but is not the centre of focus of a high drama. And the real drama comes with the question of whether to attack or not.
The second argument is a structural one. If torture was the central issue – though it clearly has been interpreted to be so by the media coverage – why does it take place in the first half hour and why is the issue then dropped? Third, look at the structure of the drama. The film follows a conventional plot line leading from the background on the initial cause, presumably known by everyone so that it needed only 15 seconds, then the effort to get to the starting gate, then the crisis – to go or not to go – and then the implementation.
I would also cite as an authority, Acting Director Michael Morrell of the CIA who, in an unprecedented gesture, issued a press release on the film on 21 December 2013 to insist the film was a work of art and not a documentary as suggested and certainly not historically accurate. Maya did not do it; a huge team worked on the issue and it was a big team effort. Secondly, he too believed that the film suggested that "the former detention and interrogation program were the keys to finding bin Laden". "That impression is false," he insisted.
Morrell did not recognize the ambiguity of that assertion. We know he was referring to the issue of whether torture yielded the results, but he seemed totally unaware that the assertion that the impression is false could have referred to his impression and interpretation of the film. His interpretation that the film gave the message that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded the key evidence could have been false. Ironically, he admitted to using "enhanced interrogation techniques", asserted that they contributed key evidence, but insisted that that multiple streams of intelligence were used.
I keep thinking I have seen a different film than anyone else. For the film I saw, even though it spent an inordinate amount of time on torture for what I suggested were very different reasons – did attribute the conclusion to multiple intelligence sources and did not unambiguously suggest that the key information was obtained as a result of torture. Morrell also wanted to defend the memories of his colleagues – one thinks primarily of character of Jessica in the movie – against the fictional portrayal, though I suspect, given the influence of film, those memories will be deformed and reformed as a result of the movie.
I wanted to read his objections because I expected him to take issue with the way the decision process in the CIA was portrayed. He did not. So I presume that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Silence says so much.
However, my main argument — that the core of the film is the CIA decision process and not the first quarter torture scenes — is the artistic, political and theoretical concerns and priorities of Kathryn Bigelow as the film director. I have only viewed two of her other movies even though she has been making movies since the late seventies. Everyone knows about Hurt Locker because Bigelow won two Oscars for the film and was the first female director ever to win and Oscar. I also saw one of her films about twenty years ago called Point Break. I still remember it though I never knew she had directed it until I recently read her bio.
Point Break is a film that merges the genre of a serf movie with that of a crime movie when an FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers led by Patrick Swayze in Los Angeles who rob banks to finance their life style wearing the masks of presidents – Nixon, etc. In the process, the FBI begins to identify with them and, as we watch, we are left in suspended animation curious whether he will join with his new "friends" and subscribe to their code or maintain his code as a police officer. On one level, the plot is sustained by the events. But at a deeper level it is sustained by the self transformation in consciousness of the FBI agent and the titillating prospect of its disastrous consequences. The muscular beauty and luscious sheer physicality of the movie married to a gang film was both a comment on a life style as well as upon the presidents whose masks they wore both to disguise and reveal themselves was brilliant, as was the pacing and the suspense.
Bigelow has made at least a dozen other movies and I was determined to watch at least a few of them before writing this piece – but I did not. In any case, in Zero Dark Thirty the sense of tension is not maintained by whether Maya will or will not sell out and adopt the male code, but whether, in doing so, she will succeed in her mission to kill bin Laden. On that message the film is unequivocally clear: she converted and became more testerone- driven than any of the other honchos in the CIA. Further, that was the only reason she, and therefore the CIA and America, managed to kill Usama bin Laden.
Review again how Zero Dark Thirty starts; the initial collage of 9/11 that revs up shock and fear and anger, even rage; then the code of a muscular gangster film of men beating up someone in accordance with the fixed rules of a Hollywood scene of pausing and giving the victim a chance before dealing another vicious blow. It is literally gut wrenching and Nancy and I both cringed for we respond viscerally to physical violence in films, especially when so realistically portrayed. (Nancy whispered at the time, "So this is where you take me on Valentine’s Day!)
The film no sooner captures our attention at the gut level than it touches our hearts again already wide open by the cri de coeur of the woman in the burning and collapsing Trade Center Tower. Maya is as squeamish about violence as we are. So we are with her throughout her Odyssey as she is made over and shaped and inducted into the code of a torturer at one level and the CIA masculine code of what makes a successful case officer. She learns to torture – without wearing a ski mask. She learns to push her way among a crop of vacillating and week-kneed frightened CIA senior heads. So we learn as she learns the codes, the language, the slang, the acronyms. We in the audience hear the following lines, but I bet there was not one person in the theatre who could decipher them. George at one point says, "I run the Af-Pak division of CTC, and I’m primary on this for the agency. This is a title fifty operation."
What is the Af-Pak division? What is CTC? What status is a primary? That one we can guess. What’s a title fifty operation? In one line of text we are wallowing in CIA bafflegab for a lay audience. But that is unimportant. It’s the use of code language that counts. Our ignorance tells us it is a code language. We have been introduced to the private language that the CIA used as part of their bonding.
There is one other key female CIA agent to whom we are introduced in the film. Jessica is sure she has a lead on an informer, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who she insists is really motivated. He supposedly has been turned by the Jordanians and is also motivated by money ($25 m is on the table). When Maya turns off the 60 Minutes program with Obama insisting that America doesn’t torture, Jessica informs Maya that the doctor will not come to Islamabad to meet them because he fears for his own security. The irony is distinctly there. We know what is coming even if that knowledge is not allowed to creep into consciousness. Jessica should fear for her security. They agree to meet in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to which the next scene shifts.
After a long wait and way after the meeting time, just as the CIA team, which includes another young female CIA officer, Lauren, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the base’s CIA security head, John, after last minute instructions on how the interrogation will be handled, the team is now on the verge of giving up. We feel the tension, the expectation, the disappointment, the anxiety, the renewed eagerness when a car is seen approaching from the distance. It stops outside the barriers by gate guards. Jessica panics and fears that her informant will be spooked. Jessica urges John to wave the gate guards off. But security only works, he says ominously, if we stick to the rules and the game plan, if we are constant. Make an exception, she urges. I can’t he replies. I’m responsible for everyone’s safety, not just yours. Then, in the one totally unconvincing scene in the film, he surrenders to her will and determination. He orders the guards to stand down We in the audience sit pinned to our seat waiting for the car bomb that will massacre them all. Only it is not a car bomb. The Islamist is wearing a body bomb which the doctor (?) blows up when he gets out of the car and they order him to take his hand out of his pocket.
There are no surprises in the general plot of a heist movie, a gangster movie, a spy movie, an action movie, except in the manner of implementation of the next step. In the best of such films, it is not the external drama of events that propel the film but the personal psychological transformation of the central protagonist.
See what can happen when we bend the male security codes for women driven by their feelings and their instincts! That is the message! It is the backdrop to Maya’s pressure on her CIA superiors to give the ok to attack the compound. But before that Maya will have her own setbacks. Just after she has witnessed via satellite feed the death of her closest friend and her team, she is handed a disc that shows that the Abu Ahmed, who she has been chasing now for years, is dead. She watches the video and refuses to believe it. When asked what she will do she replies that she will smoke everybody in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden. Not capture him! Not interrogate him! Kill him! Maya has become an unstoppable force, ruthless and dedicated, willing to suppress emotion and wreck revenge on bin Laden personally. He’s mine, all mine, she lets us know, echoing Daniel’s statements as he tortures Amman in the opening scenes. She is the vengeful force of wrath. And unlike the typical gangster, she is a superwoman and cannot be killed riding shotgun or at the wheel of the car in the reverse attempted revenge by al Quaeda against her personally.
Further, as in a typical gangster movie, your real enemies are not the other gang, but your colleagues. As the line goes in Goodfellas, "Your murderers always come with smiles on their faces." Will her desk jockeys in Washington manage to kill her project before she gets to kill bin Laden? On her side, the central issue is betrayal. The dispatch of the other side automatically follows, even if it requires great technical ingenuity, managing to survive and prevent being betrayed. The murder of bin Laden is straight forward. The subtle efforts to undermine Maya when she is least suspecting and most vulnerable are at the core of the film. Recall Maya’s dirty look at Daniel when he votes for a soft 60% that the compound hold bin Laden.
But this is a gangster film of the twenty-first century when the real gangsters have gone international, but it mirrors the old gangster movies of the sixties and seventies when all gangsters got their just desserts rather than the gangster films of the eighties and nineties when the good guys and the gangsters each betray their own side and kill one another. In Zero Black Thirty we are back to an age of innocence in gangster movies but now on an international stage. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys cheer even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the murder scene.
Maya toils for years with no results until Debbie, a new recruit who is as perky as Maya was when she first arrived, walks up to her desk and tells Maya that she came to Pakistan inspired by tales she heard about Maya. Debbie hands Maya a file that seems to indicate that it was not Abu Ahmed who died but his brother. Why had Maya not been told before? "Things got lost in the shuffle. Human error." Caprice! History takes a turn because of chance and chance was needed to offset human error. Habeeb, Abu Ahmed’s older brother, who looked just like him, was the one who died. How does she know? By inference. If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, the chat rooms all over would be flashing
Daniel in Washington goes to bat for her. In an interchange with Wolf, the Muslim head of the counter-terrorism unit in CIA headquarters, Daniel offers to be the fall guy, the body, the scapegoat, that the Inquisitors for the government will be looking for to punish for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He does so as a noble knight in service to Maya’s obsession and in return for a couple of hundred thousand dollars needed to find the phone number of Abu Ahmed’s family. Daniel goes out into the field again and offers a prince in Kuwait a V10 Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. No torture now. Just payola.
One after another Maya bends other male reluctant officers to her will in spite of their initial reluctance. She convinces Larry to help on the slim evidence that the guy who phones home from many different places and lied to his mother shows clear signs of tradecraft. Until she runs into Bradley at the American Embassy! Bradley tells her that he can’t understand her obsession with getting surveillance on some guy who a facilitator once said might have been bin Laden’s courier. In any case, Bradley doesn’t give a fuck abut bin Laden. What matters is preventing attacks in America. He threatened to send her home to work on American al Quaeda cells.
Maya doesn’t budge an inch. If you want to stop attacks on the homeland, get bin Laden; he keeps ordering them she yells back. Bradley barks back, "no one has talked to bin Laden in four years. He’s out of the game. He’s dead. You’re chasing a ghost." Maya responds even more strongly, but with a very personal attack on Bradley for being a no-nothing and just wanting to tick a box that you got another low-level operative. Then she raises the stakes beyond the weapons of verbal humiliation used in sparring and blackmails him. "Either give me the team I need to follow the lead, or the other thing you’re gonna have on your resume is the first Station Chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden. Bradley responds, "You’re fucking out of your mind." We cheer Maya for winning what to date seems her most important cock fight for we have been well socialized in the code of gangster movies. As worshippers of the image on the cave wall, we understand the laws of revenge. We have all caught scopophilia, the predominant male gaze of Hollywood cinema. Only instead of women portrayed as simply objects, we watch them mutate into male protagonists. We go to the movies desiring "to watch and identify with what you’re watching" so women, half the audience for movies, can now be mesmerized by gangster films.
The code is simple. If someone tries to subvert you, you have to retaliate with a harder blow than the one he threw. Otherwise you’re a wimp. Maya proved she was no wimp and had learned the rules of the war of all against all that prevails in the Hobbesian state of nature. No compassion. No backing down. No saying you are sorry No bowing down before superior formal authority. It is the law of gangs. It is the law of prisons. It is the law of the jungle. It is the laws that Daniel articulated at the beginning of the film. Formal authority be damned! The issue is always who the lord and master is and who the bondsman.
So it goes. As you sit in the audience you cheer her on and despair at the number of wishy-washy bosses she has to beat up. Then we get on what seems a side track. Bradley is being pulled out of Pakistan because he has been named publicly in a lawsuit by the family of the victim of a U.S. drone attack. The issue isn’t Bradley’s departure. That’s the feint. The issue is that drone attacks create their own media relations nightmares and a different kind of security problem. Maya wanted to nuke the compound but indirectly we are told that she had to draw back; accept killing bin Laden and give up on the fast and certain but with indeterminate political consequences. Maya has been socialized to become a sociopath standing out and challenging the system in terms of its own real rules and using any means she can to get her way. And we in the audience love every bit of it. The law of the jungle is bulldoze your way through and use whatever norms there are against the system itself to get your way. Compassion for the kids in the compound! Does Maya express one bit of concern about the kids who would be killed? Not a whit! A bleeding heart she ain’t. Up with rugged individualism!
We now have the answer why Maya did not completely get her way. She wanted to blow bin Laden’s compound with a drone rather than using Navy Seals. Pakistan gets a new CIA head. Maya says she needs people to track Abu Ahmed. The new head folds rather than argue with her. Her reputation has preceded his taking the job. He knows who really runs the show. But the hunter has become the hunted. An assassination gang tries to get her, shooting up her car. But she gets away. She has become one tough and resourceful broad.
Now the peak to which everything has been building — getting an affirmative decision to attack the compound. Days pass. Weeks. Months. Maya takes to writing in lipstick on the glass wall her boss’s office how many days they have waited for a go-ahead.
What are the considerations? The scenes are fast paced and tumble one on top of the other even though they take place over four months and obviously take much more time than we see. We view a hall at the White House outside the office of the President’s National Security Adviser (NSA). George approaches as the team files out and says to the NSA, "I just don’t get the rhythms of politics." The NSA replies, "You think this is political? If this was political we’d be having this conversation in October when there’s an election bump. This is pure risk. Based on deductive reasoning, inference, supposition and the only human reporting you have is six years old, from detainees who are questioned under duress. The political move is to tell you to go fuck yourself, and remind you that I was in the room when your old boss pitched WMD in Iraq…at least there you guys brought photographs." The memory of Iraq haunts the whole bureaucracy just as the Mogadishu syndrome haunted the Clinton presidency when the Rwanda genocide broke out. But Maya is so determined and wilful that she can not only resurrect zombies but can even dissolve the ghost of the Iraq War.
We learn that the issue is a calculation of risk and not politics. Given the evidence, it’s a no-brainer – go fuck yourself. George pops back: But how do you weigh the risk of bin Laden getting way? He is far more subtle that Maya in his use of blackmail. The NSA now suggests that the problem is no longer whether to attack but how. "Give us options."
But we are not given the options. We are not explicitly told why they chose to use Navy Seals rather than drones. Was it because of the women and children in the compound? Was it because they wanted concrete proof that they had bin Laden? Was it because they wanted to capture documents? Was it because they feared bad public relations?
We never know. Had the film already gone on too long? Was it over budget? We are not given any information on the options and why one was chosen over the other. The climax focuses on the decision on whether to implement one option or not. We move to Nevada and an Air Force base and we meet the Navy Seal team and view two high tech stealth Blackhawks that have never been tested with people or in an actual operation. There will be all kinds of risks in employing them. But we never see any real calculation of that risk. We are never introduced to any sense that the decision is really about rational deduction and inference. It is about will and only about will with a supporting cast of reasons playing minor roles.
And we are back to the decision? A Navy Seal asks Maya in an incredulous tone, ‘You mean you have no intel on the ground?" But even these tough soldiers, Maya wins over. She is truly an unstoppable force. She is truly a superwoman. But on route to their conversion from sceptics to followers if not believers, she tells them her preference: "Quite Frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser… But bin Laden is there – you’re going to kill him for me." Vivian who plays the same agent in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden insists on the same: "We should bomb the fuck out of it." Since the two different filmmakers did not share notes, it seems that the character of Maya/Vivian was based on a real person.
The tough and best way was to use a drone. But the politicos are too worried about the hell that would break lose if they had the wrong target or for killing women and children. We do not know if this was part of the reasoning. It is part of showing Maya as tougher than any of the men she has dealt with and certainly tougher than the politicians. America has found its Margaret Thatcher.
But then she comes up against the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame with Wolf, the Deputy Director, Daniel and others in attendance. Yes or no the CIA Director asks. 60% two of them answer, including Wolf. 80% says George. Daniel suggests a soft 60% for bin Laden but high probability for a high level target. Then the CIA Director turns to Maya, but is interrupted by his deputy who insists they have taken her opinion into account in their assessments of the probability. But Maya says her piece anyway. "100%, he’s there – okay, fine, ninety-five percent because I know certainty freaks you guys out – but it’s a hundred!"
She beat them all at their own game. She did not get her drones but she got the next best thing. Bigelow has directed a brilliant film in which she surrendered her belief as youth drawn from conceptual art that the aesthetic should always be in service to the idea and instead made a movie in which the idea and the aesthetic work in a remarkable tension as she continues her explorations of the coded language of the masculine herd, in this case, one in which a female has become the winning prize fighter. Her movie is a remarkable visceral journey involving gut, heart and eventually head. The rest of the movie is the climatic action film of the implementation of the decision and strictly about the code of masculinity in a state of nature that is all about power and violence. That ending, however, that muscular he-man stuff is, however, anti-climactic to the psychological thriller that just ended.
In the end Maya flies alone to where we do not know.
Tomorrow: Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13
[Tags Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, revenge, rational decisions,