The Oscars

The Oscars 2013


Howard Adelman

I am writing my reflections on the academy awards, not to comment on the vote or to suggest why another film should have been awarded the Oscar for best score or best costuming or best director or why one actor was better than another. Rather I want to use the academy awards as a set of indicators to try to sense the zeitgeist of America today. This is particularly appropriate this year since so many of the films that have been nominated in the various categories are reflections of sentiments and predispositions in the land of the free and the home of the brave. What is the fashion of the moment, not in the sense of a fad, but as a phenomenological window into the shifting character of America? As Georg Wilhelm Hegel wrote, "No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of a time is also his own spirit." And the representatives of our age who specialize in representation offer an ideal window into that spirit.

Of course it is a great conceit to suggest that Academy members do not cast their votes based on the skills and creativity of its members in the various categories, but those skills were so much in evidence in almost all the films nominated that it is not too far fetched to suggest that in at least some of the categories underlying collective beliefs could have served as tipping the voting scales in one direction or another. Underlying assumptions that permeate an age may even influence us to ignore prudence and fall in love with flying and with romantic love itself, the real secular religion of our age.

Notice the total and absolute absence of any film set in business. There are no Greed is Good films. The only movie set in the business world is Paperman, that won an Oscar for best animated short film, and it was about a bored and unhappy office employee who ignores his boss and runs off to seek romantic happiness. Paperman was based on John Kahrs’ using a traditional animation style in a unique way by marrying it to modern technology for the purposes of inversion to convert 3D into 2d pencil drawings.

The romantic story is also an inversion for it begins as a romance when a lonely young office worker falls for a beautiful girl on his morning commute to the office when one of the papers that is blown away by the wind into his face belongs to a beautiful woman and then one of his papers blows into her face and is marked by the lipstick on her lips. He retrieves the paper and is mesmerized by the iconic red lip marks so that he misses the train with the woman on it. The love of his life is presumably lost forever. He magically re-discovers that she works in a skyscraper opposite his own office. In a comic series of reversals he tries to get her attention by making paper airplanes and trying to reach her and when he runs out of paper he uses the lipstick-marked one only to see that presumably fail too. He ignores his boss, flies down to the street only to be covered in an alley with the paper planes he already flew. But in the magic of movies, the lipstick-marked paper airplane pursues the girl, catches her and in the end unites them both. It is a romantic innovative delight and obeisance to the virtues of perseverance, the magic of romance and the delight of the chase.

America stands torn between opposing squadrons of economic liberals and conservatives, community conservatives and individualistic liberals so that individualists per se are on both sides of the divide but in opposite camps, while those liberals who believe in caring and sharing are at odds with those with whom they share a sense of community because the conservative communitarians are guided more by a sense of respect for authority, tradition and values centred in the traditional family to which they have pledged their fealty. Through it all we want to tease out the cunning of reason.

Does the cunning of reason get expressed as community conservative values favouring tradition, loyalty and authority rooted in solid middle class families or are the virtues celebrated caring and sharing in a large communal sense as in Beasts of the Southern Wild or in the offbeat comedy, Silver Linings Playbook which won an Oscar for best supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of a sex-addicted and blunt talking and quirky widow, hardly the consummate virtues as a model for community conservatism? But she is not an acquisitive individual but an idiosyncratic one who falls in love with a bi-polar former teacher (Bradley Cooper) who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

David Russell’s adapted script (and direction) of Silver Lining Playbook that was tops in the Spirit Awards did not win an Oscar for best film or best direction or best adapted screenplay. The film is a reflection of the central character, Pat’s, refrain who keeps repeating that all you have to do is get in the right frame of mind and anything’s possible and we cannot get caught up in the poison of negativity. It is the same message as the equally engaging, warm and funny drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy and not a dark comedy seen through the fantasy of a child’s eyes. It was not the illusion of love viewed through rose clouded glasses that wins out but love that is the product of struggle, conflict and tension and rooted in a mixture of madness and reality. But it is love nevertheless.

In the category of original screenplays, in contention were Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty. Though I saw Flight and appreciated John Gatins excellent script, as well as Denzel Washington’s acting, and although the script was also authentic and reflective of Gatin’s own struggles with drugs and alcohol, I did not believe authenticity reflected our age or America’s sense of either its ideals or what it was prepared to do.

Django Unchained was hailed as leading in a tight three way race and was expected to win over Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s Moonrise Kingdom. My film-mad son, Gabriel, was rooting for Tarantino’s script to win. I did think that its theme about a freed black slave (Jamie Foxx) who by sheer grit self-discipline, a good tutor, Dr. King Schultz played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and unflagging determination, who transforms himself into a bounty hunter, did somehow mirror the quest to kill terrorists by using navy Seals and was not too far fetched an analogy. Drango delivers revenge on Calvin Candle played so brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, and rescues his beloved, Broomhilda played by Kerry Washington who speaks fluent German.

It is a film of love and redemption, revenge on evil-doers and triumph of the good through disciplined and targeted violence. The dentist, played by Christoph Waltz as a replay with variations of the character he played in his Oscar award winning smirking Nazi SS-Satndartenfährer Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Unlike Lincoln, he is an authentic German (Austrian) anti-racist who offers brilliant comic relief while, at the same, serving as the Greek chorus and telling Django the original German legend of Broomhilda.

The dialogue has its usual brisk crisp punctuation that also delights and entertains, but I questioned whether the marriage of the comic and sombre revenge drama, however entertaining, reflected our time. The parallels were too direct and overdrawn without any of the subtle twists and inversions of the original Norse sage or even Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with its deeper tale of fratricide and betrayal. But the Academy did choose Django Unchained for best original screenplay. It told me that revenge for 9/11 was still on the American mind and that their president, who was not himself descended from slaves, but identified with the majority of Americans who were, was the perfect leader to deliver that revenge. I thought that Michelle Obama presenting the introduction to the selection of best picture could not have been more appropriate.

Why did Lincoln win Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar? It was simply a case of the best man lead actor winning though the fact that Lincoln is Barack Obama’s favourite president may have helped. Lincoln, whichalso won for production design, was a film of sacrifice, of Lincoln’s life, of the 600,000 soldiers, 1 of 4 Confederates and 1 of 19 Yankees, who died not counting the hundreds of thousands who were maimed for life, of the suffering of the Blacks that stand in the background of the film. Lincoln not only sacrifices his life but his principles as he wallows in the muck of politics and payoffs to pass the 13th Emancipation amendment that made slavery unconstitutional and would free the slaves before the confederate states surrendered and rejoined the union, a principle that Lincoln thought was just and ripe even though he personally did not subscribe to the equality of Negroes, only their right to be treated equally before the law. As his law partner William Henderson wrote, Lincoln was "humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ…I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.” Lincoln is played as a Christ figure with many human failings as described by the priest in Life of Pi. Of course, Stephen Spielberg has a long record of making movies based on the core Christian myth. But this was more historically accurate than the portrait of Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

That is how Daniel Day Lewis portrayed him – as cantankerous and surly but humble and affable, stooped with the weight of all those dead soldiers on his back but stooping even further into buying votes to ensure the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment on outlawing slavery is past. Lincoln is full of homey and long-winded boring stories but is always tolerant and kind. That Lincoln was nominated for twelve academy awards but only won two while Argo won the Oscar for best picture, best director for Ang Lee, best editing and best adapted screenplay based on the Chris Terrio script adaptation of Joshua Bearman’s magazine article, "The Great Escape" which, instead of a Canadian caper, took the incidental use of a film crew to tell a CIA spy drama of escape from Iran.

Argo is a great juxtaposition to Zero Dark Thirty which is also a CIA story but of revenge against a terrorist escapee rather than a humiliating tale of American hostages escaping from Khomeini’s tyrannical terrorist fanatical Iran regime. While the killing of bin Laden was a high point in Obama’s presidency, the hostage crisis was the final nail in the coffin of the Carter presidency and was probably the lowest point in the sense of American confidence since WWII. So instead of Canadians appearing as the heroes hiding the hostages and getting them out with Canadian passports, the hero is Tony Mendez, a Vietnam vet and an expert on graphics, identity transformation with a record of helping friendly assets escape danger undetected. Though Bearman does mention that the group of non-hostages was split between John Sheardon’s personal residence and the Canadian embassy represented by Ambassador, Ken Taylor, the Canadians are relegated to the background and the fore story is a CIA/Hollywood marriage of individual risk and daring-do based on identity transformation, including the transformation of the historical narrative into a fictional tale of a spirit renewed and recovered. It is your archetypal Hollywood narcissistic tale of self-love in the service of a liberal cause of rescue but not revenge or prevention.

The cover tale, of course, was ironic, a fictional Irish-Hollywood crew planning an epic film that might appeal to the Iranian regime in desperate need of hard dollars and in the story he had to develop an air tight exfiltration mission. Mendez with two Hollywood costume specialists created a fake Hollywood production company with fake business cards and identities for a location-scouting party and even a Hollywood address for their invented studios in the old China Syndrome set. So Hollywood is enlisted to create a fake story to create a fake story about a great escape. How Hollywood! The schlockmeister feelies of fantasy partner with ingeniously clever and wheelies of the CIA to save the world, or, at least six Americans

If Moonrise Kingdom had won then so would subtlety, nuance, gentle satire and the childhood vision (also captured in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Recall the opening when the ten-year old Lionel on a rainy day ascends the steps of a very dated house with old pictures of sailboats and battleships to put an old fashioned record on a turntable and listen with his siblings as Benjamin Britten teaches Lionel, his two younger brothers, Murray and Rudy, and his older sister, Suzy, how an orchestral composition is brought together and integrated, though Suzy sets herself apart and immerses herself a book, Shelly and the Secret Universe. We quickly enter a Peter Pan universe.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise is narrated, but not by a five year old butt by a fifty year old long-haired surveyor whom we first meet wearing boots and a parka to shield himself from the wind and rain. He introduces us to the island of New Penzance and we immediately think of the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance, which was subtitled, "The Slave of Duty" and is the story of a boy, Frederic, slightly older than Lionel, who was apprenticed to bleeding heart pirates and, when released by the pirates, meets beautiful women for the first time and falls in love with Mabel. We can then expect a similar love story and a parallel rescue as Major-General Stanley, Mabel’s father, rescues Frederic and Mabel. The names of the characters – dimwitted Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, who is the worst warden of any troop imaginable, and Sam’s foster father, Chesterfield Billingsley who is unwilling to take the escaped Sam back, as well as Lazy-Eye and Snoopy. The film is a cross between Cinderella and the Seven Dwarfs and neither it nor Beasts of the Southern Wild won a single Oscar. This simply indicated that Hollywood is still married to the traditional fables of America captured by Argo rather than the humorous satirical takes on the American fable or the down and dirty Bathtub of America reaching up to metaphysical and metaphorical heights. America wanted its fables clean and traditional and uncontaminated by either dirt or satire.

Penzance, we are told, has no roads but is a bucolic place of old growth forest but about to be hit three days hence by a powerful storm. So Django Unchained is a comic western adaptation of a Norse fable via an opera which wins two Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor while Moonrise Kingdom is a fairy tale adaptation of a comic opera set in the pastel gentle and innocent colours of the sixties rather than the jangled screaming colours of the tie-dye generation of Haight-Ashbury. It is a period of scouts and honour codes, of boy bonding and innocent pursuits disrupted, but some of those innocent pursuits. such as building rockets, are very ominous. It is a brilliant twist to replace soft-hearted pirates with an inept scout troop trying to find the escaped Sam Shakusky and is a delightful and light-hearted send-up of conservative communitarians in America but not a film ready to win an Oscar.

I’ve already written about Amour and Zero Dark Thirty and was surprised to see the latter lose out in the editing category to Argo though it won for its sound editing. Amour is so realistic and finely tuned and deservedly won the Oscar for best foreign film, while Zero Dark Thirty has all the impressions and cleverness of reality while essentially telling a gangster revenge film in a spy motif. So Academy members had a real choice: the dark critical comic book drama (Django Unchained); the light gentle satire (Moonrise Kingdom), harsh self-destructive realism and the inevitable destructiveness of death wearing down an unforgettable tale of love (Amour); and a mythological version of the reality that is the most dominant political narrative of our age (Argo).

Only Lincolncould have challenged Argo. Les Miserables, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty never had a chance for best picture though he categories in which they won were very revealing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has a script by the young director, Benh Zeitlin written with Lucy Aliba, a close friend since the two were twelve years old. The film script is an adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious which was an autobiographical look at her own troubled relationship with her own father who was seriously ill but "broke sh’t" when he was angry. The film, though its very authentic harsh and simple language was easily the most poetic script of all the choices, including Life of Pi which was adapted by David Magee from Saskatoon’s Yann Martel’s novel that has already sold nine million copies. Further, it had the most metaphysical message about the interconnectedness of all of nature and even the extinct animals from the past that haunt the film and makes sense of Hush Puppie’s wish for cohesiveness. The portrait by Quvenzhané Wallis was simply amazing and evidently the language used by the father was a direct replication of the words used by Lucy Alibar’s father. It is a film about becoming unmoored in a radically more profound way than the American escapees in Iran, unmoored by a drunken and sick father and unmoored by nature.

Life of Pi won Oscars for visual effects (Vancouver-based Gaillaume Rocheron), cinematography (Claudio Miranda), best score (Michael Miranda) and best director, Ang Lee. It is an adventure fable and not a projection from life into a metaphysical realm. But it is also a film about unmooring, for instead of being located in Bathtub outside the levees of New Orleans, it is a story of a character stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. The film begins in a magical fairy tale world of the widest imaginable cluster of animals in contrast to the extinct aurochs that haunt Beasts of the Southern Wild and the wild carnivorous devouring of shell fish and animals. In the Life of Pi the fiercest cat in the animal kingdom is a kitten. While the latter looks at the world through the fantasy imaginings of a young child, Life of Pi turns a fable into a zoo story that starts with animals in captivity but is also awash in water. Water, the symbol for constant change, is always about to overwhelm, the struggle for survival. Diving in a pool in Life of Pi is but an adumbration of Pi’s underwater life journey. Pi is not named after the famous abstract mathematical formula representing the ratio of the diameter of any circle to its circumference that is an irrational number which has no end, but after the most beautiful swimming pool in the world, Piscine Molitor and later the most defined and smallest world of all, a life raft. If Beasts of the Southern Wild has a collection of the ugly leftovers, misfits and discards of the beautiful world, the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in its sparkling magnificence is an idealized picture of the beautiful society. It is not hard to understand why Hollywood loved the film and favoured it over its dystopic closest and more profound and psychologically authentic closest rival.

If Beasts of the Southern Wild is about community and connectedness, Life of Pi is about the purification of the individual soul. If Beasts of the Southern Wild always portray a community of those with virtually nothing engaged in continuing mutual support with the dictum to never cry and feel pity, Life of Pi shifts quickly to bullying and humiliating Pi in Montreal. Both films are narrated, Beasts of the Southern Wild by a five year old child telling her current story and the adult Pi telling a retrospective story. Beasts of the Southern Wild is infused with a Spinozist pantheistic metaphysics while Life of Pi has a Christian frame. Early in the film Pi asks the priest why God would send his own son to suffer for the sins of ordinary people and the priest smiles down at Pi that it was because God transformed himself into a human to be more approachable and accessible. Pi is puzzled. Why would the innocent be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty? That could be asked of any of the movies. But as I wrote above, only Lincolnand, as we shall see, Les Misérables picks up on the Christian theme though Christoph Waltz sacrifices himself for Django but without any allusion to Christianity.

We find sacrifice but without resurrection. Not entirely. In the documentary category, two wonderful documentaries about the absence of resurrection were ignored. Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote that, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters received an unexpected gift from Hollywood: neither of the two Israeli documentaries [Broken Camera and The Gatekeepers]got an Oscar. Both are highly critical of Israeli government policies." Marmur continued and added, "the films testify to the country’s commitment to democracy that allows such open and explicit criticism of its government to be exposed to international scrutiny." But Hollywood ignored them in favour of a feel good film, Searching for Sugar Man, about a musician who, unbeknownst to himself, became a famous star in boycotted apartheid South Africa, and the process of his resurrection from obscurity.

The evening was dedicated to musicals, but only Les Misérables was nominated in the musical category. Anne Hathaway, as expected, won for her portrayal of Fantine, the prostitute whose daughter, Cosette, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) adopts. The film won for cinematography, make up and hairstyling, and sound mixing though I was surprised Anna Karenina beat it for costume design. I have not read Hugo’s classic since high school over sixty years ago but its Christian theme from below in contrast to Stephen Spielberg’s preference for Christians who come from the top down or even from outer space, did not seem to be its primary appeal. Hollywood, though, always loves a noble and beautiful whore. But the real Christian is Jean Valjean, a hard working stevadore arrested for a stolen piece of bread and pursued for the rest of his life by the determined and unremitting Javert played by Russell Crowe even though, after being born again through the efforts of the saintly Bishop Myriel, he lives the rest of his life as the suffering Christ figure until he dies as a sacrificial lamb in the revolution. In this case, persistence and determination are villainous rather than heroic as when Maya in Zero Dark Thirty shares those same characteristics. Both characters are bent on revenge and their own deep sense of justice and upholding the rule of law, at least as they see it. Les Misérables is an uplifting sentimental tearjerker that is just so beautifully produced but it is still a story of class warfare and that rarely plays well with Americans.

If Les Misérables is about class warfare, the Bond series in its fiftieth year has always been about class in a stylistic more than a social or economic sense. Daniel Craig plays Bond when he is ready to retire in Skyfall, has lost his panache and daring-do and, like Denzel Washington in Flight, has retreated from taking risks and seeks obscurity only to be drawn back by M (no longer played by Judi Dench but by Ralph Fiennes) to deal with horrific terrorists led by a rogue agent played by Javier Barden as Raoul Silva who was once abandoned by M to be broken physically and psychologically. The film won for the most original score and tied with Zero Dark Thirty for sound editing. Adele Adkins sings "Skyfall" that she wrote with Paul Epworth and it won an Oscar. The lyrics are worth reprinting:

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heart

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall

The lyrics were as appropriate for to Beasts of the Southern Wild with the words: drowned, the sky is falling, the end is coming, and swept away, where worlds collide and days are dark and skyfall itself suggesting the end of the world. These terms are counterpoised to standing tall at skyfall where we stand together, stand tall and face it all — together.

Curfew written and directed by Shawn Christensen that won the Oscar best Live Action short film is about Richie (Christansen) who, when we first meet him, is in a real bathtub not the Bathtub of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unlike the latter, which urges everyone never to give up, Ritchie is slicing his wrists in that bathtub. Ritchie is asked by his estranged sister, Maggie (Kim Allen) to look after her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. Unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hush Puppy is unable to save her father but Sophia as an energetic and boisterous ball of energy who is quick witted, a vital spirit and metaphysical observer of chaos who connects with Richie, turns him around. But both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Curfew are about sharing and caring as is Silver Linings Playbook.

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, who were nominated before for an Oscar for their 2007 film War/Dance about child soldiers in Uganda, made the Oscar award winning coming of age documentary short Inocente about the indominatable determination of this fifteen year old artist who rejoices in colour rather than her dark past. Like many of the films from Argo to Life of Pi to Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is a film of homelessness, of a child this time but like Silver Linings Playbook see technicolour and not just silver linings in life’s little joyful moments.

Brave won for best animated feature and is about an indefatigable determined young girl, Princess Merida, who is a skilled archer and refuses to follow the rules of the male dominated system and marry the chosen son in accordance with clan system. It is precisely the same theme as Zero Dark Thirty. Both have to undo a spell that clouds the society and keeps putting up obstacles.

So what can we read of the American zeitgeist through the pictures American and the world watch, most of which are reflections of how America sees it self these days and projects that self on the screen? Review the themes. Though romantic love remains the secular religion of modernity, it is a theme in only a few of the movies: Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Paperman, Silver Linings Playbook, rather surprising for Hollywood. In fact sharing and caring are more frequent themes than romantic love and that is even true of the romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook. This is characteristic of the love portrayed in Amour, Les Misérables (who misled us in describing the French as the epitome of lovers), and the daughter-father relationship in Beauty of the Southern Wild, the uncle-niece relationship in Brave as well as the love relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Sally Fields (Lincoln’s wife), and between Tommy Lee Jones (The radical abolitionist, Thadeus Stevens) and his black wife or mistress.

Traditional Christian themes remain a strong suit but in some very unusual and non-traditional contexts. It is certainly a theme in Les Misérables, but in a leftist class context, in Lincoln but in sacrificing himself for a large historical transformation, emancipating the slaves, rather than for saving individual souls, in Life of Pi but in a context which has more to do with the purification of the soul in Hinduism than traditional Christianity. Sacrifice detached from Christianity is more common: Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables and Django Unchained. Except for the most famous adventure comic of all time, the Bond movies, redemption itself is rare. One quarter of Americans may be evangelical Christians but you would never know that from what Hollywood produces and distributes.

Two motifs do stand out: the creative importance of the imagination and fantasy, and unmooring, though an older theme of identity transformation is used as a superficial cover-up in Argo. Unmooring is the flavour of the day in: Life of Pi, Skyfall, Flight, Sikver Lining Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Inocente, Fantasy and the imagination are critical tools of salvation in Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom and Beauty of the Southern Wild. And if you want to celebrate certain virtues, Hollywood seems to have placed a huge value of perseverance: Paperman, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Django Unchained and Brave. Optimism was the other principle virtue I noticed: Beauty of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained.

It was a wonderful year to see Hollywood reflecting itself in all its reflected glory.

Academy Awards.2013.doc


Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13. Part I

Obama 16 Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

Part I: Background


Howard Adelman

I will first set the debate over drones and targeted assassinations within the larger context of the overarching meta-narrative of the way America deals with the wicked, and specifically its foes, of which the movie, Zero Dark Thirty was an example. I will then sum up the historical residue of the first historical instance of American intervention overseas against non-state actors, the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I want to then connect this discussion with the movie, Zero Dark Thirty with respectto the decision process, the alternative modes of implementation and the factors considered. Then I will return to the issue of the after debate focus on torture versus an examination of the legal and ethical factors in the decision.

Tomorrow, in Part II, I will discuss the debate over the use of drones and targeted assassinations.

We are not living in the antebellum America of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Thoreau and the conversational popular poetry of Walt Whitman. Emerson deposited the core myth of American culture in its literature and defined American exceptionalism and indifference to the old and the rest of the world. Americans are different. Americans have had a different experience and have endured their own unique traumas. The American environment is different. It has a frontier (and when it crosses that frontier, it will always need another).

Contemporary Americans are heirs to the pre-Iraq War literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Waldo Ellison though always haunted by pre Civil War shadows of Ahab’s fight with Moby Dick, except in the unusual parallel to hunting for Usama bin Laden. Further, Americans have the sense that to live a normal bourgeois life is to choose mere survival (as depicted in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending)rather than the adrenaline rush of true living. Americans, and perhaps many other peoples, love an adrenaline rush.

America’s role as leader of the world is not over. It is about to be reborn and resurrected, not in the stupid and self-destructive ways of George W. Bush and bully boy Dick Cheney who a year ago (12 March 2012) thought Toronto was too dangerous and cancelled a speaking engagement. America is now being reborn and resurrected in terms of the vision of Barack Obama. America will describe the world as Americans see it and remake the world in terms of that image. I am trying to get a handle on that new image and the analysis of domestic policy was the propaedeutic. The vision becomes clearest in the articulation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

To inspire Americans with a new vision, the president has to embody a set of norms that most Americans will buy into. The only other alternative was to envision secession as the New England states did prior to the Civil War, and as the poet James Russell Lowell advocated in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s to free New Englanders from the taint of slavery. Lowell’s sense of an ending was articulated in his essay, "Where Will It End? Except for small groups of Americans, that vision of secession has certainly not been possible after Lincoln. Since the Civil War, Americans have to deke it out (excuse the Canadian hockey metaphor but it is appropriate), though no longer domestically using military means, until there is only one vision of America left as pre-eminent.

Walt Whitman claimed he was the poet that could embrace and speak for all Americans and articulate what it was like to live and experience both the chaos and the grandeur of such a dynamic country. He did not succeed. Instead America got Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that taught most Americans not to kill each other, at least in a civil war, but also the desirability and necessity of fighting it out politically and symbolically. Barack Obama as a true heir to Whitman is busy selling America on itself in terms of his vision.

One hundred and fifty years later, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 was the symbolic equivalent to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. The reality, horrific enough, is not nearly as important as its symbolism and its resonance with the iconography of American historiography.


Very soon after its birth, America became an interventionist power thrusting whatever might it had into situations of violence overseas. Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador of Israel to the United States and a well-renowned scholar, wrote an influential essay based on his bestselling 2007 book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. The article appeared in the journal, Politics (22 November 2008) "How To Deal With Pirates," in which he argued that the historical lesson was clear: respond aggressively.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, pirates, backed by the North African city-states of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, were attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates demanded protection money so the ships of the respective nation would not be attacked. Alternatively , and after the fact, they demanded ransom money for the sailors, ships and cargoes that they did capture. The rationale offered was not greed but the Islamic injunction in the Koran that Muslims had a "right and duty to make war upon whomever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." In London in 1795 they offered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assurance that American ships would not be attacked if America paid $1 million, then 10% of the national budget. 20% of American overseas trade went through the Mediterranean. In opposition to John Adams, Jefferson was adamantly opposed to paying protection money. In 1785, Americans paid a ransom of $60,000 to get two ships released, but the costs for protection rose astronomically over the ensuing decade. Ten years later, the USA paid almost $1 million to get back the dey of Algiers and 115 sailors.

Lacking an overseas navy and no longer enjoying the protection of either the British navy or the French navy under their 1778 alliance, the Americans were cornered. Jefferson tried to create a coalition to fight the pirates but failed since most European states found it more expeditious to pay protection money than engage in another war. Initially, so did the USA which, for example, paid a tribute of $80,000 in 1784 but against the advice of Thomas Jefferson. "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson) In the new century he was president.

In 1801, when he refused to pay $225,000 and $25,000 per annum, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Contrary to Jefferson’s previous resistance to a standing army or navy, he sent a small squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean. Americans were humiliated with the loss of the frigate, Philadelphia, and the capture of her crew in 1803. By 1805, after a spectacular raid that blew up the captured ship and caused extensive damage to Tripoli, and by sending additional ships and land forces, America largely freed itself from the scourge of pirates and paying annual tributes, a process that took ten further years to complete with naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur.

For a short version of this narrative, see Gerald W. Gawalt who is the manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, "America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional War"; it is available online. For fuller versions see the following: Joseph Wheelan (2003) Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805;Frank Lambert (2005) The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World; and Joshua E. London (2005) Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. For a very livelier, short and more contentious account as indicated by the title, see Christopher Hitchens, "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" also available online. It is subtitled: "America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation’s character." Hitchens mentions that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, he included a condemnation of “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The war served as a critical factor in the states agreeing to a stronger and more centralized federal system, especially for defence. Further, the culture created by those actions and their rhetorical embellishments inculcated into future generations the Marine Corps anthem with which most of us are familiar, at least with the opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Honour versus humiliation, self-defence and revenge, freedom of the seas versus ‘surrender’ to terrorism were all in play. Hitchens, Gewalt and others cite Kipling’s poem "Dane-Geld", especially the final two lines explicating why one should never surrender to depradation:

"For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

The Decision Process and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty makes clear that a decision had been made to close down the operation tasked with finding bin Laden, a task that far pre-dated 9/11. The film suggests several of the possible reasons – the belief that he was either dead or so holed up in a cave in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan as to be ineffective, the shift in priority to home security, the need to execute two major wars, the lack of any solid intelligence on his location.

A formal announcement that the operation to find bin Laden, code-named Alec Station, had actually been abandoned was made by the CIA on 3 July 2006 and published in The New York Times the next day in a story entitled, "CIA Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden" even though George W. Bush had vowed after 9/11 in his usual propensity for over-statement that, "The most important thing is for us to find bin Laden," and reaffirmed that, "It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." ("Transcript of Bush press conference," CNN, 13 March 2002 Note that the emphasis had been on his capture. I believe that this was not just for public relations purposes.

However, the issue getting bin Laden was resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign with Obama replaying the Kennedy democratic tact of showing that a democratic candidate was more militant than the Republican one. In the second McCain-Obama presidential debate on 7 October 2008, mostly spent on domestic economic, education and health policy, one of the questions posed to the candidates on foreign affairs was the following one from Katie Hamm: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" The question was about using Pakistan as a safe place to retreat by Afghani terrorists and whether the candidates favoured hot pursuit.

McCain responded first suggesting he was a metaphorical Canadian in the ilk of Paul Heinbecker and Don Hubert in support of prudent humanitarian intervention, an answer that had nothing to do with a question about hot pursuit and everything to do with McCain trying to counter an image of him as an uncontrollable hawk and to display his experience and cool prudence in contrast to that of Barack Obama. In citing the Canadians, I am here referring to the work on cooperative security undertaken in the last decades of the nineteenth century and its successor, the Canadian doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect that was articulated by Canada under the leadership of Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and key civil servants such as Don Hubert and Paul Heinbecker, and academics such as Fen Hampson at The Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Cf. Rob McRae and Don Hubert (eds.) (2001) Human Security and the New Diplomacy: protecting people, promoting peace, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Fen Hampson (2002) Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, OUP).

By the middle of the first decade, the doctrine had received unanimous support by the United Nations and then virtually no implementable activities in spite of the strenuous efforts to ensure that the doctrine remained narrow and actionable. Libya could be interpreted as the rare exception. (Cf. Fen Hampson (2011) "Libya’s bigger lesson? There are no lessons," iPolitics INSIGHT, 29 August) I believe that civilian protection was offered as one reason for the air protection provided by the West, but I do not believe civilian protection was the main motivation. In any case, as Fen Hampson concluded, it was unlikely to be imitated. The twenty-first century continued as an American century and Canadian cosmopolitanism slipped into the background.

In the presidential debate, Obama responded to the question Katie Hamm raised that was similar to McCain’s only in that he too ignored the query. Instead of discussing hot pursuit, he said, "I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us." He pushed his refrain that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a just war because integrally related to the War on Terror. After inserting an aside on American humiliation in the past and that America should not be coddling Pakistan as McCain was suggesting, he added: "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden (my italics); we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Not capture, not capture or kill, just kill. And he reiterated the point in a follow-up.

On 2 June 2009, seven months after he was elected, President Obama resurrected the hunt for bin Laden. There was no suggestion that this was a result of a lowly CIA gent uncovering new information. Obama directed Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. When bin Laden’s suspected compound was located in January of 2011, that it was bib Laden’s was far more overwhelming that suggested in the movie. In the film, the evidence is limited to the following:

– Abbottabad was an excellent communications hub

– the compound was .8 miles fro the Pakistan Military Academy implying this would inhibit an American raid, not that the Pakistani military would come to bin Laden’s aid

– the third floor balcony had a 7′ high privacy wall, sufficient to keep the 6’4" bin Laden from being seen

– the compound had no internet or landline telephone.

What was left out, presumably to help the plot and pacing, were the following:

– the compound was at the end of a dirt road

– it was built after 2001 but before 2005

– the compound was huge, eight times larger than the luxurious compounds nearby

– the surrounding wall was extra thick and extra high (12-18′)

– no garbage was ever set out for collection (someone correct me if my memory is incorrect on this one).

The delay in making the decision was not because of heavy doubts about whether the compound belonged to bin Laden but because of the time needed for preparation to ensure the best means were used with the least risk to the troops and America’s reputation. The preparation process had to provide for:

– the time it takes to establish a safe house

– the time to build the replica of the compound and practice (in taking the shortcut of failing to build the wall and only using a chain link fence in the model, the Americans failed to understand the effect of the wall on the downdraft of the helicopter rotors)

– the time to prepare the back up rescue team, in turn requiring a detailed understanding of roads, routes and traffic patterns

Evidence that the compound belonged to Obama was presented with three different options to attack it at a meeting of the National Security Council:

a) bomb the compound using B-2 stealth bombers;

b) send a smaller drone;

c) send in a tactical team by helicopter.

The first option was eventually ruled out for two reasons. A bomb large enough to destroy a possible or suspected underground bunker would blow up at least one adjacent Pakistani house and at least a dozen Pakistani civilians would be killed in addition to the civilians in the compound. Further, Pakistani cooperation would be required for that type of raid and the Americans, especially President Obama, did not trust the Pakistanis with information on a secret mission. Initially, however, Obama was on side with Maya in the film. He favoured the bombing option. Given the implications, at the meeting of the NSC on 29 March, that option was bracketed. The helicopter raid became the option of choice.

Why wasn’t the option of using a drone-fired tactical munition considered further since it was initially favoured by Robert Gates, then Defence Secretary? Because it depended on bin Laden’s habits and they were too irregular to guarantee certainty. At the end of March, orders were given to develop the implementation phase of the raid but without the final go ahead order. Note that all along there is no evidence that consideration was given to civilian deaths of women and children within the compound as a key factor in making the decision. The key factor was the safety of the tactical team and ensuring they got out. On 19 April when Obama gave the ok to the helicopter raid, he qualified the raid by insisting that the team be well enough equipped to fight their way out because he did not trust the plan to obtain Pakistani cooperation once the raid was underway if the military were alerted and initiated action. The final ok came on 29 April.

Yet none of the factors in this deliberation and planning were portrayed in the movie. It was just Maya’s will versus the cats in charge who did not seem to have her gumption. For a very detailed account of the deliberations over options and implementation, see Also read Mike Allen (2011) "Getting Osama bin Laden: How the Mission went down," Politico, 2 May.

As I wrote yesterday, in the movie Maya wanted to send drones or drop a bomb to blow up Usama bin Laden’s compound. The only references to why this option was taken is a reference to risk, risk to America’s reputation since a drone attack was far less risky to American troops than landing Navy Seals within Pakistan with a Pakistan military base less than a mile away. The presumption is that the women and children in the compound mattered, not because if they were killed, it might be offensive to legal and ethical principles under just law norms, but because America would have to deal with the negative fallout from the bad public relations that would follow. Further, a daring-do raid would have the opposite effect.

We never hear anything approaching a rational decisions process that would consider the conditions, the consequential expectations, the norms (these are not even mentioned), whether bin Laden should or should not be captured alive, etc. All we get are hints at such a debate and the implication that any rational process would have squashed an attack on the compound altogether. In the film, it was not Barack Obama’s or his advisors rational considerations that determined the outcome but Maya’s indomitable will and determination. The film did not really get into the difficulties in making the decision or the various factors that weighed on them. But neither did the discussion after the movie. Is a raid to kill bin Laden less reprehensible that if done with a drone?

Why did the film not think the issue of civilian protection in the compound was relevant? Further, why did the chattering classes spend all that word copy on the issue of torture and not debate killing Obama when there was no evidence he offered armed resistance? Why is a raid by Navy Seals on a compound in another country to kill residents therein a matter of enormous curiousity but not a matter of a normative debate when, within weeks of the release of the film, a raucous debate rose up over the use of drones and targeted killings? Yet the killing of bin Laden was the most sensational targeted assassination of any of them. Is it alright to kill the unique albino Moby Dick while enormous energies are spent on determining whether it is right or not to kill various other types of Islamist toothed whales — sperm, narwhal, pilot and beluga whales — and what degree of collateral damage can be tolerated for baleen whales whether they be blues, grays, bowhead, fin, humpback, minke or right whales?

Tomorrow Obama 17 Drones and Assassinations 21.02.13

Part II: Circumstances, Objectives, Anticipated Results and Norms


[Tag Obama, bin
Laden, Barbary Pirates, Zero Dark Thirty, Targeted Assassination]

Obama16.Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13.doc

Obama15.Zero Dark Thirty.Deciding to Kill bin Laden

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


Howard Adelman

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,