Zero Dark Thirty: A Portrait Of Torture


There seems no end to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated follow-up to her Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker.   The CIA has expressed reservations with regards to the accuracy of the film, Republicans have expressed concerns that filmmakers were given access to classified information, and some suggest the film projects a pro-torture stance.  For me, none of these are relevant to the film itself.  As for accuracy, movie audiences realize that the film is not a documentary, but rather a dramatization.  As for those who suggest the film projects a pro-torture stance, that is like saying that Schindler’s List supported the Holocaust or that Django Unchained supported slavery, simply because they were portrayed in these films.  Zero Dark Thirty is about the history of an event, and as such, it offers a dramatization of some of what has happened.  It does not condone or denounce what has occurred, but rather puts it on the screen and leaves it for the audience to decide.

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.

As for the torture scenes, I did have some issues with them.  Firstly, only detainees who were clearly guilty were submitted to torture.  In reality, that is not always the case.  Some detainees who have been tortured were not guilty, and such instances are never depicted in the film.  Also, torture has been known to yield false confessions.  Such cases, although they were alluded to in the film, were not portrayed in it. I would have liked to see a more comprehensive approach, but at the same time, I do understand the omission of these issues. Because this film is about the narrative that lead up to the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, it could be argued that confessions not pertinent to the raid are also not pertinent to the narrative, though I would contend that their inclusion would have added some much-needed depth to the film.  The torture scenes were also rather tame, to be frank.  We have seen water-boarding techniques in other films, such as Safe House, which came out earlier this year (a film which, like Zero Dark Thirty, also stars the talented Fares Fares), so seeing them on screen again isn’t as jarring as it otherwise might have been.  Considering the vile nature of images of torture that surfaced in the press some years ago from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the instances that occurred in the film were relatively mild.  There were no electrodes attached to reproductive organs, nor were there dogs being let loose on prisoners.  There were also no female detainees. We never see any women being tortured, only men.

Scenes such as this one did not make it into the final cut of the film.

Scenes such as this one did not make it into the final cut of the film.

However, my main issue with the film isn’t with the torture, but rather with the characters.  There is little character development in the film.  In the opening sequence we are introduced to Dan, portrayed by Jason Clarke, and Maya, played by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain.  It is apparently Maya’s first experience witnessing torture. Dan, at one point, pulls the pants off of the detainee in front of Maya.  It is an awkward moment and Chastain plays the scene well.  Although being exposed to a man’s genitalia by a male co-worker can be perceived as harassment, as Maya needs to prove her toughness, she does not complain about the incident.  Still, Chastain makes clear the conflict within her character’s mind.  Dan is also an interesting character and I was curious as to his motivations.  Later in the film, he leaves the camp, explaining that he needs to do something normal. Unfortunately, we never re-connect with him long enough to see how he deals with the conflicts that must brew in him.  One is reminded of Franz Fanon’s famous work, The Wretched Of The Earth, where a member of the Algerian police comes to see Fanon to discuss how his work torturing detainees has impacted his family life, and how he needs help humanizing his family after dehumanizing detainees for 12+ hours a day.  But such an exploration never makes it into the film.  Perhaps if the movie included a scene with a member of the task force speaking to a therapist, we would have more insight into the characters’ inner struggles.

Jason Clarke as Dan, who is taking a rest after an interrogation that involved torture.  The film fails to explore the internal conflicts of such characters.

Jason Clarke as Dan, who is taking a rest after an interrogation that involved torture. The film fails to explore the internal conflicts of such characters.

To me, Chastain’s Maya is the most curious character.  As the film’s protagonist, she is portrayed as bright and talented.  According to the officials in Washington who send her to the Middle East, she is ‘a killer’, but Maya insists that she did not volunteer for the job.  Later in the film, another young female CIA agent confides to Maya that she is her reason for joining the CIA. But at this point in the film, Maya’s CIA resume is completely blank. She admits as much during a scene with James Gandolfini.  As the film fails to place Maya in the context of any personal relationships, the viewer is left to guess her story.  What has she done to so impress her superiors in Washington, or to inspire other young women to follow in her footsteps?  What has she done to get the CIA’s attention while still in high school?  What is driving her?  What is her family background, and why does she not engage in any personal relationships throughout the film?  I respect the fact that both Bigelow and the screenwriter did not throw in a romantic narrative for the female protagonist.  I believe that oftentimes in film there is a temptation to place even an independently strong female character in a heterosexual relationship, even though such a relationship is never required of a strong male protagonist.  But Maya is a strong, intelligent, beautiful young woman who is dedicating what many would consider the prime years of her life to a job that offers her little satisfaction, so one is inclined to wonder what motivates her and what her background is, as no insight into these areas is offered.

Though the script seems to fail in building character, in many instances the actors fill in the blanks. Most notable is the aforementioned Fares Fares.  The narrative spells conflict for his character. Being of Middle Eastern descent, he does not dehumanize the enemy as his cohorts do.  He makes an impassioned plea to people who approach the site of the raid; his concern for their safety can be heard in his voice.  In one scene, he carries an empty body bag, and we see pain on his face as he walks past several dead.  Though not explicit in the dialogue, the conflict in him is visible in Fares’ expression.


Fares Fares as Hakim, in Zero Dark Thirty.

Fares Fares as Hakim, in Zero Dark Thirty.

Then there are the action sequences.  There is a car bombing in one scene that was unanticipated by the CIA, but seems obvious from the onset to the audience.  Likewise the actual raid is anticlimactic, though in fairness to the screenwriter and director, that may simply be an accurate recreation of the events.  Some scenes are implausible.  A child crying after seeing her parents killed by soldiers is offered a glow stick by one of those soldiers. She is told that everything is ok.  I understand that the people killed are reprehensible characters, but to the child they are parents, and being given a glow stick by the man who shot your parents down does not seem like a gesture that would be well received. Frankly, it comes across as ironically comical (though that may have been intentional).  There is also a scene with Maya at the end of the film where she boards a plane that has been reserved solely for her, but the plane does not have a destination. Maya is asked where she would like to go, a question to which she doesn’t reply.  It is a curious scene, the point of which was lost on me.  And absent from the film is the military dog’s role in the raid.  It was heavily reported in the press that a canine was used for the raid, and though the dog is seen in the back ground of a couple of shots, we do not see in the film how the dog was employed, nor was the dog wearing any body armour which is issued to military dogs.

Though a military dog was in the background of some shots, the films does not show the dog in action.

Though a military dog was in the background of some shots, the film fails to show the dog in action.

If the film were a documentary, I wouldn’t take issue with the lack of character development, but as it is a dramatization, I have certain expectations.  I expect human characters and I want to explore them.  I want to know their motives, and while the film is well-directed and masterfully produced, it is also lacking in key areas. Hence, while interesting at times, it ultimately fails to satisfy.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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