Courtesy: Columbia Pictures
Come on, let’s admit it: Zero Dark Thirty was destined to stir up trouble no matter what. It’s about bin Laden and the War on Terror and both of those subjects still induce nausea. Film critics have spent the last week frustrated with Glenn Greenwald for what amounts to a mere week’s jump of the gun on a debate Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the film’s director and screenwriter, say they were looking to raise anyway. Greenwald, who hadn’t seen the film, insisted nonetheless that all arrows pointed to an endorsement of torture. This is a film, came the indignant cry back. It’s supposed, to use the phrase the counterterrorism journalist Dexter Filkins used in The New Yorker, to “stray from reality”! Except that the appeal of the film would not be half what it is if it were about the hunt for some guy we’d never heard of and hadn’t spent the past decade on a mission to destroy.
Oh well. Nothing about America in the Bush years lent itself to easy distinctions between fact and fiction. You’d think you couldn’t make up stuff like that “Mission Accomplished” banner, and yet staged it was. Perhaps it makes sense that a movie about its legacy balances uncomfortably on that knife’s edge. Perhaps what makes more sense is that we got a movie. From the minute the Towers collapsed you and I both heard people say it: it was just like a movie. The trope appears throughout Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad, currently the best reporting we have on the subject: the “Dead or Alive” posters now best known to us from sepia Westerns, Hillary Clinton saying that watching the mission on the monitors in that tiny, crammed room was “like any episode of 24 or any movie you could ever imagine.” Except in all the ways it undoubtedly wasn’t, and all the ways that the formula of making a film—the clear plotline, character development, the need to fulfill audience expectations—will necessarily falsify some of the chaos out here in reality.
Perhaps in response to that, Zero Dark Thirty is largely a pageant of reserved judgment, trying for pure objectivity, like journalists of old. This goes for torture as much as anything else. Much ink is already being spilled on the depiction of waterboarding and confinement boxes that mark the film’s first hour. I’ll spare you the lawyerly parsing of screen time and dialogue and facial expression; the key point is that it is filmed with neither clear endorsement nor disparagement of the practice of torture. These filmmakers leave it to you to determine the issue, which sounds more artful in theory than it feels to watch. Bigelow and Boal conceal what they think, even are afraid to show any opinions on whether it’s their role to think.
Within this “just the facts” framework, the filmmakers aren’t that careful. Judgments sneak in under cover of accuracy. Anyone will find a torture scene more memorable than the break that comes from a staffer delivering a file folder. But Zero Dark Thirty’s script doesn’t worry about making the more mundane aspects of the search exciting. The straightforward drama of a torture scene—soaked towel over face, muffled screaming—is just more memorable. This is the criticism Bergen, the expert, offers himself. In fact, he recently wrote at CNN, in the capacity of adviser he actually asked the filmmakers to soften the scenes from an earlier, and bloodier, cut.
But it goes beyond those scenes. The hunt for bin Laden looked more like a figure eight than a straight line, or perhaps more aptly, as Mark Bowden put it in his book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, a web drawn from “bloody threads.” And Bergen’s book more or less concurs, quoting officials who say that intelligence coming from detainees did fill in and deepen the CIA’s understanding of Al Qaeda’s structure. The clearer picture allowed them to concentrate their efforts on direct leads.