Over the past few weeks, the mainstream media has been abuzz with talk of Zero Dark Thirty. Heavily marketed as an Oscar front-runner and as an “insider” account of the quest to kill Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty has been besieged by a group of critics, who have openly challenged the film’s depiction of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by agents of the CIA. Indeed, the outcry has become so persistent, that the acting head of the CIA, himself, has actually taken the unprecedented step of releasing a press statement discussing the film. So what is Zero Dark Thirty? Is it an action-packed thriller offering us a rare glimpse into the inner working of the intelligence community? Or is it reckless filmmaking of a dangerous variety? ______________________________________________________________________________________________
In the opening moments of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers made one critical decision that ultimately shaped everything that followed, including the ensuing controversy that lead to the national discussion. And no, that decision had nothing to do with the depiction of “enhanced interrogation” techniques or torture. The decision had to do with their willingness to incorporate the desperate phone calls placed by real people who were trapped on the upper floors of the doomed Twin Towers. And by opting to include live, archival audio, the filmmakers made a statement. Zero Dark Thirty was going to be about the grimmest reality imaginable; and it was going to be about a nation’s response to that tragedy. This is why, try as they may, the filmmakers are unable to defend their film by arguing that it is “not a documentary.” Zero Dark Thirty does not purport to be “historical fiction” in the same vein as a film such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It’s not merely set in the aftermath of 9/11, as was the case with the later film. No. Zero Dark Thirty claims to be a distillation of our nation’s 10-year “manhunt” for Bin Laden. And by starting the film with the emotionally raw and provocative audio, only to conclude it by re-enacting the exhilarating kill shot that took out Bin Laden, the writer and the director both effectively renounced their right to argue as follows:
“I think what’s important is to remember it’s a movie and not a documentary. It’s just a movie. It’s a dramatization.”
The events of September 11th, 2001 cannot, from a moral perspective, be reduced to nothing more than an attempt to entertain the masses. How we think about these issues matters. And whether you believe, as I do, that “enhanced interrogation” techniques likely brought about valuable military intelligence or whether you believe that it did not, the ethical questions that surround its usage cannot be overstated. What’s more, they cannot be summarily dismissed under this disingenuous claim that “we’re just making a movie.” In truth, as I sat through Zero Dark Thirty, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was watching an extremely well-crafted snuff film, or some kind of national revenge fantasy, that gave all of us the opportunity to take a front row seat to “kill shot” so many of us longed to see.
Now some will almost certainly argue that this historical quest was about justice; and that may well be true for some, or even many, of the people involved. But the line that separates the pursuit of justice from the willingness to “become the monster in order to defeat the monster” is a thin line at best. And when it comes to this film, that line most clearly has been crossed. In their quest to condense 10 years of history, the filmmakers have given us a composite character who is a blank slate with no meaningful back story – a empty cipher, or a vehicle, who can serve as the Everyman in this story. And like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, Maya is on a personal quest to kill the great white whale that has wounded her. Indeed, near the end of the film, when questioned by a Seal as to what they are going to do, Maya’s response is as flat as it is chilling: “You’re gonna kill Bin Laden for me.”
So you see, the real problem with a film like Zero Dark Thirty is not its depiction of torture. Like it or not, that was part of the unfolding narrative of the past decade. The real problem came in the presentation of the film’s only discernible message: the ends justify the means. Sadly, by emotionally rooting the film in the excruciating audio of people on the verge of death, and by offering emotional release solely through the glorified depiction of the perpetrator’s demise, the filmmakers have created something dangerous. This is not filmmaking designed to spark a national discussion about matters of utmost importance. This is a filmmaking designed to elicit one response and one response only: “Hell! Yeah!”
In 1935, Ms. Leni Riefenstahl unleashed upon the world her now-notorious film: Triumph of the Will. Using such ground-breaking techniques as moving cameras, long-focus lenses and even aerial photography, Riefenstahl sought to capture the wonder and the pageantry of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party as it descended in all of its glory upon Nuremberg for a rally amongst the hundreds of thousands of Nazi faithful. Hailed by some as one of the greatest films in human history, Triumph of the Will went on to earn numerous awards not only in Germany, but in the United States, France, Sweden and elsewhere.
While it would not be fair or even remotely accurate to equate the Nazi Party with the post September 11th actions of the United States government, the equating of Zero Dark Thirty with Triumph of the Will is not nearly so egregious. For in opting to eschew any kind of contextualizing framework that helps the viewer make sense of what it is that he or she is witnessing, both films ultimately devolve into nothing more than hoo-rah, militaristic, propaganda pieces meant to glorify their respective nations.
Zero Dark Thirty may very well win a number of awards for Best Picture this year, but do not be fooled. Zero Dark Thirty is not an insightful film that offers the viewer any kind of real perspective or insight into the decade following 9/11. Rather, it is a highly-stylized and yet thinly-veiled revenge fantasy that is potentially no less dangerous to the American psyche than Triumph of the Will was to that of the Germans.
“Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine.’”
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Editor’s Note: Upon further consideration, I realize that I have perhaps left certain things unsaid that need to be said. Ultimately, the problem with the ends justifying the means comes down to the limitations of pragmatism. By definition, pragmatism will always favor the majority over the minority in its pursuit of what “works.” But as an ethical system, it’s flawed because the majority is not always in the right. So while I am not debating whether we were “right” or “wrong” to use the techniques that we used in the pursuit of Bin Laden, I am arguing that the film ultimately glorifies pragmatism as a guiding principle, without any discussion of the ethical limitations of that system.
 Romans 12:19.