“Zero Dark Thirty”: Action Packed Thriller, Reckless Filmmaking or Something Else Altogether

Zero Dark Thirty ReviewOver 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.[1]  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.”[2]  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.”[3]

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,[4] 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.’”[5]

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Snuff films are the illegal films in which the director captures the real-time death of a human being.  Perhaps the most well-known of such films is Faces of Death.

[5] Romans 12:19.

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10 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty”: Action Packed Thriller, Reckless Filmmaking or Something Else Altogether

  1. Richard Armour says:

    “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.”

    “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”.

    Well, which is it? A documentary, albeit a bad one in your opinion, or a revenge fantasy? Logic dictates that you can’t have it both ways.

    Also, if it had the feel of a snuff film, or Triumph of the Will to me I wouldn’t sit through the whole thing. Either the movie was very repulsive or you engaged in a bit of repulsive hyperbole.

    • Richard … You are making my point. On one hand, the film wants to position itself as a psuedo-documentary, told with an objective journalistic view. But on the other hand, when people question its lack of commentary on debatable issues, the filmmakers want to hide behind claims that they were just “making a movie” as a piece of entertainment. And you can’t have it both ways, not when you are putting the death cries of real people in front of the audience.

      As for why I sat through the whole thing, I’m not sure I’m following you. Without sitting through to the end, I never would have known whether the filmmakers actually were going to offer insightful commentary through their film. So you’re asking me to make a judgement part way through the film, which is not really fair to the filmmakers’ efforts. In the end, it is my opinion that their lack of commentary ultimately reduced the film to a propaganda piece that highlights pragmatism as the only guiding force behind getting things done. And in my estimation, that is dangerous message to send to a move-going audience.

  2. Richard Armour says:

    I think we are talking past each other a bit. I just think your language is too strong (dangerous, snuff film, Nazi propaganda) for something that in the end is entertainment. I’m not even sure what you mean by dangerous. Do you mean this film is so pernicious that it could cause the American people to want to kill people who kill us without remorse? Perhaps take over the world? Or do you mean it could damage our national soul like referring to the holocost of abortion as womans healthcare?

    • I can hear that. But at a bare minimum, I will stand by the word “dangerous,” because I think pragmatism as a worldview is problematic to say the least. In my mind, Zero Dark Thirty could have been a solid film if it had taken the time to actually acknowledge the issues at hand. But by glossing over them and simply moving a character from squeamishness to pragmatic do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done, the film presents a worldview in which the ends justify the means. And for Christians, that ought to be alarming.

  3. Richard Armour says:


    Got in my car after my last post and heard Eric Mataxas being interviewed. He was giving his commentary the culture, the Newton massacre, and the number 1 and 2 movies in America this week. (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, and Django) He didn’t call the movies dangerous but by linking these things together suggested there were dots to connect. He called the violence in these movies pornographic as opposed to the violence in Saving Private Ryan. He’s organizing a vigil this weekend at the movies. Thought you would be interested. I think he is on to something and believe these two movies are much more corrosive to the culture than 0 Dark 30.

    • Love the fact that you keep coming back for this discussion. Metaxas is a guy I would love to know more about. His Bonhoeffer biography was absolutely magnificent; and is well worth the time it takes to read if you have not done so already.

      As for the subject of violence in films, its a really tricky issue. Last night, I saw two films (first time I’ve done a double feature in about 15 years!). Both films have violence, but they used it in very different ways. I suspect that you and I would actually agree that violence in films is not always a bad thing. It’s how that violence is used to advance the story, and whether the story itself is worth advancing, that makes the difference. Saving Private Ryan is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s a bloody mess, but it used violence to highlight human dignity, not degrade it. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, I thought it was used to put the viewer in a very voyeuristic seat. And we may just have to disagree on that.

      • Richard Armour says:

        I read the Bonhoeffer biography last year and agree it was magnificent. It opened my understanding of the man, the times, and the German church of that period. Saving Private Ryan is also one of my favorites. The violence of D-Day was difficult to watch. I cried like a baby out of the inspiration that such men lived, and actually hurled themselves into a hail of death so that the next wave could go on to reclaim freedom for the world. Going to see 0 Dark 30 for myself tonight. I will let you know if I change my mind about the movie. 😉

  4. Richard Armour says:

    I knew more about this movie before seeing it than any other movie I have seen. I think Bigalow made the movie she wanted to make, not the one you wanted her to make. I tried to see what you were seeing but could not. She did not glorify the actions of the participants but left it to the audience to decide whether the end justified the means. Good films about controversial real events always trust the audience rather than trying to lead them to a preconceived notion of what is right or just. I got to tell you, neither myself or the audience I saw this film with had one “Hell Yeah” moment. In fact it was very noticeable how quiet everyone was at the end of the movie. Even when we were all walking out, again very quietly there seemed to be a contemplative mood. The only thing that bothered me was using actual voices, (if that is truly the case), of people about to perish on 9-11. I hope they sought out and got permission from the families of the deceased. But like it or not, the jihadists were at war with us long before we were at war with them. We lost 3000 people on 9-11 and decided enough is enough and went to war with them. That is what frames this story of the muck of what nations do to protect their citizens from a murderous jihadist ideology. Because the film makes no judgement on the methods portrayed but leaves that to the audience does not make it dangerous. Sorry, I did not change my mind my friend.

  5. Richard Armour says:


    This is the review I would give Zero Dark Thirty. Mr. Roark captured what I saw in the film.

  6. Ryan says:

    It was neither documentary or film entertainment (fantasy). It was myth. Myth in the sense of a plotted narrative formed from actual events but structured in a way to accomplish something with the “bare” facts; and in that sense it functioned much like the gospels function. So then the question becomes, what is the author trying to accomplish through this particular kind of telling. I believe that the author is pulling from and reinforcing the American mythos/worldview.

    You can read a quick summary of the American myth and the four questions it answers in my second post titled, Analysis of Worldview: Are Evangelicals Christian or American Part II. The main character, Maya, is clearly uncomfortable with the “torture” she is witnessing, but when her moment comes to express sympathy for the terrorist and reject the methodology she shows her acceptance of the method as a necessary evil. The “torture” is dispassionate and restrained. I think the author is trying to convey the idea that American is still the good guy wearing the white hats, and she accomplishes this by showing the repulsion and the limits of the “torture.” Yet, as a people ultimately controlled by pragmatism (John Dewey being the best American philosopher of recent vintage), we accept the “torture” as a necessary evil. In this sense the story pulls from the myth and reinforces it in our new post 9-11 context.

    The scene at the end involving the Seal Team action against UBL was violent, but the violence was methodical, dispassionate and controlled. It was not a glorified violence (Top Gun, Navy Seals, anything with Schwarzenegger). Again, I think this framing of the story attempts to show America as the good guy, accepting the necessity of violence yet using it in a reluctant, controlled and restrained manner.

    Scott is right to point out that there was no dialogue regarding the morality of violence, but I think that is because the filmmaker was attempting to show the America she knows in and through its present context. In other words, she’s being descriptive not prescriptive. Even raising the hard questions about the use of force is a prescriptive effort.

    As far as the use of the audio from 9/11, I don’t think it was salacious. The mass cacophony of voices made it difficult for that audio to become personal and emotive. If there had been cleaner audio accompanied by video images of that day I would have to agree with your analysis, but again the filmmaker depicts violence (you have to given the subject) but it is not unrestrained and emotive.

    As a movie experience it was average. Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down, Spy Game, The Farm and other war/spy films are far more interesting because they draw you into the story. Since we knew how this movie ended they needed to give us a subplot to care about that would also leave us guessing at how it would resolve as we journey through the story.

    That said, there was one moment at the end of the film that made me chuckle out loud in the theatre. It was the moment of the raid, and it involved how one of the Seals dealt with a bad guy in a rather sneaky way. The bad guy proved himself to be rather stupid, and he died for it. I chuckled.

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