The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty: This Torture Fantasy Degrades Us All
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's film claims to be 'based on a true story' but no non-fiction writer could take such liberties
Zero Dark Thirty is a dreary and predictable movie (predictable even beyond that we know Osama bin Laden's fate). Also, it's a bit copy-cat. It's Homeland without the character quirks. ("OK… picture this… Homeland… but the girl isn't nuts – just super-focused. What about that?" is something like how the screenwriter, Mark Boal, must have pitched it.)
The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. Pretty much everybody in the intelligence community in a position to say this isn't true has said it isn't. And then there's the girl-alone-against-the-world narrative: Maya, our heroine, thinks about nothing else but Osama bin Laden for almost 10 years and because of this single-minded obsession, American forces are able to find and kill him. That according to everybody and anybody, and to common sense, is hogwash too.
A non-fiction writer couldn't do this. If you did this and maintained, to the extent that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty appear to maintain, that this was true, and with as little documentary evidence, either no one would publish you or you would have to invent evidence to get published. And then, you'd invariably be found out, scandal would ensue and your name would be blackened.
Movies, on the other hand, even when they represent themselves to be non-fiction like Zero Dark Thirty, are still what we accept as a "dramatization", so therefore not really real. How that is different from a non-fiction author using novelizing techniques to bring to life his story – and subsequently being humiliated by Oprah when he turns out to have significantly stretched the truth – I don't know.
It certainly isn't that this is just mere suspension of disbelief and that, when the lights go on, we go back to known reality. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty, wrapped in the great praise that invariably accompanies middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day, will compete as a true narrative for how al-Qaida was dealt with and Osama dispatched. (Similarly, The Social Network, an almost entirely made-up version of the founding of Facebook, has pretty much become the rosetta stone of social-media history.)
Notably, the makers of this silly, stick-figure and cartoonish movie, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Boal, are not out on talk shows defending the verisimilitude of their film. Their affect – which perhaps journalists caught in the act of making things up ought to study – is much more sphinx-ike. They are artists and don't have to lower themselves to defend or respond.
It's helpful to them that the convenient reverse effect of all these Washington and CIA types saying it isn't true is that it actually adds to the illusion that it is true.
It helps too that reviewers of a certain stature – Manhohla Dargis, for instance, in the New York Times – are willing to separate truth from drama or art. Putting actual facts and documentary evidence aside, what you have, according to Dargis is "a seamless weave of truth and drama… a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs… the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11." Nice work if you can get it.
But make no mistake truth is what is being sold here.
Without the pretense or, in some ultimate post-modern sense, the fiction that this is true, what you would have here, with all the lovely staged scenes of cinematic torture, is something as bent and campy and revisionist as Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ.
If this were more accurately packaged – instead of "based on a true story", something like "quite an extreme departure from a true story" – the drama would seem puerile, slapdash and unconvincing. A dramatic cliché. Fiction and drama work to the extent that you find yourself believing that they might, actually, at least in some parallel reality, be true. In this instance, the extent to which we might naturally believe the story line – CIA girl alone against the world doing nothing for 10 years but, against the wishes of her superiors, searching for Osama – would be minimal. Except if we are told it actually is true. Then, ipso facto, relying on our passivity and credulousness, our skepticism is less.
Bigelow, more a special-effects cinematographer than a movie director, and Boal, a run-of-the-mill scriptwriter, have, like many in Hollywood, only average or sub-par dramatic skills. They are helped and elevated by "real events". Truth is a dramatic crutch.
In some further moral inversion, it is probably not the case that they actually believe their movie to be true. Rather this is, for them, a convenient construct, a rhetorical rouse, a vulgar and opportunistic lie, which the entire apparatus of making and selling this film is happy to join: truth, or the appearance of it, sells.
If Bigelow and Boal tried for a deal on a fictionalized version of the hunt for Osama, a fantasy, an entertainment, they probably couldn't have gotten it. That would be ho-hum.
But back to torture, which is what this movie is really about.
The big "truth" point here is about the efficiency and efficacy of torture. Using these terrible methods is, for better or worse, how we got the intel to ultimately find Osama.
But that is only the surface message, the cover story if you will. The real story, the real truth the filmmakers are trying to subliminally present, is about the beauty of torture.
The bald claim, or the meta construct, or the wink wink about this being a serious and important version of a big issue is really just so we can get to the total sexiness of physical abuse. You need a higher purpose to get out-and-out pervy stuff like this into a big-budget movie. History is the justification.
Kathryn Bigelow is a fetishist and a sadist, which, in a literary sense, certainly has a fine tradition. But without some acknowledgement that this is her lonely journey and not a shared one – not our collective reality, not a set of accepted assumptions but, for better or worse, her own particular, problematic kink – all you have is a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda.
© 2012 The Guardian/UK