Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that makes you feel insignificant, not even a bit player in the meaningful world. This is especially true for those of us who have lived and breathed the subjects of intelligence, special operations, the Bin Laden raid and counter-terrorism after 9/11. Oh, to be the ultimate fly on the wall. What's so great, to me, about the entirety of the chase for Osama Bin Laden is that thing fell together, people made choices, and it worked. The end result was something to laud. It's rare that the system works! And what a redemption story for the intelligence community.
The context of everything else that happened: Iraq, Islamic blowback, the manipulation of public opinion, the endless counter-terrorism scares, is literally seconded to a television screen in Mark Boal's script. For all the controversy about the information the Pentagon allegedly helped provide Boal with, it is quite clear that his story has a perspective, and it ain't the Department of Defense's. Zero Dark Thirty is about the heroic profession of the intelligence operative, and that profession's effort to be significant again after its major failure: the institutional blindness that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to slip through the net. (Iraq, to me, is a political failure more than an intelligence one.)
From the looks of it, the CIA gave Boal access to virtually everything. I know something of the look and feel, of the tiny details (like the types of folders used to hold dossiers), of the way that verbs are used. But Boal literally knows what Leon Panetta said to his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, as the two descended in the director's private elevator after hearing the CIA's first presentation of its evidence that the tall guy walking around in Abbottabad was Osama bin Laden.
Boal has been criticized for a choice he made: to play up the information gleaned from torturing detainees. Boal's script is far subtler. One of the detainees does indeed give up the name of bin Laden's courier, but several other prisoners had done so already, and the critical pieces of the puzzle come from detainees in foreign custody who either do or don't identify the courier in a way that matches the assumptions made by the heroine, Maya, a CIA case officer played by Jessica Chastain. Maya clearly disagrees with the torture but eagerly uses its fruits; there is very little in the way of rumination about the propriety of what "Dan," the CIA officer who ran the torture program, was actually doing. He did it, and then, when things got hot, the CIA stopped doing it. Director Kathryn Bigelow portrays the torture graphically. it is, literally, disgusting, and shameful. There's no flinching from the reality of what actually happened.
One scene late in the film is telling. Kyle Chandler, playing a character who is a composite of the Pakistan Chief of Station and the head of the Al Qaeda division in the agency's Counter-Terrorism Center tells a figure clearly meant to represent Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan that the surety that the "national security adviser" character wants cannot be obtained because the CIA can't go back to the detainees anymore. "You'll find a way," the foil replies. And indeed, the CIA does, by marshaling evidence that the man protected by the high walls of the compound cannot be a drug dealer, because, really, how can a drug dealer not do all the things that the mysterious man doesn't do?
Boal's take is precisely correct: the CIA by and large believed that the detainees provided reliable evidence AND that the torture techniques were valuable. He also provides enough information for us to evaluate that claim independently, and indeed, someone completely new to the subject can conclude that the torture didn't actually get the CIA anything but a bunch of false leads and a black eye. It is certainly true that the Obama White House, as compacted into the persona of the Brennan character, mistrusted the CIA because of its association with and defense of the torture program.
But to make the film a film, a vehicle to convey emotion and character, Boal has to give us a point of view, and that point of view is derived from his best sources, which very clearly were in the CIA.
Zero Dark Thirty is not a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is not a movie about the Naval Special Warfare Development Group SEALs who captured him, or the DevGru commander who planned the raid, or Admiral William McRaven, who has gotten the most credit for it.
It is a movie about a major institution seeking redemption and a CIA analyst seeking to justify her life's work and avenge the deaths of her own colleagues. Torture is part of that story.
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