“For God and country, I pass Geronimo. Geronimo E-KIA.”
When this cryptic message crackled over a secure military radio from Abottabad, Pakistan, shortly after 1:00 a.m. on May 2, 2010, only a few senior U.S. Government officials learned what the whole world would soon come to know: the nearly decade-long search for the world’s most wanted terrorist had, at long last, come to an end.
Osama bin Laden was dead, killed by an elite team of United States Navy SEALS known as SEAL Team 6.
In December 2012, Sony Pictures Corporation released the highly anticipated and controversial movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” a masterpiece of filmmaking that purports to chronicle the search for and killing of the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written and produced by Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an outstanding film, superbly written, directed, and acted, and certainly worthy of both the acclaim it has received and the debate it has generated since its release.
“Zero Dark Thirty:” Acclaim
It’s imbued with a remarkable level of realism, and a level of tension found in the best political and military “thrillers.” To their great credit, Bigelow and Boal resisted the temptation to turn this film into a simple, jingoistic “feel-good” action film. Instead, they opted to explore thoughtfully how CIA operatives painstakingly pieced together bits of an intelligence puzzle, and through a combination of careful analysis and blind luck, arrived at the correct conclusion that Osama bin Laden, who had disappeared from sight in 2003, was not dead or hiding in a cave somewhere, but was, in fact, living inside a walled compound less than one mile from Pakistan’s primary military academy.
It’s important to note at the outset that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not a strictly historical account of the killing of Osama bin Laden; a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie states that it is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Herein lays the source of the controversy that the film generated shortly after its release.
With few exceptions, “Zero Dark Thirty’s” characters are fictional composites of the actual people who searched for, found, and killed Osama bin Laden. The film’s main protagonist, “Maya,” (masterfully portrayed by Jessica Chastain) is a CIA operative recently arrived in the “undisclosed area” presumed to be Afghanistan. Her supervisor is “Dan,” (brilliantly played by Jason Clarke) a hardened and skillful interrogator who has no qualms about using “enhanced interrogation techniques” while questioning detainees suspected of being terrorists.
Much of the controversy surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty” revolves around the early scenes, where Dan and Maya are interrogating a certain detainee named “Ammar” (superbly played by Reda Kateb). Ammar is subjected to several brutal acts of torture, including water boarding, sleep deprivation, exposure to heavy metal music played at excruciatingly loud volumes, and confinement inside a small wooden box. Ammar eventually begins giving Dan and Maya bits of information about al-Qaeda and its key operatives, and at one point lets slip information about one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers. . Much of this intelligence is flimsy and difficult to interpret. Dan, Maya and their colleagues slowly and patiently sift through the data that hopefully will lead them to bin Laden’s courier, and eventually to bin Laden himself…
“Zero Dark Thirty” provides a great deal of insight into the procedures used by CIA operatives in both tracking down Osama bin Laden and using gathered intelligence to suppress the activities of terrorist groups. Despite major setbacks like the the terrorist shooting rampage in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2004 and the assassination of several CIA operatives at Camp Chapman, Afghanistan, in 2009, Maya and her team remain resolute in their determination to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. A combination of technology, luck, and especially good, old-fashioned detective work provides the agents with the desperately needed breakthrough that results in the mission to Abbotabad in May, 2010.
“Zero Dark Thirty:” Controversy
In December 2012, during the run-up to the voting for the 2013 Academy Awards, three United States senators – Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ) wrote a letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton complaining about the film’s “gross inaccuracies” and the graphic depiction of the “coercive interrogation techniques” employed by CIA operatives against detainees. In their letter, the senators claimed the film was inaccurate because information concerning bin Laden’s courier was not elicited by CIA operatives using “coercive interrogation techniques.” The senators also deplored the showing of the graphic scenes of torture in the film.
I am not particularly bothered by the inclusion of these scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty.” This doesn’t mean that I agree with the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques” – I most definitely do not. But to exclude the depiction of them from “Zero Dark Thirty” would be to tell only part of the story.
“Facts,” John Adams once famously stated: “are stubborn things.” In this case, the stubborn fact appears to be that “enhanced [coercive] interrogation techniques” – also known as torture – were used in questioning detainees, and those techniques probably did elicit from them a great deal of vital intelligence, including (possibly) the location of Osama Bin Laden.
If this is indeed the case, it begs the larger question: did the ends – the finding and killing of the world’s most wanted man – justify the means used to extract the intelligence needed to achieve those ends? This, I think, is one of the central questions posed by “Zero Dark Thirty”, and it is a question thoughtfully posed and left for the film’s viewers to answer. “Zero Dark Thirty” manages to tread a fine line of neutrality in showing on the one hand the reasons used to justify using such techniques, and on the other hand the reprehensible nature of the acts themselves and the questionable morality and motives of those involved in such actions.
MY VERDICT: Controversy aside, I believe the best films are those that pose more serious questions than they answer, and give viewers the opportunity to consider for themselves the questions raised. In this, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a great success. It is an intelligently written and superbly produced film that asks viewers to contemplate: Where do we draw the line between what are acceptable and unacceptable practices in intelligence gathering and war-making?