Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

I went to see the movie Zero Dark Thirty last week and it made me think a lot. All I knew before I went was that it was about the search for Bin Laden and was nominated for several Oscars (which it didn’t get apart from an award for sound editing shared with Skyfall). Mind you, before the award ceremony the film was mired in controversy and even managed to unite Democrats and Republicans against it (although for different reasons).

I didn’t realise any of this until after I’d seen it but I can say I was pretty shocked by what I saw. I found the depiction of torture at the beginning of the film deeply shocking but as the main character, Maya, also appears very uncomfortable with it I assumed that it was something of an exposé and taking a moral position against the use of torture. As the film progresses this is not at all certain. Maya seems to get use to the idea of it and it continues unabated until President Obama is seen speaking against it’s use on a TV in the background. We then move into more “conventional” areas of intelligence.

To be fair, this has been talked about a lot and there is a Guardian review that fits quite closely to my view of the film:

Guardian Review

The film purports to be based on truth i.e. it is a docudrama or a dramatized documentary. It has been said that the American government released classified information to help the film makers and real footage and sound has been used. In a very effective sound montage of the events of 9/11 at the beginning of the film real phone calls and other live recordings are used without the participants approval or permission. The main character, Maya, is a composite character to help the film’s narrative. It meant she was often in places that she couldn’t have been to give the film coherence.

Here is a report from Jon Boone of the Guardian about inaccuracies in the film:

Although it was described by Bigelow as a “reported film”, Zero Dark Thirty offers a feast for fact-checkers. Inaccuracies abound, largely due to the need to compress the decade-long hunt, create composite characters and make the whole thing work as a piece of drama.

A single character, Maya, is used to carry the film. She is portrayed as a lone voice challenging the CIA’s bureaucratic inertia after Bin Laden trail goes cold and she is placed at the centre of the action. She is shown dining in a poor imitation of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel even though it was blown up in 2008. Her car is attacked by gunmen as she drives out of her house – something that has happened more than once to US government employees in Peshawar, but not to anyone’s knowledge in Islamabad.

One of the CIA’s overseas “black sites” used for interrogating members of al-Qaida is shown in Pakistan itself, presumably to place Maya in both the torture scenes and where the action was in the CIA’s Islamabad station.

Her character appears to be based on a real CIA agent named as Jen in an account of the Bin Laden raid written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette. But Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who has researched Bin Laden more deeply than anyone else, claims the CIA officer who worked on the search for eight years up until his death and was convinced he was hiding in the Abbottabad compound was actually a man.

In December the acting director of CIA went public to criticise the film for taking “significant artistic licence, while portraying itself as being historically accurate”.

The film, which claims to be based on “firsthand accounts of actual events” adds tantalising and colourful details that build on what has been reported elsewhere.

But it’s hard to know what to believe when the film makes an astonishing error in portraying one of the gambits used to try and identify whether Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. A controversial hepatitis B vaccination programme run on behalf of the CIA in the town in an attempt to get hold of Bin Laden family DNA is clearly shown as an anti-polio campaign. It’s a truly sloppy mistake given how widely reported the incident was.

And it’s also potentially dangerous. The scandal of the CIA using aid workers as cover for operations has helped to inflame deep mistrust in Pakistan’s tribal areas towards vaccination programmes. Two Taliban commanders have banned polio eradication from their areas of control. In December, six polio vaccinators were murdered by gunmen while going about their work.

Another curious departure from the truth, likely only to be noticed in Pakistan, is the decision to rename the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad who, as accurately depicted in the movie, has to leave the country after anti-drone campaigners blew his cover by naming him in a court action.

For some reason the film-makers name the character Joseph Bradley,not the real-life Jonathan Banks whose name is now irretrievably all over the internet. Could this be some small (but pointless) quid pro quo for the access Boal was granted to CIA officers and White House officials? Or just artistic licence? (Guardian 27th Jan)

However, what really annoys me about this film is the uncritical attitude to the C.I.A. and also the assumption that spending 10 years to capture or assassinate Bin Laden was somehow a worthwhile activity. If it was revenge for 9/11, which certainly was the position George Bush took in his War Against Terror, then I think it’s misplaced. 9/11 produced a wave of sympathy for America from around the World that could have been used to start creating a better and more understanding environment for change. Instead it was squandered in the development of military power and selfish, short term profit and aims. Perhaps the most disturbing fact in this film was when C.I.A analysts assessed that the chances of Bin Laden actually being in the secure compound were less than the possibility of WMDs being in Iraq, and we all know how many of them there were.

The final sequence was extremely well filmed and was quite gripping. However, it showed women and children being traumatised, men and women being shot and when they eventually kill Bin Laden they’re not even sure it’s him. They are frantically sending photos taken with their phones back to base and trying to get the children to say who he is! Well, what if it hadn’t of been him!! What then!! There are plenty of conspiracy theories floating around the internet that say it wasn’t him. In the meantime they managed to blow a helicopter up and all this was counted as a success! Really??

No, this wasn’t a film that left a good taste in my mouth!