Oscar-winning film director, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the search for and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. The film has proved controversial – praised by some for its cool realism, it has also been castigated for inaccuracies. Above all, though, it has been accused of justifying torture. AAN does not normally do film reviews, but this movie seems important. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark watched Zero Dark Thirty during the same week UNAMA published a report accusing parts of the Afghan security services of systematically using torture against their fellow Afghans. She brings us her thoughts on what Bigelow has described coyly in interviews as the film’s depiction of ‘harsh tactics’. She also looks at the consequences of the US’ willingness to break the Geneva Conventions after 2001, consequences that are still being played out in Afghanistan.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with the words ‘based on first-hand accounts of actual events’. Its pseudo-documentary style lends weight to this supposed veracity. To get at the story of the CIA’s secret hunt for Bin Laden, screenplay writer, Mark Boal, carried out extensive research, including interviewing CIA agents. Bigelow said this made the film feel, ‘very vivid and very vital and very, very immediate and visceral of course which is very exciting as a filmmaker’; she has also called the film ‘the first draft of history’.
The movie starts with audio of 9/11 victims calling from the Twin Towers before plunging straight into extended sequences of CIA torture. The heroine, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), who was apparently inspired by a real agent, is shown watching a suspect being tortured. Then despite her shock? distaste? discomfort?, she moves on to supervise the torture of other suspects. The camera does not shy away from the brutality. It shows waterboarding, beating, suspension, sexual humiliation and the enclosing of one detainee in a tiny box. It is true that other methods of investigation are also seen on screen – eavesdropping, network and location analysis through phone calls – and that in the film, as in real life, the real breakthrough – the discovery of Bin Laden’s courier’s real name – actually comes when another agent re-reads an old dossier from 2001, that is, it explicitly does not come through torture. Nevertheless, the narrative of the movie’s version of the investigation – what leads to what – is confusing and I, at least, finished the film believing that, if the film was accurate, torture had been key to getting information that led to Bin Laden.
But the film is not accurate. This, at least, is the view of three senior members of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees – Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain – who have access to the classified CIA records on the actual Bin Laden manhunt. They have lambasted the film as, ‘grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden’ (see their letter to the film studio, Sony Pictures, here). Two journalists who have carried out extensive research on Osama Bin Laden over many years, Steve Coll (author of Ghost Wars) and Peter Bergen (author of Manhunt) also found the movie full of inaccuracies.
Legally, torture is never justifiable; the ban on it is absolute and it is immaterial who carries it out or who it is done to or why. So whether torture was useful in leading to Bin Laden is actually irrelevant. In drama, however, the opposite is usually the case. How one feels about torture in fiction normally does depend very much on who is carrying it out and to whom.
Zero Dark Thirty, however, is a strangely detached film. Neither torturers or tortured have back stories or personal lives or even much emotional engagement with other ‘on-stage characters’. Neither party is presented with particular sympathy and neither gets to occupy the moral high ground. The film is a long way then from the familiar narratives of torture: the hero or heroine being tortured by evil enemies and holding out to save country or comrades (think of the eponymous heroine in the movie Odette, holding out against the Nazis, Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman getting his teeth drilled into by Nazi doctor Laurence Olivier, or even Jim Kirk enduring agony to save his ship(1)) or, on the other hand, the hero or heroine being forced to resort to torture by a silent or mocking terrorist mastermind (a much more familiar post-2001 narrative). Rather, watching the torture of Zero Dark Thirty was like peering into a bear-pit with flawed humanity slugging it out some way below.
So, despite the film’s opening, which grounds it firmly in the horror of the 9/11 attacks, the fact that neither Maya or her boss, Dan (Jason Clarke), or the other CIA agents are presented with emotional sympathy or even interiority means their use of torture does not feel like the reasonable, if abhorrent, course of action of those on the side of right. Indeed, my sympathy gravitated towards the suffering prisoners. It is not just that the violence committed by the CIA was repellent, but there is a queasy mixing of images – pretty boy Dan torturing a fellow human being and then sharing his ice-cream with a pet monkey in a cage or Maya torturing while wearing her nasty little uptight DC suits and high heels, complexion flawless and lipstick intact. Their repeated references to ‘the homeland’, rather than America, was just creepy, sounding uncomfortably like the Borg(2) or fascists.
In drama, this detachment from all characters is risky; I ended up caring little about Maya or her mission. So, while Bigelow misled me into thinking torture had led to Bin Laden, at least she had not manipulated me emotionally into identifying with the torturers. The emotional punch of this film is not pro-torture, although, it has to be said, it is also not particularly anti, either. Instead, there is an uncomfortable, slippery ambiguity at its heart.
This ambiguity comes across in Bigelow’s defence of her portrayal of what she, disingenuously, calls ‘harsh tactics’. They were employed by the CIA, she said, and to have omitted them would have been tantamount to ‘whitewashing history’:
I felt a responsibility to tell the story faithful to our research and there were many, many facets that contributed to finding [Bin Laden’s] compound in Abbottabad that being one that ultimately led to a dead end. So the critical piece of information [the family name of Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti] had been in the files since 2001, in the CIA. That was the pivotal point. Obviously it could be debated: did a particular piece of information . . . come out from this detainee or that detainee? Characters were composited and time compressed, I mean, will we ever know whether we could have found the compound in Abbottabad without employing harsh tactics? I don’t know, but I certainly believe that as a filmmaker and somebody who finds harsh tactics reprehensible, it was extremely difficult to shoot, extremely difficult to watch and unless we can kind of face our past, we’re relegated to repeat it. (From her BBC interview cited earlier)
That is all very well, but Zero Dark Thirty could have engaged in the debate on torture, but chose not to. We do not see torture leading to wrong information – contrary to historical reality. Nor does any character question its use, again contrary to the historical record. Bergen for example, describes the horror of FBI agents who viewed torture not only as unjustifiable and illegal, but also useless and ineffective. He cites the example of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to be placed in a secret overseas CIA prison:
Abu Zubaydah was first interrogated by Ali Soufan, one of the few Arabic-speaking FBI agents. Soufan softened up Abu Zubaydah by calling him ‘Hani,’ the childhood nickname his mother had used for him, a fact that the FBI agent had gathered from intelligence files. The approach started yielding quick results. When Abu Zubaydah was shown a series of photos of al Qaeda members by Soufan, he identified one of them as the operational commander of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Abu Zubaydah’s confirmation of Mohammed’s role in 9/11 was the single most important piece of information uncovered about al Qaeda after the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon, and it was discovered during the course of a standard interrogation, without recourse to any form of coercion. Soufan recalled that Abu Zubaydah gave up the information about a week or so into his interrogation.
Abu Zubaydah was later waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. This form of simulated drowning is generally considered torture, but none of it produced much in the way of useful information. In the end, the multiple waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah provided no specific leads on any plots, although clearly his role as an al Qaeda logistician did give him insights into the organization and its personnel.
Zero Dark Thirty also left out a whole landscape of other ways of gathering information. As a journalist working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for whom human contact is the obvious way to find out anything (try making radio or TV without it), I found the way intelligence was gathered on screen sterile and strange. The CIA’s work is all interrogations, network analysis and eavesdropping. It is like a shiny surface, full of unexplained acronyms, technology and staring hard at computer screens. The actual country where the action takes place, Pakistan, appears merely as hostile, other and unknowable – although the CIA agents hardly help themselves here by trying to speak Arabic to the natives of Rawalpindi. Where is the tea drinking, I kept wondering. In this film, high-tech methods lead to Bin Laden; in real life, as Afghans have found out, using them in isolation and failing to grasp the real human landscape of a country can lead to innocents being killed (see AAN’s investigation into the flawed world of US intelligence here).
The torture and other abuses shown in Zero Dark Thirty against al-Qaeda suspects were also, of course, used against Afghans, as Human Rights Watch detailed in its 2004 report, ‘Enduring Freedom’ Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan:
Afghans detained at Bagram airbase in 2002 have described being held in detention for weeks, continuously shackled, intentionally kept awake for extended periods of time, and forced to kneel or stand in painful positions for extended periods. Some say they were kicked and beaten when arrested, or later as part of efforts to keep them awake. Some say they were doused with freezing water in the winter. Similar allegations have been made about treatment in 2002 and 2003 at US military bases in Kandahar and in US detention facilities in the eastern cities of Jalalabad and Asadabad.
Human Rights Watch also reported allegations of prisoners being stripped and sexually humiliated and of the mass detention of Afghans for intelligence-gathering purposes (ie not picked up because they were engaged in hostilities). They detail the cases of the handful of prisoners that are known to have died in US custody, including two beaten to death in Bagram. I myself followed the case of another prisoner held in Kunar who died after being denied water. The Los Angeles Times also reported on the case of eight Afghan soldiers who were detained by US Special Operations Forces in Paktia in 2003 and who spoke of having been repeatedly beaten, immersed in cold water, given electric shocks and hung upside down and of having their toenails torn off. One of the eight was killed.
Human Rights Watch and others were warning the US authorities about the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan from 2003 and 2004, but it was only when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in Iraq in early 2004 that the similar abuse of prisoners at Bagram and other jails in Afghanistan was taken seriously. Human Rights Watch believed the abuses lay in institutional problems within the military and CIA and decisions by the Bush government to ignore the Geneva Conventions when it came to dealing with ‘terrorists’.
In the aftermath of the 2001 war, US Special Forces, the CIA and their Afghan allies harried the Taleban. The fact that defeated commanders were not allowed to go home and live in peace and indeed that many Taleban and other Afghans suffered torture and other abuses is a major reason for the insurgency today. The current ‘jihad’ was in no way an inevitable consequence of the 2001 intervention, but was grounded in US hubris, its willingness to break international law and good faith and the eagerness of some of its Afghan allies to get revenge on old enemies.(3)
I watched Zero Dark Thirty after reading UNAMA’s latest hundred-page shocker of a report on how torture is currently being used in Afghanistan. There is continuity in the use of torture by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and its predecessors running back through every regime to before the 1978 coup. Yet the fact that the US chose to use torture and rendition against al-Qaeda and the Taleban and to ally itself with those accused of war crimes was central to how regime change was effected in Afghanistan in 2001. It meant that, post-2001, Afghanistan would not get a ‘clean start’ from its own historical experiences of war crimes, as the authors of the Afghanistan Justice Project conclude in their masterly report, ‘Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity: 1978–2001’:
In replicating the same patterns of abuse that have marked the different phases of the conflict in Afghanistan, and allying themselves – for the sake of political expediency – with local commanders who have done the same, US forces have jeopardized prospects for establishing stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, have undermined the security of the Afghan people (as well as their own), and have reinforced a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.
Moreover, read the detail of the 2012 UNAMA report and it should be clear that, while the historical phase in which US state shamelessly and openly used torture is now over, American hands are still not clean. It was only in 2011 following publication of UNAMA’s first report on torture that US forces and ISAF, in general, finally took on board their legal obligation not to hand over detainees when there is a risk they will be tortured. Other NATO countries had already been forced by domestic courts or media scandal to tighten their handover rules. In 2011, General Allen, commander of ISAF and US military forces, initiated a new programme of observation, monitoring and training NDS. While that programme has not been a success (as UNAMA’s 2012 report shows), Allen’s intentions and efforts appeared to have been honest. however, it seems that some forces, possibly outside his command, may still be handing over detainees knowing they are likely to be tortured.
In its 2012 investigation, UNAMA reported eleven detainees being tortured at an unofficial site in Kandahar before they were taken to NDS headquarters; seven specified they had been held at Mulla Omar’s former house. One described his experiences in July 2012, as follows:
The NDS agents who arrested me in Kandahar blindfolded me and beat me all the way to Mullah Omar’s house. I know it was Mullah Omar’s house as the NDS told me afterwards when I was in the NDS facility. At Mullah Omar’s house, I was questioned and beaten but I couldn’t see who beat me. They made me lie down and they tied my feet together. They hit the soles of my feet with a pipe. They told me, ‘Confess! Or we’ll hand you over to the foreigners!’ After a while they stopped and said, ‘You have 10 minutes to think about it.’ They came back and beat the soles of my feet again. After that they took my thumbprint.
We know from a report on torture last year by the Afghanistan Independent Human rights Commission (AIHRC) and Open Societies Foundation (OSF) and newspaper investigations (here and here), that Mulla Omar’s house, also known as Camp Gecko, has been used by the CIA and US special operations forces. As the 2012 AIHRC/OSF report says:
Interviews with detainees as well as responses by US officials to queries from the AIHRC and the Open Society Foundations indicate that there may be US forces or personnel, perhaps including CIA or other US intelligence officials, operating outside ISAF and USFOR-A commands in Kandahar that are detaining individuals and transferring them to NDS Kandahar.
As UNAMA has revealed, Kandahar remains a centre of torture and disappearance (81 detainees are unaccounted for).
Despite three major reports on torture, there has not yet been enough outrage from either the Afghan government or its US ally to make it unacceptable. This makes a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which shows torture as useful, dangerous. As the three senators cited earlier said, the film has the potential to shape American public opinion in a ‘disturbing and misleading’ manner:
Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.
Zero Dark Thirty ends with an extended sequence of the actual raid on Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad.(4) Again, this is a portrayal of a highly controversial issue; whether it was legal to kill the al-Qaeda leader was the subject of heated debate (for discussion, see here, here and here). Here I would praise Bigelow’s brave decision to stay with her detached stance. Shot almost in real time, switching between night vision and stage darkness, it is a quiet, methodical, non-triumphalist, non-gung-ho portrayal of the raid and assassination of Bin Laden. We see the Navy Seals kill several people, the bullets popping almost silently into women pathetically still wearing their nightdresses, a younger man and then Bin Laden himself, as children whimper in dark corners. This is about as far from a computer game or standard Hollywood chase as you could get. We don’t even get to see Bin Laden’s face. After the killing, there is precious little sense of triumph being enjoyed, rather a bleak anti-climactic melancholy.
PS (by the editor): Also at the recently held 34th Max Ophüls Price, a renowned festival for young film makers in Saarbrücken, Germany, torture was an issue. Fünf Jahre Leben (Five Years of a Life) by Stefan Schaller which was awarded the Interfilm Award (one of the festival’s categories) was produced in cooperation with German-Turkish Murat Kurnaz who had been held for five years in Guantanamo. There, Kurnaz was pressured to admit that he had planned to join the Taleban, but he refused. He was tortured and then released. The full-length movie (93 min) shows his experience in the claustrophobic of the prisoner camp.
(1) Odette (1950, dir Herbert Wilcox) starred Anna Neagle as the real woman, Odette Sansom, who was sent by the British Special Operations Executive to France during World War II to work with the resistance. She was captured but, despite being badly tortured, revealed nothing. Odette was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp which she survived and was awarded the George Cross.
Marathon Man (1976, dir John Schlesinger), a thriller with a complex plot starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider, features the truly unforgettable scene of Hoffman having healthy teeth drilled into.
Jim Kirk, played by William Shatner, was the captain of the Starship Enterprise in the late 1960s and early 1970s TV series Star Trek. He would endure pain himself, only to give in to evil aliens when they threatened his crew.
(2) The Borg – another Star Trek reference – are a hive species.
(3) See Anand Gopal, The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar (Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper), New American Foundation, November 2010; Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, The Insurgents of the Afghan North: The Rise of the Taleban, the Self-Abandonment of the Afghan Government and the Effects of ISAF’s ‘Capture-and-Kill Campaign’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 6 May 2011; Stephen Carter and Kate Clark, No Shortcut to Stability: Justice, Politics and Insurgency in Afghanistan, Chatham House, 2010; Antonio Giustozzi (ed), Decoding the New Taleban: Insights from the Afghan Field, New York/Chichester: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2009; and Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970–2010,
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012.
(4) Abbottabad is pronounced wrongly throughout the film. The town was named after a Major James Abbott and, remaining true to its English origins, the stress is on the first syllable.
Photo: The movie’s heroine, Maya, staring at a computer (Columbia Pictures, found here)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020