Kathryn Bigelow’s taut political thriller, Zero Dark Thirty, a contender for an Academy Award in the best picture category, has reopened a heated debate on the efficacy and/or morality of coercive interrogation methods to extract information from suspects deemed to be terrorists.
The two hour-plus movie turns on the exhaustive manhunt for Osama bin Laden, the spiritual and operational leader of Al Qaeda, the Islamic fundamentalist organization that claimed responsibility for the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001.
During that day of infamy, an episode roughly comparable to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 19 Arab hijackers recruited and trained by Al Qaeda deliberately crashed three commercial airliners into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing some 3,000 people in the worst terrorist incident in American history.
By way of reaction, the United States invaded Afghanistan – where a reactionary Taliban government had terrorized a nation and where Al Qaeda, its guest, had masterminded the 9/11 plot – and launched a war on global terrorism. Although the United States succeeded in unseating the Taliban, scattering its leaders and giving Afghanistan a new lease on life, it signally failed to find Bin Laden, even as it posted a $25-million reward for his capture and tracked down several of his chief subordinates.
In the intervening years, Bin Laden taunted the United States by releasing a series of provocative videos. Still, he could not be found. But in May 2011, the United States, having ascertained Bin Laden’s whereabouts in a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, finally exacted vengeance as U.S. commandos shot and killed him in his residence and thereby achieved a measure of closure.
Zero Dark Thirty, which landed in Canadian theatres earlier this month after opening in the United States in December, unfolds over a 10-year period in semi-documentary style and focuses on the manhunt for the fugitive Bin Laden, America’s number 1 enemy.
The central character in Bigelow’s fast-paced and suspenseful film, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is a smart and obsessive Central Intelligence Agency operative whose search for Bin Laden is facilitated by the detection of his trusted personal courier in the flyblown Pakistani town of Peshawar.
The discovery of the courier was indubitably a factor in solving the puzzle of Bin Laden’s disappearance after 9/11. But in retrospect, how important were coercive interrogations?
In Zero Dark Thirty, nominated for five Academy Awards, there are a succession of gut-wrenching scenes in which suspected terrorists are brutally interrogated through a technique known as waterboarding.
Certainly, Dan (Jason Clarke), one of the American interrogators, is convinced it works. As he puts it in an early scene, “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology.” He delivers this in-your-face observation after questioning a suspect whose arms are strung up to the ceiling in a clandestine detention centre, or black site. These sites, which were part and parcel of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, were opened after 9/11 by the Bush administration but discontinued by President Barack Obama shortly after his inauguration in January 2009.
Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, who collaborated in the Academy Award winning film The Hurt Locker, do not even imply that torture in and of itself led to the daring Navy Seals raid that sealed Bin Laden’s fate.
Nonetheless, three U.S. senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, issued a critique of Zero Dark Thirty, claiming it is “grossly inaccurate and misleading” in its suggestion that coercive interrogations gave the CIA the information it needed to nail Bin Laden.
The CIA’s deputy director, Michael Morell, levelled a similar accusation, charging that the 157-minute film “creates the strong impression” that torture was the key to finding Bin Laden. “That impression is patently false,” he said. “The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence” prompted CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, a hamlet close to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
The notion that torture broke the Bin Laden case was, ironically, legitimized by two former high-ranking CIA officials.
Jose Rodriquez, who supervised the CIA’s counter-terrorism operations, opined in a Washington Post piece that the hunt for Bin Laden “stemmed from information obtained from hardened terrorists who agreed to tell us some (but not all) of what they knew after undergoing harsh but legal interrogation.”
Michael Hayden, the last CIA director appointed by George W. Bush, wrote in a Wall Street Journal article that “a crucial component” of the CIA’s data was provided by detainees who had been “subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation.”
Zero Dark Thirty, which unfolds to terrorist bombings in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, London, Islamabad and New York City, comes down somewhere in the middle on this issue, which is where the unsullied truth usually lies.
By all accounts, the information gathered by the United States on Bin Laden originated from a variety of sources: the hard slog of field work, wiretaps placed on telephone calls and emails, satellite images gleaned from patterns of daily life in Bin Laden’s compound and, last but not least, from coercive interrogations in black sites in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland.
In one such centre in Pakistan, Maya, a red-haired, porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed beauty who must overcome implicit sexist assumptions about her resolve, threatens to send a suspect to Israel if he does not co-operate.
The implication here is that he will be treated far more roughly in Israel, where the Supreme Court has sanctioned the use of moderate physical pressure to extract life-saving information from terrorists.
Maya, perhaps a composite of several CIA agents, proves beyond a doubt that a woman can be as tough as a man. Indeed, a colleague describes her as a “killer.” In portraying Maya, Chastain exudes grit and grace, qualities that enabled her to win last week’s Golden Globe award as best actress of 2012.
Incredibly focused, Maya convinces her superiors that the U.S. homeland can only be protected if Bin Laden is eliminated. She also persuades them that he is holed up in Abbotabad.
The 40-minute raid on his redoubt is realistically filmed in real time and in green-tinted hues as whirring helicopters disgorge commandos wearing night-time vision goggles. They blow up doors, kill a few of its residents and carry away incriminating documents, computer hard drives and a body bag containing Bin Laden’s corpse. Bin Laden himself is never fully seen, except quickly in a digital photograph snapped by a commando after his death.
Far from being jingoistic in substance or tone, Zero Dark Thirty tells its story earnestly and in detached fashion, letting viewers reach independent conclusions.