“Zero Dark Thirty”: Righteous Vengeance and the War on Terror

Last night, I had the opportunity to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which follows the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden between September 2001 and May 2011. Following her earlier film, “The Hurt Locker” (2008), Bigelow once again puts the spotlight on the United States of America’s “War on Terror”, although this time by shifting the spotlight from the minefields of Iraq to the mountainous terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan (“AfPak”).  Overall, I felt the film left much to be desired and I feel it frames the hunt for Osama bin Laden rather problematically. As such, the film needs to be critically scrutinized in several ways. As most people are already aware, the film has raised much controversy due to its representation of torture, as well as its rather detailed information about the purported inner workings of the CIA. With regard to the first issue, voices ranging from Glenn Greenwald (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda) to Senator John McCain (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/18/sen-mccain-rejects-torture-scene-in-zero-dark-thirty/) have expressed major concern and strongly critiqued the film. Nevertheless, there were other voices which rushed to the film’s defense and insisted that it was not attempting to depict torture as “morally excusable” but rather as an effective means of extracting information (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/zero-dark-thirty-is-not-pro-torture/266759/). Other reviews (notably http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/12/the-torture-narrative.html ) have sought to provide a more “balanced” approach to the issue, by praising the film for its presentation of torture as an incontrovertible fact of the War on Terror, while leaving it to the audience to draw their own moral conclusions. The film’s controversy, especially as pertains to the representation of torture, has even prompted the US Senate to launch an open investigation into the links between the filmmakers and CIA officials (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/senate-panel-opens-zero-dark-probe-article-1.1232118). In this review, I will not weigh in on either of these issues, since there are an increasing number of articles on the issue, addressing the problem from various legal, moral, and political perspectives. If one is interested in this developing controversy, the articles linked above are a good start.

My review, which is informed by my interests in the geo-politics of the Middle East and political Islam, is an attempt to locate some of the strong points of “Zero Dark Thirty” while also providing some critical perspective on the film.


Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment was its ability to tell a story spanning several continents, and a period of ten years through the eyes of a single CIA agent without losing pace or the engagement of the audience. It successfully maintains a level of suspense throughout. Although the runtime of 157 minutes was rather long, the film is well-paced . The unfolding of the events which culminated in the assassination of Osama bin Laden through the eyes of a CIA agent, known to the audience only as “Maya”, reflects good story-telling which captures the interest of the audience, who are left in the dark about the sequence of events (unless, ofcourse, they are intimately familiar with the chronology, names, and events of the War on Terror) which takes the viewer on a long journey through the narrow alleyways of Rawalpindi to the fast-paced politics of Washington D.C. to the undercover nightclubs of Kuwait. The unfolding of these events occurs exclusively through the eyes of Maya and it is her journey/perspective which is the main plot of the film. Naturally, this approach to the story of the War on Terror presents its own set of problems, which I will discuss more below. In addition to the plot, the cinematography is excellent and some sequences (especially that of the raid itself) are quite stunningly executed.

The most compelling aspect of the film, in my opinion, is that it depicts the viciousness and brutality of torture, terrorism, and war in a manner which I believe no previous mainstream film has done. I felt that by underscoring the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, 7/7 (and others) which were committed by Islamists worldwide, the film highlighted an uncomfortable truth: a global terrorist threat did (and does) exist.  Moreover, by showing—in graphic and painful detail—the use of tactics such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation on detainees, the film throws into sharp relief the reality of torture in a way which is intended to be discomforting to the viewer. Torture, Kathryn Bigelow seeks to remind us, is not merely a theoretical concept which one either supports or abhors depending on their political or moral philosophy. Instead, we are forced to endure torture in its raw form: the methodical imposition of pain and suffering upon another human being, whose humanity is highlighted by the very act of their dehumanization. These scenes were quite faithful to the psychological and physical reality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in which the victims is at the utter mercy of their tormenters. The way in which these scenes are filmed makes the viewer a reluctant spectator (and, thus, a participant) in the horrific process endured by the detainees as they are subjected to indescribable horrors. Whether these scenes serve to reinforce torture as a “necessary evil” or whether they represent a critique of this tactic as an abuse of human rights is up for debate, and (as mentioned above) has dominated the discussion of the film. (For the record, my own perspective on the matter falls closest to Glenn Greenwald’s). Another element of the film which I think deserves praise is its highlighting the violence associated with the raid itself, in which the reality of the raid is shown as faithfully as possible. The filmmakers have no illusions about the nature of warfare or the unrestrained manner in which the US Special Forces carry out their mission. Questions of limiting civilian deaths or impinging upon the sovereignty of an independent nation are non-issues, and do not even enter the discussions of the CIA represented in the film. For the CIA, the question is whether or not Bin Laden was indeed hiding in Abbotabad, not whether a raid would be launched without the knowledge of Pakistan.  As for the raid itself, the situation is uncertain, confusion is rampant, women and children are harmed, and a level of violence becomes acceptable which would be unthinkable in any other situation. The woman in the compound, who was shot and left to bleed to death by the US Special Forces, is a case in point. The seeming willingness of the US Special Forces to open fire upon an unarmed Pakistani civilian population also demonstrates this point quite aptly. The screams, horror, and tears of the women and children of the Bin Laden household are contrasted with the euphoria of the US soldiers following the assassination of the world’s most wanted man. This contrast seems reflective the director’s overall attempt throughout the film to remain faithful to the reality of the situation rather than glamorize or demonize the various participants in these events.


Unfortunately, I feel that the film’s strengths are almost completely overshadowed by various shortcomings and weaknesses. As powerful as the depiction of torture may have been in the film, one cannot help but feel troubled that the audience is encouraged to accept the contention that there is a direct relationship between the use of torture to extract information and the prevention of terrorism. Indeed the protagonist herself is transformed from an individual who is a rather reluctant observer of the application of torture to one who becomes one of its most enthusiastic advocates. The fact that the entire premise of the film is that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden leaves a bitter taste…not just because this is a blatant lie but because it expects the audience to acknowledge that the use of such cruelty is justified. I also had major issues with the way that Islamic culture was represented, with each society depicted in very monolithic and stereotyped ways. Burqas (those associated with Taliban rule) are depicted as the norm in Pakistan’s urban centers, nightclubs with scantily-clad women are apparently representative of Kuwait, and absolute emptiness and US military bases are all we see of Afghanistan. Everywhere Muslims are shown, they are either angry or scowling; except, ofcourse, for one Muslim CIA official who is shown as praying in his office. In short, the Islamic world is definitely not a place any “civilized” person would like to be and Muslims are only “there” insofar as they can provide valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of terrorists or as part of the cultural landscape. The devout CIA officer aside, there is not a single positive representation of Muslims in the entire film. Moreover, Levantine Arabic seems to be the only foreign language used in the entire film. It is used to communicate with militants in the Arab world, Europe, the Persian Gulf, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, even when those being communicated with are not even Arab. And apparently Falafel, Hummus, and Tabouli have become staple foods in Pakistan.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film was the narrative which it promotes. By focusing exclusively on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, key facts of the War on Terror are completely obscured.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in which thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed) are completely glossed over. The strategy of drone strikes which intensified during the Obama administration also receives no attention, and is referenced—in passing—only once (and even then with no real implications). The invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the numerous atrocities of US soldiers in those countries, and the direct impact which this had upon anti-American feeling in the Islamic world is totally ignored and brushed aside. In fact, the War on Terror which is represented in this film would be unrecognizable to most social scientists and security studies experts. It is a reality in which the US is essentially the victim (“they killed 3000 of us on 9/11, and we only killed 4 of them [high-ranking terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda]”) fighting an uphill battle against a well-organized, global network of Islamist terrorists devoted to the utter destruction of the Western world…all with one man—Osama bin Laden—at the head. As such, the film completely disentangles the hunt for Bin Laden from the broader context of the War on Terror (as experienced by millions of individuals across the Islamic world) and US foreign policy in the Middle East. We are led to believe that US foreign policy is driven by the singular purpose of capturing Bin Laden–thereby exacting retribution for 9/11–and preventing global terrorism. Moreover, the film further decontexualizes the existence of Islamist violence by depicting the militants as relishing in the murder of Americans for no other reason than the apparent pleasure which these individuals derive from human suffering. Unlike films such as “Syriana” or even “Body of Lies”, absolutely no attempt is made in “Zero Dark Thirty” to give the audience any perspective or understanding of the enemy, their raison d’être, or even their complexity.  It is extremely unlikely that even with this information, the viewer would even conceive of Islamist violence as in any way justified. But in refusing to even offer the viewer the opportunity to place Islamist violence in its appropriate context and to understand the roots of terrorism, the film insults the intelligence of its audience. It reinforces the mistaken belief that global terrorism simply exists (and reproduces itself) independent of any socio-economic or geo-political context and is simply a dangerous threat that ought to be completely eliminated (by force).  The inevitable result is a regurgitation of the “they hate us because we’re free” narrative. At one point, a television monitor displaying the news in the background utilizes this very phrasing, hence reminding the audience about the “real cause” of terrorism.


By failing to even mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explicitly identified by the terrorists who committed the attacks in Madrid and London as their rationale, the film seems to advocate a perspective of Islamist violence which completely eliminates causality. By this, I simply mean that by taking the reality of drone strikes, major wars/occupations, and a massive civilian casualty rate out of the picture, Islamist militancy is left as a nihilistic, destructive ideology which draws adherents for no other reason other than the apparent appeal of such a worldview. No explanation whatsoever is given for the expansion of the al-Qaeda network, even though the Iraq war and the subsequent transformation of al-Qaeda from an organization into an ideological force (stretching from Indonesia to the US), both key developments of the War on Terror in which the US played a decisive role, were the reasons for this expansion. Again, the audience is simply left to imagine a massive, trans-national, centrally-directed terrorist network bent on the absolute destruction of the Western way of life (there is not a single reference to any of the tens of thousands of Muslims claimed by al-Qaeda ofcourse!). All that lies between this looming threat and the civilized world is a small group of CIA operatives, whose activities, we are told, have a direct bearing on the preservation of life as we know it. Maya, in particular, seems to take this sense of mission to heart and stubbornly continues the hunt for Bin Laden for over a decade, convinced that his elimination would bring down the entire network al-Qaeda network. (Maya, it should be said, is one of the most unlikeable characters in the entire film, or for that matter any recent film I’ve seen). This conception of al-Qaeda as a centrally-directed, trans-national network/organization animates much of the film and paints a very misleading picture of the War on Terror. By making the issue all about Bin Laden and forgetting the broader issues at play, the film unnecessarily keeps the audience bogged down in a “September 12th” mindset, in which the entire decade of events following the September 11th attacks are secondary. True, this is reflective of Maya’s own character and worldview (whose obsessive passion for finding Bin Laden is seemingly her only animating force in life), upon which the film’s plot is based. However, I thought it was a rather irresponsible decision on the part of the filmmakers to completely obscure the very important developments between 2001 and 2011, which greatly transformed not only the course of the “War on Terror” but the entire regional dynamic as well.


It seemed that the filmmakers feared that an incorporation of this context (i.e. the actual reality) would have lessened the significance of Bin Laden’s death.  Vengeance, not solving the problem of global terrorism or “protecting the homeland” (a phrase used over and over again), is therefore the main theme of the film. This becomes clear as the US Special Forces deliver bullets into the bodies of militants (and one woman) with ease and satisfaction, and the gratification which Maya exhibits upon looking down on the bullet-ridden body of Bin-Laden. One would almost be forgiven if they were to believe that in that moment global terrorism was defeated and world peace restored. This “mission accomplished” attitude which the film aproaches the assassination of Bin Laden, while serving the purpose of accommodating the desire for vengeance felt by many Americans for the man’s crimes, does more harm than good because it puts forth the mistaken notion that this assassination had any impact upon global terrorism, which continues unabated and is as serious a problem as ever.  By refusing to even integrate the hunt for Bin Laden within the larger context of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (which claimed about 7000 American lives, more than double those killed on 9/11), the very important question of “at what cost [to US and the Islamic world] was vengeance/justice exacted?” by the killing of Bin Laden is never even raised, and the questions of “was it worth it?” or “did it matter?” are inconceivable. These are questions which the audience and the American public will certainly be asking in the years to come, as the economic, geo-political, and human consequences of the War on Terror become more apparent. It is these repercussions which will remain with us all for decades to come, long after the name Osama bin Laden has been forgotten. Bin Laden may have been killed (and good riddance!), but each drone strike and atrocity committed by the coalition forces in Afghanistan creates new terrorists every day, many of whom advocate ideological and political visions far more radical than that even conceived by Bin Laden. If the terrorist networks which have arisen in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and the Arabian Peninsula are any indication, the War on Terror has entered a new, troubling phase.

The utter silence, shrugs, and lack of any applause/cheers at the end of the film in the theater is perhaps an indication that many Americans are thinking along the same lines. At the end of the film, one is left with very little with which to take away and, despite some compelling sequences, the critical questions which the audience sincerely hopes the film will address are ignored altogether.



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