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The Black Mirror of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

"It's such a heavy topic in a way and hopefully stands up to the test of time," said screenwriter Mark Boal. "So, five or 10 years from now they could look back on this and say, 'Hey, they more or less got this right.'"

The debate over the how-they-got-bin-Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty centers around a harsh set of scenes at the start of the movie, all desert-bright and painted-goggles dark, set at one of the secret prisons where CIA employees tortured presumed terrorists. It's suggested that in the movie and in real life, scenes like these helped lead the U.S. to track down the most wanted man in history.

When we enter an impromptu dungeon at one point, the music blasting from a PA system is loud and significant, "Pavlov's Dogs" by the New Jersey hardcore band Rorschach. Like the lingo that fills up much of this detective story—"Oh dark thirty" means thirty minutes past midnight—and like the "war on terror" itself, the lyrics are impossible to understand. But they read like a kind of code.


Open wounds

Never heal


I sense no pain


Over and over again


The bell has rung

What have I said

What have I done


To the act

Not realizing until

After the fact

Everything evil

Becomes serene

Drilled in my head

What does it mean

Scoring your torture scene with a song about behaviorial conditioning by a band named after the father of projective psychology speaks volumes about the attention to detail here, and the filmmakers' interest in making a point without making it directly. But unless you know the song, its message of unconcious evil gets buried inside the scene. Otherwise, it's just very loud noise, just another part of the torture process, another part of the war and the debate that never seems to end.

The music fades, and you see the sweaty interrogator's patience wax and wane as he stares down the bad guy in this anonymous room, and points at the little box he promises to stuff him into ("When you lie to me, I hurt you," he says), and you think about the lengths that the U.S. government went to also, in far-flung places with thousands and thousands of people working in secret, at costs that will never fully be calculated, in order to protect Americans from more terrorism. You see the frustrated search crash up against bureaucracy and dead leads and and suicide bombers. And the CIA heavies in ski masks move in to hold the detainee down and make him think he's drowning.


"We tried to capture the history the best we could in the context of the drama," screenwriter Mark Boal said recently. "But hopefully [also] capture this moment in American life and make something, because it's such a heavy topic in a way and hopefully stands up to the test of time. So, five or 10 years from now they could look back on this and say, 'Hey, they more or less got this right.'"

It might take that long. Critics have embraced Zero Dark Thirty even as they've attacked it for its depiction of waterboarding and other CIA-practiced torture techniques. Alex Gibney, who made Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about a taxi driver who was tortured to death at a US Army base in Afghanistan, called it a "cinematic masterwork," but added that "what Boal/Bigelow fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results."

That may be expecting a lot. Then again, others have labeled the movie "grossly inaccurate," "middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day" and "a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda." David Edelstein described it as "borderline fascistic." Jane Mayer accused director Kathryn Bigelow of "milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked." Glen Greenwald compared her to Leni Riefenstahl.

Diane Feinstein, one of the senators behind a still-classified report on torture, wrote to Sony Pictures demanding they acknowledge the film's inaccuracies, namely its "suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden." She added, "The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse for these reasons alone, but more importantly, because it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because it is an affront to America’s national honor, and because it is wrong… We cannot afford to go back to these dark times…"


But there is a difference between showing that torture happened and arguing that it was a good, important thing to do. The movie only does the former, and even if its verite style (there are echoes of The Battle of Algiers) makes it tempting to conflate the actions of the characters on screen with decisions that were made in real life, following that temptation is like shooting the messenger. Just as the movie offers no sentimentality for the victorious bin Laden manhunt, there's nothing fetishistic or indulgent about the movie's torture scenes either. They're simply terrible to watch.

“Without the honesty and the integrity of that sequence, you’re not gonna feel the weight of the end,” said Jeremy Clarke, the actor who plays the film's CIA torturer, during a recent Q&A. “I know for myself and Reda [Kateb] who shot the scene, we were grateful. Reda’s a French-Moroccan actor and he was grateful to get in there and explore that part, and then show this story as we know the facts demonstrate.”

The "problem" with Zero Dark Thirty's portrayal of torture isn't the portrayal itself, but what it represents. Even though waterboarding is now prohibited, that hasn't diminished its value for some in government. To assume torture is a thing of the past--or to criticize Zero Dark Thirty for not "banishing" it from serious public discourse--seems to be counterproductive to stopping it, if that's even what we want to do.


In fact, by fore-grounding torture and showing how it fit into the CIA's ends-justify-means culture, Zero Dark Thirty raises the big question, again and again, right up to the movie's inevitable resolution: was it worth it? It's a poignant question now in the twilight of war, as soldiers return home, as the Taliban continues to spread terror in Afghanistan and as younger audiences begin to contemplate the effects of this war. This is a movie for anti-terror experts but also for people who were just kids when the U.S invaded Iraq. The producer of Zero Dark Thirty happens to be Megan Ellison--daughter of Larry, producer of The Master, new owner of the Terminator franchise--was a mere 15 years old on September 11, 2001.

Though the movie isn't a documentary, and even though it's only a snapshot of one part of our post-9/11 saga, it turns the bin Laden saga into a lens for looking at the whole war. By this telling, our quests to do good and right are easily knocked off course. We get distracted, go down the wrong path, see things that aren't there and miss things that are.

Harsh interpretation techniques

"Unmarked 737 at 'Gold Coast' Terminal Las Vegas, NV," by Trevor Paglen

Good historical movies don't just teach us about history (often in far more powerful ways than most textbooks ever described); they also get us to talk about it too. They can lie to us too, distorting and papering over the historical record, however imperfect it may be. It's thanks to Shakespeare that Henry V will be remembered for his valiance at the Battle of Agincourt, but the bard didn't mention the French prisoners-of-war he slaughtered there.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't treat that challenge lightly. It feels realistic, but it was never going to be a simple history lesson, in part because the history itself still hasn't been written. Years later, much information about CIA torture and the hunt for bin Laden remains secret, leaving it up to the filmmakers' to shed light for us.


Still, the depiction of torture itself in ZDT is refreshingly accurate compared to its previous entry into the cultural lexicon, the TV show 24, which argued, among other things that gouging a suspect's kneecaps was an excellent way to get actionable intelligence. 24 didn't presume to show things as they really were, but, in the heat of the terror war, as hardliners fantasized they could be and should be. Characters who protested Jack Bauer's hot-headed techniques either looked like sissies or fell into line; the critics who complained were up against a very fictional-looking show, and support for the war on terror was high.

A scene from 24

We know better now. But do we? While Zero Dark Thirty has been roundly blamed for distorting reality, it's not completely clear what reality is. The government's own recent history of torture remains, to borrow a phrase, a known unknown. Consider the case of Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, the 9/11 fundraiser whose real-life torture is described in the movie. Last month a military judge ruled that he will be prohibited from describing his torture at trial, as these methods remain a state secret.

Even as many in government grandstand against these tactics, they are prohibited from providing a full account of what they know. A new 6,000-page report on torture prepared by the Senate intelligence committee and based on six million pages of evidence won't be declassified at least until after the President and "key executive branch officials" can review it, says Diane Feinstein, who chairs the committee. (Republican senators, who have collectively faulted the report for being based on too little evidence, have distanced themselves from it, and with the exception of John McCain, another critic of ZDT, have been comparatively silent.)

Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, the 9/11 fundraiser who inspired the terrorist detainee in the film

"The torture echo chamber has been largely unrebutted," Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine, a retired Army Reserve officer who taught prisoner interrogation and opposes torture, told reporters on a conference call in December. "Torture advocates have claimed over and over that it works, that they can't give an explanation of all the claimed success because 'they're classified, and if only we could tell you what we know, you'd understand.'" Giving Americans access to the information that senators like Diane Feinstein and John McCain already have would be a critical step toward having a real debate, he said.

Not surprisingly, a number of CIA people continue to claim that enhanced interrogations were helpful. Dennis C. Blair, President Obama's director of national intelligence, wrote in a memo to his staff in April 2009 that "high value information came from interrogations in which [enhanced interrogation] methods were used." Dick Cheney claims unreleased memos show the success of torture ("I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was," he's said.)

Jose Rodriguez, the director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service during the Bush years, also appears to have no qualms about torture. "[The] critics of the program are not looking at the overall picture," he said recently in an interview about his memoir, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives. "These techniques were used shortly after 9/11, people were afraid of an imminent attack, and quick answers were desperately needed." In a 60 Minutes interview last spring, he also downplayed what his operatives had done but said, “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed”; “The objective is to let him know there’s a new sheriff in town."


Four successive CIA directors share that discomforting view. The most recent, Michael V. Hayden, says he believes the methods "got the maximum amount of information" from prisoners, specifically Abu Zubaydah, the first official CIA detainee to be captured, and perhaps the most tortured (more on him later). John Brennan, Obama's newly-tapped head of the CIA, was also a supporter of "harsh interrogations" during his time as a CIA agent. As commander of US troops in Iraq, David Patraeus was a staunch opponent of torture. As CIA chief he said it could be used in "ticking time bomb" scenarios, which get their scare quotes from their mostly mythic status.

The movie's only evident acknowledment of the torture debate within the CIA comes after a scene in which the characters silently watch Obama condemning torture in a 60 Minutes interview. In the next scene, a CIA guy asks where he's supposed to find new intelligence: “Some guy in Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?”

But the vocal consensus out of Washington is that even if torture was effective in some cases (so too, is terrorism) it's morally reprehensible and strategically counterproductive (consider that the seeds of Islamic extremism were watered in the prisons of Nasser's Egypt) and that Zero Dark Thirty deserves to be castigated for suggesting otherwise. Two weeks ago, the acting CIA director was compelled to weigh-in with a statement that was interpreted by some as "slamming" the film's interrogation scenes. And yet for all of its political correctness, he seemed to largely substantiate the film's difficult treatment of torture:


“Some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques. But there were many other sources as well.” As to “whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests," that's "a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

We don't know what torture is

This is all in any case a salient discussion, not just because it's always fun to argue about movies, but because torture simply hasn't gone away. Even though it is widely believed that waterboarding by Americans ended in 2003, the Army Field Manual, particularly Appendix M, still permits sleep deprivation, twenty hour interrogations and environmental and dietary manipulations, as long as they are not “extreme.”

Vagueries aside, Jeff Kaye of Truthout has detailed how the manual permits officers to limit prisoners to “four hours of sleep per day for up to thirty days straight and longer than that with approval.” The four hours of sleep, he notes, could occur at any time of the twenty-four hour day, and along with lengthy interrogation sessions, amount to a manipluation of circadian rhythms "that also amounts to torture." Sensory deprivation with goggles and earmuffs is also permitted, and can last for thirty or more days, pending approval. Is this sadistic torture? I don't know, but it sounds like it.

In 2009, US Attorney General Eric Holder opened an investigation into the detainee abuse that has happened, and specifically the cases of two deaths that occured at CIA prisons. Reported the Times, they were


Gul Rahman, suspected of being a militant, who died in 2002 after being shackled to a concrete wall in near-freezing temperatures at a secret C.I.A. prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit; and Manadel al-Jamadi, who died in C.I.A. custody in 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where his corpse was photographed packed in ice and wrapped in plastic.

But the investigation was limited to "unauthorized" acts, and would not cover acts of "harsh interrogation" such as waterboarding, which was authorized by Bush administration lawyers, even if the acts violated domestic and international law. In August, Holder announced that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths, which effectively eliminated the last possibility that criminal charges will be brought in the wake of the C.I.A.'s renditions and interrogations.

A number of independent lawsuits against the CIA have been dismissed by US judges invoking the state secret privilege. One of those was brought in 2006 by Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who, in a terrible case of mistaken identity, was taken off a bus by border guards in Macedonia in 2003, then “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded” before being flown to Afghanistan, where he spent over four months in a CIA prison before being flown to Albania and left on the side of a road. A unanimous ruling this month by the 17-judge European Court of Human Rights that this “amounted to torture” has ordered Macedonia to pay Masri $78,000 in damages.


Another set of torture critics have emerged too: the people who carried it out. In None of Us Were Like This Before, the journalist Joshua Phillips chronicles the PTSD of soldiers who participated in "harsh interrogations," which he notes were more widespread than most people tend to imagine. In an interview with Harper's, he also noted the role that depictions of torture in shows like 24 played in spreading the idea that torture just works.

As interrogators explained it, when they and their peers faced frustrating systemic problems with interrogation that impeded them from producing intelligence, the vivid success stories on TV looked like an attractive alternative for questioning prisoners. As it turned out, ticking time-bomb scenes not only affected troops in the field but also influenced some of Guantanamo’s staff, officer cadets, and senior government officials.

Like many others he speaks to, the two soldiers that Philips focuses on in his book, Sargeant Adam Gray and medic Jonathan Millantz, returned home from overseas broken men. Wracked by guilt from their experience, and after violent outbursts, substance abuse, and depression, they both died from apparent suicide.

We do know what torture is

The frustrating "he said, she said" discussion over the film's ambiguous treatment of torture, and over torture's effectiveness, is reminiescent of one of the crucial problems with torture: not the moral issues but the sheer practical challenge of gleaning any intelligence at all.


Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 planner who was extensively tortured, "had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass."

In the movie as in real life, the search for bin Laden began by following and verifying or debunking things that people said during interrogations where "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used--information that may have been false either to throw the CIA off (9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was extensively tortured, "had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass," according to an FBI agent), or simply because the people preseumed to have the information wanted the pain to stop.

There's also the chance that terrorist detainees were hallucinating things, even without anything like drugs. (After speculation of drugging, in a report released over the summer, the Inspector General of the Dept. of Defense said it could not find evidence that the CIA administered "mind-altering drugs to facilitate interrogation of detainees." But the IG did hold that some detainees had been drugged with powerful antipsychotics and other medications that "could impair an individual's ability to provide accurate information.") Torture tactics like sleep and sensory deprivation can easily lead to all kinds of psychotic apparitions, as Gibney showed in Taxi to the Dark Side, and as Oliver Sacks writes in his new book, Hallucinations, when discussing medical residents who are on call for long periods of time.


"One young neurologist wrote to me that after being on call for more than thirty hours, he would hear the hospital's telemetry and ventilator alarms, and sometimes after arriving home he kept hallucinating the phone ringing," Sacks writes. According to one study, caffeine can invite hallucinations of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," a hallucination Sacks has personally experienced. The group Physicians for Human Rights notes that the "effects of indefinite detention and solitary confinement can include depression, severe and chronic anxiety, schizophrenia, personality changes, hypersensitivity, hallucinations, and panic attacks."

Apparitions dot the trail to bin Laden on all sides. Seeing things that aren't there (and not seeing ones that are) is the major motif of the film's CIA investigation, as it plucks at the family tree of senior al Qaeda associates, ultimately to find the courier that might lead them to the boss. In the movie, one of the Agency's big breaks appears to come when Maya, the investigator who monomaniacally pursues bin Laden, convinces her prisoner that in his sleep-lacked, stress-positioned stupor he said something that he didn't. When you're sleep deprived (or entranced by a movie) what's real and what's not can get all tangled up.

This is where the visceral, disquieting interrogation scenes get resolved, and how Maya actually gets her battered prisoner to talk: not by beating him more but by offering him a lit cigarette and a plate of falafel.


Indeed, in a 2008 New York Times story, Scott Shane describes how friendly, gentle coercion--not simply waterboarding--led Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to open up to his interrogator, becoming a font of information about the al Qaeda mindset and a source of about sixty footnotes in the 9/11 Commission's final report. That Times article, based on interviews with CIA and other officials, centers on Deuce Martinez, a CIA narcotics agent brought into the agency's hastily-assembled interrogation program. It describes Mohammed, or KSM for short, as becoming chatty with his gentle interrogator and even writing poetry to Martinez's wife.

But despite serious misgivings from some in the CIA and FBI about the political costs of resorting to torture, KSM was said to have been waterboarded about 100 times over a period of two weeks. (This was, by the way, the guy who personally decapitated the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl.)

After all, in August 2002, earlier attempts to coax information out of Al Qaeda's logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah at a secret prison outside Bangkok, had failed--until the waterboard was brought out. Reportedly, it took CIA heavies just one instance of water-boarding for 35 seconds to get him to share useful information.

“It was like flipping a switch,” John Kiriakou, a former agent, said of Zubaydah's shift from resistance to cooperation. However, evidence later emerged that he had been waterboarded 83 times in a single month, complicating the idea that torture was very effective. And former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who nearly uncovered the 9/11 plot and later interrogated Zubaydah without using torture, claims that he succeeded in getting actionable intelligence--like the identity of "dirty" bomber José Padilla--in ways the CIA's harsh approach couldn't. "There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics." Feinstein and other Senators [say the same]( ) about the detainee who provided the name of bin Laden's courier--that he gave up the information before being subjected to "enhanced interrogation."


"In addition," Soufan wrote in [a 2009 Times op-ed]( ), "I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process."

Kiriakou is now headed to jail for thirty months for revealing details about the torture program to the Times' Shane and for giving the name of an agent to another reporter. That makes him the first CIA agent to go to prison over torture, even though he was one of the CIA's harshest critics of torture.

Meanwhile, Zubaydah, who remains at Guantanamo Bay, has never been charged with a crime. Also never charged, after a three-year investigation by the Justice Dept.: Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who in 2005 ordered that all 90 of the video tapes documenting "harsh interrogations" be destroyed, without the permission of his superiors and just as Congress was stepping up its scrutiny of the program.

Allan Sekula, CIA Black Site seen from the bushes, Klejkuty, Poland, July 2009

The right to torture Zubaydah was granted in August 2002 by John Yoo, a Justice Dept. attorney, in a set of landmark memos urged by the White House that lacked reference to important legal precedent and that many legal scholars consider to be an abomination of the law. It sanctioned ten techniques that interrogators wanted to use, techniques generally considered illegal under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, techniques for which the United States had prosecuted Japanese military officials after World War II and American soldiers after the Vietnam War. They were techniques, some say, that the C.I.A. was already using on Zubaydah:

"(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.”


"If officers believed the prisoner was holding out," Shane wrote, "paramilitary officers who had undergone a crash course in the new techniques, but who generally knew little about Al Qaeda, would move in to manhandle the prisoner. Aware that they were on tenuous legal ground, agency officials at headquarters insisted on approving each new step — a night without sleep, a session of waterboarding, even a “belly slap” — in an exchange of encrypted messages. A doctor or medic was always on hand. The tough treatment would halt as soon as the prisoner expressed a desire to talk. Then the interrogator would be brought in."

From one angle, the Times story seemed to offer comfort to those vehemently opposed to torture. But from another angle, it kept the questions in play. "Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured?" Shane asks. Without the documents in the Senate's report in public view, a final answer will be impossible.

(As to whether those techniques constituted torture, and whether the evidence they eliticted is admissable or not, that's a question that prosecutors will be forced to address during a trial for KSM and others in 2013. Attorney General Eric Holder badly wanted it to be held in civilian Federal court, as a way of legitimizing the proceedings, but when fears of terrorism trumped the American justice system, the trial was moved to a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Mohammed has already attempted to turn the proceedings into an anti-American spectacle, and said that his wish is to be executed as a martyr. “The worst thing we could do to KSM is to keep him alive for as long as possible while making him totally irrelevant,” retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a former chief commissions prosecutor, told Wired. “Not mattering matters more to him than dying. I’d hate to see us give him what he wants.”)


Reality hunger strike

The torture that gets doled out in ZDT is paralleled, in a sense, by the torturous, anxious, at times tragic quest that Maya undertakes to find bin Laden. We're meant to feel it too. Like forced sleeplessness, the hallucinatory effects of a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, with its radically realistic, presentist treatment--a kind of approach mastered by, among other movies, The Social Network, a kind we're still getting acclimated to--makes the lines between fact and fiction easy to miss.

Before we're launched like an RPG into the brutal, whirlwind, all-points-bulletin hunt for Osama bin Laden, ZDT establishes its framework with an unmistakably real prelude: an audio montage ripped from hair-raising 9-1-1 calls from the World Trade Center, played over a black screen. Pulling audiences in by those bleak voices is a clever way to set things off, plunging us into the urgency of the situation, laying out some of the stakes, and preparing us for the two-and-a-half hours of frenetic, absorbing camerawork that follows. But without images, the sequence is also a neat device for delineating fact from merely fiction-based-on-fact. This is real. This is not.

And yet that framing also lends the movie its unrelenting sense of realism, the dark background onto which the rest of the movie is impeccably, convincingly Photoshopped. Lately, the quest for something not just convincing but real, seems to lead Hollywood to ever greater acrobatics in order to invoke that feeling, a kind of palliative for a steadily more virtual, mediated world. Zero Dark Thirty fits right in to a growing realistic, presentist mindset that's been defined by an unceasing, uncensored stream of updates, tweets, blogs and videos. In his excellent forthcoming book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff recounts the ways that this mindset has impacted the narratives not only of epic TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones but of writers like Zadie Smith:


…Smith, author of White Teeth, explained in an interview, it is no longer the writer’s job to “tell us how somebody felt about something, it is to tell us how the world works.” Like other contemporary authors, such as Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem, and David Foster Wallace, Smith is less concerned with character arcs than with what she calls “problem solving.” Just like the worlds of television’s Lost or Heroes, the worlds of DeLillo’s White Noise and Lethem’s Chronic City are like giant operating systems whose codes and intentions are unknown to the people living inside them. Characters must learn how their universes work. Narrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns.

The filmmakers behind the new adaptation of Les Miserables decided the theatricality of Hollywood musicals wasn't real enough, so they instead recorded the actors singing as they performed for the camera, giving their renditions that added bit of realism. Peter Jackson insisted on shooting The Hobbit in 3D at double the normal frame-rate, and somewhere outside the "sweet spot" where the human brain percieves reality.

The Hobbit is a fantasy told in a more "realistic" frame rate

People, myself among them, find the effect of 48 frames per second to be real to the point of uncanny, so that it breaks the suspension of disbelief that stories like The Hobbit are all about. But Peter Jackson tried to preempt the critics. "You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience," he wrote in a Facebook post. "It's similar to the moment when vinyl records were supplanted by digital CDs. There's no doubt in my mind that we're heading towards movies being shot and projected at higher frame rates."

In Zero Dark Thirty, the writing and silences and the locations that Bigelow use all thrust us into the hunt. She didn't rely on a set to simulate the bin Laden raid: she had a near exact replica of his compound built, and instead of adding a green tint in the edit room, insisted her cinemetographer Greig Fraser shoot the scene through actual night-vision cameras. "While it's playing, you forget not only that you are watching a movie, but also that you are a person with a life that was going on before the movie and will continue going on afterward," Will Leitch wrote at Deadspin. "These are the transformative films, the ones that transport you somewhere outside of your body, transfix, mesmerize you. These are the ones that remind you why movies are immersive in a way no other medium is; these are the ones that you wait for. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies. It grabs you by the brain and squeezes." Even praise for the movie can't avoid sounding like torture.


In describing the way the Internet has given reality its own reality TV show, Nathan Heller recently observed a parallel shift in Hollywood. "You could buy clothes like the people in High Society, but you couldn’t expect their lives," he wrote in New York. "You could enjoy Nat “King” Cole’s courtly manner and canned jokes on his TV show, but understand that this behavior was theatrical, adopted for the camera. At some point, though, these theatrical affectations, inhibitions, and conventions fell away, and we began losing our sense of remove from the cultural life that we saw onscreen. A moviegoer in the fifties might well have been enchanted by the genteel, chaste, well-ordered world of Technicolor cinema, but he was not fooled: The great lie of reality TV is not that it’s spontaneous but that it’s turning the lens on a world that actually exists."

The great lie of Zero Dark Thirty is not that torture "worked," but that movies can even give us an easily digestible account of history.

The leaders of "Kony 2012" pose in Uganda

Like detainees of a ruthless internet, pinging us for some response maybe in the form of a Like, we're getting belly-slapped by more hyper-realism in more different kinds of packages than ever before. I'm thinking of, among many things last year, the saga of Mike Daisey at the Apple factory, and the meta-saga that ensued when it turned out his story for "This American Life" about abused Chinese factory workers was a hybrid of non-fiction and, well, fiction.

And then there's the whole Kony 2012 saga, and the sordid tale it became once Invisible Children were accused of fact-dodging and bad faith in the wake of their viral "documentary" video. One of the filmmakers lost his cool on the streets of Santa Monica, turning a story about terrorism in Uganda into an awful, tabloid-worthy "Internet-ruined-my-life" story--but not before setting the U.S. on its first manhunt since bin Laden. Despite the US Army's best efforts to find him, Joseph Kony remains at large.


When Mike Daisey sat down with Ira Glass for an apology and an explanation, he found a way to explain himself. With all of the hedging and silences removed, it went something like this:

Everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. It’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes – has made – other people delve. I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass wasn't buying it. Daisey told him, "we have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important." To which Glass replied, "I know, but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’"

"Is there room for both to be right?" Jim Fingal asked last year. Fingal himself raised some big questions about fact and fiction with his intriguing book The Lifespan of a Fact, in which he plays the "fact checker" to John D'Agata's journalist (though it's not quite clear how much the book is a work of journalism at all, which is part of the point).


"What if Daisey was right that people going to the theater – or to a comedy show – should engage with the work they see differently than the articles they read in the newspaper? Do we owe it to the artist to learn a little more about their intentions beforehand? How should the artist best cater to the audience? Does an artist need to provide a disclaimer before each performance?" Daisey reemerged from the This American Life debacle with a gentle reminder to the audience about responsibility, a reminder that sounds almost trite even if it's really important to make: "As an audience, that is your role, to determine how you feel about the art you take in."

At the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, September 11, 2012

Heavy imagery 

Movies like Zero Dark Thirty ask audiences to rise to the occasion. They challenge viewers to look on with a kind of detachment from recent history, a recognition of genre, a knowledge of context, and a willingness to follow along, as long as it makes sense--then add in their own critical thinking.

We know the bad guy dies at the end; we still, even now, even after seeing the film, don't quite know how. Just because the first part of the movie includes torture scenes doesn't amount to an explanation; to read it that way might be to commit the same kind of false interpretations and tactical errors that have hobbled the U.S.'s ability to wage the "terror war." Seeing torture scenes at the start of the movie and concluding that that's how they get to bin Laden in the end would be like, for instance, reading a few reports about a dictator's supposed ability to make chemical weapons and concluding that he most certainly possessed them and must be disabused of them by force.


But that may be expecting a lot of audiences. Witness the effects of the year's biggest (non-Gangnam Style) viral video, and the way it helped foment passions in Libya. After reports that heaved most of the blame for violence there onto The Innocence of Muslims, it became clear that the movie was neither originally intended to be hateful (it was only later co-opted by a racist troublemaker), nor was it the major culprit. The Sept. 11, 2012 attacks that laid siege to American government buildings in Tripoli and Benghazi, killing a handful of Americans, were the work of Al Qaeda elements (whatever that means now), which had intended to strike on the anniversary of 9/11 and which used the film as an added excuse. But the uproar over the video was giant nonetheless, a reminder of just how powerful and sacred the "truth" of visual images can be.

This is why more gruesome visual representations of America's war have been few and far between, why pictures of American coffins are practically censored and why even now, documentation or even official acknowledgement of drone strikes are kept classified. The lesson about the power of an image, be it of a flying robot or a dangling prisoner, shouldn't be lost on the people behind Zero Dark Thirty; it will be interesting, to say the least, to see what happens as the movie spreads through the bootleg DVD shops and internet cafes in Beijing, Tripoli, Peshawar.


"I started to feel like I was mentally going back to Kuwait mode, in that lonely, dark, black hole place, mentally," said Manning. "The most entertaining thing in my cell was the mirror. You can interact with yourself. I spent a lot of time with it."

Brutal imagery has already played a major role in controversies surrounding the terror war, from Abu Ghraib prison (Obama has ordered these photos be kept under lock and key, as he has for images of Osama bin Laden's dead body) to the incident in which American pilots lit up a van of civilians in Iraq, video of which was later released online by Wikileaks. "God knows what happens now," the alleged leaker Bradley Manning wrote in a chat with his confidant Adrian Lamo, a few days before his arrest. "Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms…But I want people to see the truth… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

The leaks opened up all kinds of cans of worms about secrecy and classification, and were seditious enough that soldiers watching Manning subjected him to what sounds like sadistic torture: he was held in solitary confinement for nine months inside a six-by-eight-foot cell at the military brig in Quantico, Virginia, before he had even been charged with a crime, let alone found guilty of one.

"For only 20 minutes a day, Pfc. Manning was left to see the sunlight while shackled in chains," Andrew Blake wrote recently from Manning's trial. "Other times, he found that if he arched his neck and angled himself just right he could catch the reflection of the sun from a window that was mirrored into his unimaginable concrete hellhole."


Inside his isolation chamber for 23 hours a day, Manning was deprived of nearly everything, including sleep, contact with other inmates and often his clothes. He was often forced to sleep from 1 PM to 11 PM, naked, and only while facing his lamp. "I started to feel like I was mentally going back to Kuwait mode, in that lonely, dark, black hole place, mentally," Manning told the court in the latest round of pretrial hearings (his lawyer is trying to get the case thrown out over Manning's harsh treatment, which he argues violated the Geneva Convention). “The most entertaining thing in my cell was the mirror. You can interact with yourself. I spent a lot of time with it."

Manning's story plays a major role in We Steal Secrets, a documentary about Wikileaks by Alex Gibney, which is set to premiere at Sundance in January. The pair intend to give Manning his own dramatic film too. "We’re looking for a screenwriter,” said producer Marc Shmuger.

The mirror stage

Zero Dark Thirty is a police procedural with heavy nationalist undertones; the journey to get bin Laden was a collective journey. It's as much about finding Osama bin Laden as it's about the challenge that critics and some audiences are now facing too: understanding the world, as well as the complicated ways that we find to meet that challenge. The issue around the film has become, does it support the argument that torture is effective?


Torture may be effective but that doesn't make it right (terrorism is also effective in some cases); and while CIA officials still defend it, many others, including a group of senators behind a still classified 6,000 page report, insist that it's not only ineffective but counterproductive. But this thing that has become embedded in our cultural lexicon of terrorism, from 24 to Homeland hasn't gone away. Like many other moral challenges that emerge in times of crisis, torture is a cipher for our values. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't endorse torture, but it shows how it happened--messily, unproductively, anxiously, and ultimately illegally--so that we can see better the war we have waged, and the rewards and the costs. Was it worth it?

(Speaking of rewards, Mark Boal said recently: "The thing that surprised me the most was the role of women in this story. Maybe I just grew up reading too much Bond, but I just didn't know that was part of the deal. I think it's ironic that al-Qaeda, that the leader of al-Qaeda was in some sense defeated by the specter that they feared most, right? A liberated, Western woman.")

And then it is our responsibility to ask ourselves, what was worth it and what wasn't? Not to suggest that we haven't been doing that, individually, collectively; Zero Dark Thirty is just another opportunity for that. It's very interesting and gripping and even entertaining, but it shouldn't be interpreted as the be-all, end-all last word on the topic. It's a very good movie, but it's a jumping off point for amateur historians, an invite into a bigger history that deserves to be told no matter how ugly it is, a history that deserves more consideration and scrutiny than either knee-jerk condemnation on a blog or flag-waving in front of the White House.


While they can also be very engaging and entertaining, the most frustrating thing about the movies spawned by 9/11 conspiracy theories, I always thought, were that they distracted from some very real controversies and intrigues and bumbling, head-slapping mistakes by the government. Be it conspiracy theories or weapons of mass destruction, human beings--be us religious fanatics armed with X-acto knives or activists wielding placards or Senators waving bills on the floor of Congress--are more self-selective about what we see than we might think. The echo chambers of the web make that kind of self-selection a simple matter of getting our news and ideas from our Twitter and Facebook feeds, where we rely on like-minded friends for our news, and, wittingly or not, on algorithms that seem to know what we want.

Even with all of our new tools, human error is no less rampant; and good, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground "human intel," rather than sophisticated surveillance technologies or barbaric interrogation methods, is no less important. In a lot of ways, ZDT is about the moral erosion and logical oversight that happens around promising new technologies are at your disposal. The CIA has some killer tech, but the lesson works for us too: it's easy to outsource information gathering and thinking to a paramilitary contractor, a drone, a computer, a pundit, or a movie, but easy doesn't mean good.

After the raid, in Times Square

Loose ends

The whole kerfuffle over Zero Dark Thirty and torture is fascinating and important but I think misses a bigger point. Like Maya, the agent monomaniacally determined to find bin Laden ("I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," she says at one point, messianicaly), we're not left with any resolution, but a kind of uncertain beginning, a starting-from-scratch. This is the movie's prompt, to start to pick up the pieces and learn something from the strange experience of witnessing the largest, ugliest, bloodiest manhunt in world history come to an equally muted, messy, and violent close.

In real life, back home, people gathered to cheer at the White House and at Ground Zero, began chants at baseball games and in Times Square ("Some Americans responded… much like the Munchkins did when Dorothy vanquished the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz," Lisa Provence of The Hook wrote); the president spoke, interrupting regularly scheduled programming, to his largest audience since Election Day.

"The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place."

In the movie version, we're left with nothing more consoling than our valiant CIA agent sitting alone in the back of a giant C-130, unable to tell the pilot where she's headed next, reduced to a blank stare. For all the moral hand-wringing about the film's depiction of torture, there's surprisingly little discussion about the film's ostensible resolution: the first nationally-celebrated assassination of the 21st century, and the first in my lifetime. It's something that, no matter how much you despise terrorists like bin Laden, can look thrilling and cathartic but also compromised and awfully ugly. That this moment is the premise of the entire film, the thing we know we're working up to, only makes it more complicated.

The President wanted to be sure it was Osama living inside that compound in Pakistan, so he took the risk of sending twenty guys in to kill him. Nowadays, much of that work is done remotely by drone pilots in Nevada. Some see the new regime of so-called extrajudicial killings as an easier alternative to, or a replacement for, all the unsavory detentions and interrogations we've done. The killing of Osama is an ending to one chapter in the terror war, but it's also the uncanny prologue to our current reality.

But again, we don't fully know: the terms of this new regime are classified, as is the kill list, or “disposition matrix,” kept by Obama and managed by John Brennan, his national security advisor and perhaps soon-to-be CIA chief. We know you can be nominated to it during a regular video meeting, but no one will even acknowledge it on the record, or even acknowledge the unmanned airplane strikes that do the dirty work, or the many civilian casualties they have left in their wake. (The future of drones is, by the way, the topic of a new Motherboard documentary, "Drone On.")

In Yemen and Pakistan, the CIA's rules mean that anyone who looks like a terrorist may be killed, even if their name isn't known (“The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official," according to the Times.). In cases where identities are known, the President may kill you if you're simply hanging around a terrorist, and, if you're a male, call you one after the fact. This year the President embraced a controversial method for counting civilian casualities at a strike zone: any military-age male is considered a combatant, unless explicit intelligence proves them innocent.

This plunges the math of war into even more murkier territory, at a time when we are suffering from a "collective autism" when it comes to the costs of war, as John Tirman, executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, calls it. In his book The Death of Others , he argues that as Americans, “we simply do not think about how much our wars are costing local populations,” and that makes it easier to swallow collateral damage as justified. “The implication is we should do this again when the occasion arises. It’s important that we know how many people died, and it’s important we know how many people were displaced, lost their homes, were widowed and impoverished. That has implications for the next time we face an international challenge.”

For now, deciding whom should die without due process is a responsibility the President sees as his. "But responsibility involves accountability," as Amy Davidson wrote at the New Yorker, "which is something, in this case, that appears to be badly lacking. Obama has not taken on a burden, but instead has given the Presidency a novel power."

It's a big one, and it's happening in secret, without accountability. In 2009, Obama made public the legal memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that authorized George Bush to carry out torture. He has not done the same for the memos that have authorized him to carry out drone strikes, like the one that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, and the propagandist he was traveling with Samir Khan, another American citizen. (Two weeks later, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son was killed in a separate drone strike; said Robert Gibbs: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.")

As Michael Hayden, the former director of the C.I.A. under George Bush, told the Times,

“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable. I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who defends torture and ordered those "harsh interrogation" tapes destroyed, was recently asked by American Thinker if he saw a double standard in the Obama administration's ban of "harsh interrogation" but adoption of kill lists. "It's a huge disconnect and one that baffles me," he said. "I think there is a place for drones, and they are actually very effective. I don't understand how this administration and most of the media do not see the contradiction that exists between basically killing and capture, even though some have been subjected to intense interrogation techniques. I will never understand that one. Worse yet, dead men don't talk. We are missing out on a lot of intelligence. Interrogation is a key tool in protecting this country. You never know what crisis is going to come up [for which] we will need to interrogate again. Giving it up unilaterally in such a political way does damage to our country."

Abderrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen

But what does not giving it up do? We have a hard time answering that question, a hard time talking about war and torture or even defining it, which is more reason to stare it in its anguished face. It's an especially important topic because the government hasn't made it easy: that classified report on torture is one problem, but so too is the White House sophistry that's manipulated the definition of "terrorist," in secret. For years, we didn't know who was being held by the CIA, or what kind of treatment they were subjected to. We still don't. (Thanks to amendments recently passed by Congress to the Foreign Intelligence Service Act , we also still don't know how much spying the NSA is doing of American citizens in the hunt for would-be terrorists.) We don't even know who's legally supposed to be a terrorist and who isn't. We don't really know what it takes to be sentenced to death, without trial, by the President's pen.

Does the movie endorse or fetishize the torture and killing that we've done, through gritted teeth or not, in the name of protecting ourselves? The same could be asked of any Hollywood movie (or video game for that matter: in a strange marketing tie-in, the movie even has its own special levels for one of the Medal of Honor games). The answer is, it depends on who's watching. The movie raises a bigger specter that comprises torture and secrecy but also goes deeper. ZDT can be a Rorschach test for those who favor or detest torture, but it's also a mirror. What do we see when we look into it? How do we look? Heroic, determined, but also defensive, jingoistic, repeatedly fumbling in a quest to protect ourselves and the freedoms and rights we say we hold dear. Do wethe audience endorse these things, and how and why? Do we really know torture when we see it? Do we know who a terrorist is and who isn't?

Hollywood movies don't challenge us very often, and I don't think dumping a big moral quandry on top of the audience is the main ambition of Zero Dark Thirty. But when movies get this heavy and this good, they represent a challenge that Fred Friendly, the television presenter on PBS, used to describe as part of his job: "Making the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking." It sounds a lot like torture, but it's much more productive.

In any case, those who insist that the movie overstates the value of torture in the hunt for bin Laden have mostly omitted the final lynchpin in the movie's version of events. Spoiler alert, literally: the final lap begins not with torture or drones or anything like that, but with something far more benign and, I think, American: the simple purchase of a $200,000 yellow Lamborghini Galado for an enterprising Saudi informant who gives up the phone number that ultimately leads to our wanted man. In the grand scheme of things, that's a small price to pay, especially considering the grand scheme has been pretty damn expensive.


The Rumsfeld Uncertainty Principle

The Torturer, the Spy, and the Journalist: How the U.S. Jailed the Waterboarding Whistleblower