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Zero Dark Thirty and a Director’s Responsibility to the Truth

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Kathryn Bigelow“Everybody breaks, bro” croaks Jason Clarke’s shaggy faced CIA interrogator Dan – “it’s biology.”

The statement is directed to Ammar, a detainee with strong links with Saudi terrorists and 9/11. Strung up by his wrists, the prisoner – already beaten and subjected to a bout of waterboarding – perseveres until Dan, alongside newly transferred Maya (Jessica Chastain) tricks him in to believing that eventually, after keeping him awake for 96 hours straight, he divulged the information they needed. As Ammar is suffering from short-term memory loss throughout the interrogation techniques used against him, it works.

This, it seems, is the main discussion point of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated follow-up to her Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker. Interestingly, it’s not the violent acts and techniques depicted in these scenes that are making the headlines, but the result of them. That is, with the film, within the arc of its narrative, connecting successful information gained through torture to the eventual discovery and death of Osama bin Laden. Therefore it is, in the words of The Guardian’s Naomi Wolf, apologising for the inhumane acts of brutality instigated through torture in the world. Whilst rather crude, it links Bigelow to Nazi-apologist and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. With Wolf finishing her open letter to the director stating that she “will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden.”

As an individual who is wholeheartedly against the use of torture to gain intelligence, my argument is in no means a relation to the effectiveness of the act, its political charge, or even the decade’s worth of research put into the field. It is to the representation of such within this picture because, personally, it is very easy to conclude that Zero Dark Thirty is, in its truest form, a work of fiction. And with that knowledge, alongside reading other sources, it seems that yes, the dramatic license the film allows itself is stretched. However, I believe that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are merely remarking on the fact that ‘enhanced interrogation’ did happen rather than comment on the success of the act itself. The instance that this certain interrogation provided information to other possible leads is only included as a catalyst to assist the overall arc of these fictional characters and however you see it, the ‘mostly’ fictional plot that only masquerades as history to create drama.

Triggered by Wolf’s extreme viewpoint, my question is this – What responsibility does a director have when handling material that is as obviously controversial as the subject at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty? In other words, is a director’s obligation as an artist with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or is it with entertainment and representing a dramatised glimpse behind the curtain to what actually happened with a limited runtime?

There is a naïve notion throughout general audiences that what they see on screen, if preceded by ‘based on true events’ is a point for point retelling of the way the real-life story unfolded. And keeping this in mind, should the gullibility of audience be addressed?

There is no legal requirements a film must pass before they are permitted to state their story is ‘Based on true events’. Cast your mind back to 1996 and the Coen Brothers’ black comedy Fargo (famously misleading for using such a statement) with the film only slightly influenced by the crime of Eugene Thompson. Or maybe more related, 2010’s The Social Network. Writer Aaron Sorkin’s version of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was debunked by Zuckerberg himself, as he believed it
did not show his true personality.

Sorkin intentionally never met with Zuckerberg whilst writing the script as he felt it could have affected his interpretation of the man. And it’s that interpretation, that character version he created, the one performed by Jesse Eisenberg that we see on screen, because it’s that version that fits perfectly within the story he is telling. I’m sure many of the mannerisms and personality traits Sorkin wrote for Zuckerberg were correct, but do I believe for one second that the Zuckerberg on screen is a 100% accurate representation of the real-life Zuckerberg? Of course not. Therefore, are we to believe that everything presented in Zero Dark Thirty is 100% accurate or should we watch the story within the context of the medium and understand that it’s a movie? For example, do we really believe the fall of Osama bin Laden was the work of one dedicated CIA employee?

What’s even more frustrating is the idea of Kathryn Bigelow as a propagandist for torture. The simple point is, the interrogation scenes are a very small segment of the actual runtime and I’m sure, whilst making it, the director didn’t realise the controversy it would create on release.

What is more intriguing to me is the moral motivation of some characters as they balance right on the line between justice and revenge. Mark Strong finishes his  introduction monologue, unhappy with the developments of years of searching with the statement “Bring me some people to kill”. Now that sentence leans to the latter, but did someone in the CIA actually say that or is the muddied moral compass only included to intensify the impact of thee, allowing it to ephemerally play with
those grand Shakespearean themes.

As writer Mark Boal states “This isn’t a documentary”; Zero Dark Thirty has character arcs, a single threaded narrative, and underlining themes. Even more so than the ‘decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden’ it’s a tale of obsession and sacrifice. This is Maya’s story and the fact that torture was a part of it – as it was at the time – gives it a right to be included, as a cinematic translation of reality, to help both character and narrative develop.

Let’s not get lost in a muddled argument of what is real and what is fantasy. And remember, the movies are not a perfect mirror of reality; they tend to lie a little to make it more exciting for us, the audience.