“Zero Dark Thirty” – A bridge too far

If there is a rule to what I try to do here it would be this:

If you want to start a rant about something, the least you can do is get your facts straight.

You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner by giving a spiel on a subject only to have the facts pointed out to you by someone else. Therefore, in order for me to be able to speak my mind on the subject of “Zero Dark Thirty” and the controversy it has spun, I’d like first to lay down some facts.


Fact #1: just after midnight on the 2nd of May 2011, Osama bin Laden was shot and killed in a US Special Op raid on a residential complex outside Abottabad, Pakistan (read here). Piece of trivia – the title “Zero Dark Thirty” in military jargon stands for 12.30am with Zero Dark meaning the hours between midnight and 4.00am.

Fact #2: The Presidential Address by Barack Obama releasing the news sparked nationwide (if not worldwide) celebration with people gathering in public, singing and chanting (read here, here, here and here).

Fact #3: At the time these events transpired, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were working on a film about Osama bin Laden; specifically about how he managed to continually dodge CIA, MI5, Mossad and so on and stay alive in hiding for so long (read here). The creators scrapped the project in favour of what later became “Zero Dark Thirty”.

Fact #4: Obama’s administration is well known for suing and convicting government-related whistle-blowers who disclosed sensitive and classified information to the press (read here and here).

Fact #5 Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal did meet with government officials related to the DoD (Department of Defense) and the CIA, where they were pointed towards CIA employees directly engaged in the operation in order to harvest crucial, sensitive and classified information that served to forge the plot of the film (read here and here).

Fact #6 “Zero Dark Thirty” was planned to be released in the 4th quarter of 2012 (coinciding with the 2012 presidential election). However, the election superseded its wide release with the film premiering on 11 January 2013.

Fact #7 The film garnered fantastic reviews from critics (with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%), however its graphic depiction of torture and interrogation techniques utilized by CIA operatives in order to extract information from detainees sparked a discussion on the moral aspect of torture as a mandated tool to accomplish military objectives (for reviews and discussion see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

Fact #7 CIA and government-related sources expressed dissatisfaction with regard to the nature of events presented in the film. Several CIA ex-operatives went on to dismiss the graphic violence presented in “Zero Dark Thirty” as untrue; they did not follow up with any explanation (read here, here, here and here).

Fact #8 The Director of CIA published a press release in which he also dismissed the CIA methods and techniques depicted in the film as false (read here).

These are the facts. I am not entirely sure, whether there are any important things that I omitted, but to my knowledge, this is all. At this point I’d like to pose an assumption that all the facts shown above are believed to be true. I don’t want to get onto a slippery slope of conspiracies and the like. The sources I referenced I hope to be either legitimate in their own right, or obtained through thorough and unbiased journalism. The rest is merely opinion or conjecture. Now, why did I go to such lengths when all I wanted to do is present an opinion on a controversial subject?

First of all, “Zero Dark Thirty” became a high-profile feature even before its release. Due to this magnitude of visibility, it’s more than likely that it has evoked a discussion of a rather bipolar nature. The question it raises is whether it is acceptable to torture and abuse people in order to gain intelligence needed to accomplish military objectives. It’s a very dangerous discussion to have because by virtue of how the question is posed, one can only find himself on one side of the wall. Additionally, careful manipulation of data and using half-truths can easily serve to distort people’s understanding of the problem at hand, therefore creating the perfect opportunity to manipulate the audience into having one particular opinion over the other. The collective of the aforementioned actions can be most conveniently summarized by one word – propaganda. The scientist inside me says I’m not allowed to let that happen and thus I’d like to speak on the matter.

You don’t really have to be a genius to notice that certain facts quoted above contradict each other. For instance, how is it possible that the same government that made it crystal clear that leaking classified information to the press is not going to go unpunished, is capable of releasing classified information to the film-makers on its own? To me that screams hypocrisy right away. Moreover, a couple of years back, the very same government did not look so happy when it leaked information on Iraq to the very same Kathryn Bigelow, who at the time was researching for her Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”. How is that possible, I ask… (see here)

If you examine this information, the only reasonable explanation seems to point towards the US government and the CIA trying to paint themselves a colourful picture using Bigelow as the brush. If that doesn’t make you scream ‘propaganda’, I don’t know what will. It’s only logical to assume that after the news about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo broke out, the US government has been hell-bent on either rectifying its image as the moral guardian and the world police, or on gaining the moral mandate to continue what they’d been up to. And what can be better to convey what they want to say than the act of killing the most wanted man on Earth? You tell me. So, Obama’s henchmen went out of their way to make sure we get the Machiavellian message that torturing people is OK, because it brings results. Sounds logical, right?

What is even more disturbing is the fact that when the news about Osama’s demise went live, America went completely bananas. It was like Christmas over there – unreal. People screaming and chanting about how they are proud to be American (You can’t be proud of that! It’s not your achievement; it’s an accident that you were born American! You can be happy to be American – not proud. George Carlin wants to have a word with you) were just perfectly lined up to be convinced that what brought such joy to their faces, could not have been accomplished without resorting to torture. And if I’m right, that means “Zero Dark Thirty” was a perfectly executed propaganda.

However, just when the film hit the theaters, the same government that had provided Bigelow with all the details that she could possibly need, went on to say they we’re not OK with what the film shows. Is that for real? Or is it a political ploy, a two-faced attempt to dodge the *beep*storm and retain the image of ‘the good guy’. I can’t possibly tell, because I don’t know. What I do know is the fact that multiple sources we’re very vocal on how the depiction of torture as vital to bringing the man down was wrong and false, but went completely silent when asked for constructive rebuttal. Now, if someone has the audacity to tell me I’m wrong and then fails to correct me, I’d assume they don’t know it either and are trying to undermine whatever position I’m, by creating noise, or I’m right in the general sense, but have got some details wrong. Yet, they refuse to point them out because it would indirectly prove that I was right all along. Does that make any sense? Either way, the government would come out on top, regardless of the nature of the society’s feedback. If people go ‘Yay, torture’, they’re fine because ‘look, how fantastic we are’ and if they go ‘Nay, torture’ then they have the failsafe of ‘it wasn’t like that anyway and that crazy ol’ lady is making *beep* up’. And that scares me. A lot.

So, let me be perfectly clear here; if you are already either strongly pro- or against torture, you probably won’t change your mind after seeing “Zero Dark Thirty”. If anything, you’d probably strengthen your resolve a bit. If you are on the fence, this is when it gets sketchy. This is why I think you need to see things how they are without having them blended into opinion. This is where you need to keep reminding yourself that what you’re seeing is a movie and it might be just a meticulously forged propaganda – forged just for you. Remember that it’s only a film and you should not base your world-view upon it. Don’t listen to maniacs trying to convince you either way, because they are most likely trying to trick you in some fashion or another. If “Zero Dark Thirty” encourages you to join the debate, it’s good for you. Don’t get radicalized though. Keep an open mind. And I don’t mean that in a way religious extremists do to convince you to believe what they believe. Look at the facts and think on your own.

Lastly, I wanted to bring to light something that oddly has been omitted in the discussion that “Zero Dark Thirty” started. Now, a point that is made repeatedly throughout the film is that finding Bin Laden was so important mostly due to the fact that he orchestrated the bloodiest terrorist attack to be executed post-WWII (see here) and it was imperative to make him pay for nearly 3000 lives he took on the morning of September 11th 2001. I don’t want to denigrate the extent of the tragedies of people affected by 9/11, but after nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan the Coalition forces have sustained 14.5 thousand losses before the man was found and killed (see here). That sounds like a bit of overkill to me. We were willing to sacrifice five times as much in terms of human lives. Mathematically, it doesn’t make any sense, now does it?

I think this is a point that “Zero Dark Thirty” is making, be it indirectly or not. There we are, after a decade of violence, with two major wars and a couple of lesser conflicts, with the entirety of the middle-east praying to God for the Western World to be destroyed, countless thousands of dead and wounded, billions of dollars drowned in this pit of sorrow, and finally, finally, the villain is no more.

What’s changed? Nothing. The man is dead, but the show must go on and the war is far from over. If you can see past the obvious torture-related drama and see this, I think we might be on the right track with our discussion.

So, if you haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” yet, you’d better go and see it. Have a look for yourself and draw your own conclusions. And while you’re at it, enjoy the show. Because it’s a damn good adrenaline rush.

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