The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty
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Every film is faced with the enemy of time. Only so much story can fit into the 90-150 minutes of time that moviegoers are willing to stay in their seats. Naturally, compression is necessary. So are the exclusion and amalgamation of characters so that the viewer does not become bewildered. To paraphrase Werner Herzog, filmmakers don't need to pursue a bookkeeper's truth in which every figure is accounted for. Rather they can seek a "poetic truth" is which essential meaning is revealed to viewers. But it's a cop-out for Boal and Bigelow to say they shouldn't be held to account for the meaning of their film because "it's just a movie," and/or because it's a "journalistic account." In the context of the final result, neither statement is credible. When it comes to torture, the film fails the truth test for both accountants and poets.
2) The Truth of the Matter
ZD30 opens in darkness, with the soundtrack haunted by the voices of victims and rescue workers on 9/11. Then the film cuts to a CIA "black site," where a man named Ammar is being tortured by a CIA agent named Dan (played by Jason Clarke) while another agent, Maya (well acted by Jessica Chastain) looks on. For me, along with the very ending, this was one of the best moments in the film. The juxtaposition of the agony of 9/11 with the payback that followed -- waterboarding detainees, walking them around in dog collars (recall Lyndie England) and stuffing them in small plywood boxes -- perfectly captured a bitter poetic truth about how members of the Bush Administration responded to tragedy. They built a hard-hearted and soft-headed program of state-sanctioned torture that was likely motivated by revenge, rather than legal precedents, moral principles and well-tested, tough-minded lawful techniques.
So give points to Boal and Bigelow for not pussyfooting around. They make it clear that the CIA tortured people as part of a "detainee program." But what's distressing -- given that tough-minded beginning -- is that the filmmakers don't ever question the efficacy of torture. We don't see how corrupting it was, how many mistakes were made. Instead, the narrative engine of Boal's detective story is kick-started by torture. In the film Dan uses a trick and the implied threat of torture to force "Ammar" to reveal the nickname of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a man who ultimately helped lead investigators to bin Laden.
Mark Boal has responded to critics by saying that, in the film, the actionable intelligence from Ammar, was obtained "over the civilized setting of a lunch." But that's disingenuous. Because the conversation occurs after brutal torture, the implication is that Ammar provides information because he doesn't want to trade his hummus for a wet washcloth and a sojourn in a plywood box.
"Ammar" is a composite character likely modeled after two characters. The first was probably Hassan Ghul, who was interrogated by the CIA in 2004 with coercive techniques (NOT including waterboarding) and who did provide some details about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But according to Senator Dianne Feinstein (who has access to all of the classified files) all of the vital information was provided prior to the rough stuff. The first clues about al-Kuwaiti were obtained in 2002 through the use of traditional interrogation methods.
The other possible source for the discovery of the name of al-Kuwaiti was Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker, who was captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo, where he was interrogated first by the FBI and then by the military, who were given special permission by Donald Rumsfeld to use more aggressive techniques set out in the so-called "First Special Interrogation Plan." According to documents revealed by WikiLeaks, al-Qahtani did mention the name of al-Kuwaiti. But according to the FBI, Al-Qahtani provided all his useful information prior to his "special interrogation." Al-Qahtani was never waterboarded but he was subjected to a brutal and often bizarre 49-day interrogation at Gitmo, that was documented in logs revealed by Adam Zagorin in Time Magazine. (We portrayed portions of this interrogation in my film, "Taxi to the Dark Side.")