Zero Dark Thirty

Filthy propaganda.

Is there a better way to describe Zero Dark Thirty?  No, there isn’t.  Because this isn’t a documentary.  It isn’t even journalism despite what the director and the screenwriter claim.  In fact, it’s barely a movie in any sense of the word.  It’s really a glorified CIA corporate recruitment video.

Forget about learning why Al Qaeda attacked America on that horrible September morning.  Forget about understanding the reasoning behind the follow-up attacks in places like London, England and Islamabad, Pakistan.  Forget about decades of American malfeasance in the Middle East.  Forget about the many dictators the empire has supported throughout its dark history. 

And most importantly, forget about having a conscience.  No Americans in the one-sided ZDT have one so why should you?

In fact, that’s the biggest problem with this overlong trash.  Not a single government official or military officer seems to question anything that happens or does anything to stop it.  (In one curious scene, a bunch of CIA personnel don’t respond to President Obama’s real-life denials of America’s torture policies while watching him on 60 Minutes.)  No one mentions following the law.  No one worries about irreparable harm done to civilians.  No one gives a shit about treating prisoners humanely or whether they’re actually guilty of anything or not.  And no one seems to care about the world’s response to their mostly secretive and illegal activities.  (Why would they when they face no substantial political or legal consequences for their actions?)  The psychopathic “heroes” of this story live very comfortably in their own lawless bubble.  Not even the bloody reality they’ve created can burst it. 

Consider the early interrogation scenes.  We meet Dan (the dispicable Jason Clarke), a professional sadist who would’ve enjoyed appearing in Hostel.  He’s trying to get information out of an Arab man who, understandably, won’t talk and wants to be set free.  Maybe he’s connected to Al Qaeda in some way, maybe not.  Who knows for sure?  (In this movie, we don’t question the government’s accusations, you see.)  His wrists are bound by ropes and he appears to have been in custody for quite some time.  He is effectively a prisoner of the state with no rights, no legal representation and no chance of being released.  No matter what Dan says or does, though, he refuses to cooperate.  

The man pays the price for this.  He gets brutally waterboarded during the first encounter we witness.  In another, in the presence of the singularly obsessed, recruited-from-high-school CIA operative Maya (the annoying Jessica Chastain), Dan pulls the man’s soiled pants down exposing his genitals.  If that weren’t humiliating enough, he then puts a leash on him and makes him walk around on all fours like a dog.  Not completely satisfied with these dehumanizing acts, he has him crammed into a wooden box and the poor man finally cracks.  Sadly, he’s not the only victim of torture in this movie. 

In a later scene, he gives up more information (without being further brutalized) that may or may not be useful to Maya in the presence of Dan.  In the real world, it’s been proven that torture doesn’t work.  It’s also against the Geneva Conventions and the law.  Put simply, in times of conflict it’s a war crime.  (Hell, it’s a crime in peace time, too, although we don’t have peace anymore.)  But in ZDT, torture gets results and, although it takes many years, Osama Bin Laden, an argument that is not universally agreed upon.

But in between these bookended sequences is a lot of confusion.  Because the CIA operatives in the Middle East speak their complicated spy jargon so fast and, at times, too softly, it’s not always possible to follow the dialogue closely.  (They’re also pathetic at their jobs.  It takes a decade to find Bin Laden who is hiding in plain sight in Pakistan, they think all Arabs look alike and a number of them get killed rather easily.)  There’s no context given for any of the “terrorist” attacks that follow 9/11 (including 9/11 itself) and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan other than Americans good because they love freedom, Arabs bad because they don’t.  (The truth is decidedly more complicated than that.)  And good luck remembering all the different people they’re either looking for, torturing or killing and their possible connections to Al Qaeda or what any of their issues with America are.  Some have more than one name.  None are fully fleshed characters.  They’re simply ghostly objects of unbridled American hatred.

Although we do get the gist of the CIA’s internal conversations, there’s no suspense regarding where this is all headed.  We just know they’re looking for anybody with any possible connection to Bin Laden and there’s no better method of intelligence gathering than torture which quite frankly isn’t believable.  (You’re telling me no one in the government objected to this?)  As scary as the CIA’s vast Middle Eastern surveillance operation is (in one scene, it appears they’re listening to every conversation), according to this tripe it has its limitations.

The movie makes it very clear, however, that Bin Laden is strictly a target, not a suspect.  No one ever talks about an arrest.  No one even considers a trial proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for whatever role he may have played (possibly a financial one) in the murders of thousands of people.  (The overbearing Maya, who has an irritating habit of writing numbers representative of days not spent launching the kill mission with a red marker on her new boss’ glass office wall, tells one of the Seal Team 6 members directly she wants Bin Laden dead.)  The early morning home invasion that ends the film is purely a mob hit on an unarmed man, not to mention an unarmed woman, as well.  Is it any wonder James Gandolfini is the director of the CIA?

For a film that builds itself as a thriller, it takes forever to get to that now infamous raid which, by the end, feels strangely anticlimactic but also deeply disturbing, almost as much as the earlier torture sequences.  (Why do the women get such rough treatment?  Why invade a place filled with innocent children?  Why no arrests?  Why did anybody have to die this way?)  Unfortunately, because it takes place thirty minutes after midnight, you can barely see it.  Members of the Seal Team 6 have to wear night vision goggles the entire time.  It also doesn’t help matters that our old friend, the shaky cam, makes an unwelcome appearance.  Good luck making anything out clearly.

This is an appalling movie but the many who will see it will vehemently disagree.  They will root for the torturers and never empathize with their victims.  (I had the opposite reaction.  No one deserves to be tortured, no matter who they are.)  They will laugh in appreciation at Maya’s unfunny tough guy talk even though she’s a moral coward.  (She’s complicit in the torture scam despite her supposed early reservations and eventual tears.)  And they will cheer on the military team during their illegal mission.

What they won’t do is get mad and raise hell in the streets like the Arab protestors who appear in exactly one scene in ZDT.  (They’re naturally upset over a drone attack that may have killed civilians which is mentioned very quickly in passing.)  They won’t see the longterm damage their country has done to an already broken people.  They won’t acknowledge the lack of success in “winning” this bogus and endless “war on terror”.  They won’t remember America’s long troubled history with the Arab world.  And they won’t question the absence of an adversarial press corps who should be exposing these crimes on a regular basis rather than getting chummy with their subjects at cocktail parties.

They will do what they always do.  Look the other way.

(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1:22 a.m.

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Published in: on January 13, 2013 at 1:22 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. […] was the most nominated film this year) but it’s not looking like the favourite any longer.  The reprehensible ZDT, the only Best Picture nominee I’ve seen, doesn’t even belong here.  Nevertheless, I […]

  2. […] were wrong on both counts.  It’s a terrible, irresponsible piece of shit and thanks to all the controversy surrounding its depiction of torture as being helpful to […]

  3. […] Along with the aforementioned Evil Dead remake, all the other awful movies I screened this year:  Zero Dark Thirty, Grown-ups, Beastly, House At The End Of The Street, Friday After Next, 50 First Dates, Texas […]

  4. […] series, The 5 Worst Film Franchises Of All Time, I continued to offer the occasional review.  Zero Dark Thirty, The Three Stooges remake, The Purge, Spice World, Earth, Beetlejuice, Breaking Dawn – Part Two, […]


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