by Matt Brennan
You can't unhear the noise.
Set against the absent image, the voices of first responders, 911 operators, air-traffic controllers, and ordinary citizens become the black box in the wreckage—waves of sound strung like garlands from disbelief to terror. Is this real world or exercise. Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm, stay calm. I love you. Oh my God. Desperate whispers bleed into screams, tenuous reassurances into tearful farewells, before the clamor cuts out.
And then you can't unhear the silence.
When Sony Pictures released Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, journalist Glenn Greenwald—rightly renowned today for his reporting on whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency surveillance run amok—penned a provocative rebuttal to those praising the film for the British newspaper The Guardian. Greenwald, who argued that Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture by falsely portraying its use as instrumental in the capture of Osama bin Laden, incited a minor media scuffle, primarily pitting journalists and columnists against film critics1. And so the Zero Dark Thirty "torture controversy" was born.
Coming alongside similar uneasiness at the factual bases for Argo and Lincoln, the Zero Dark Thirty debate inaugurated a now-familiar pattern of submitting Oscar-nominated films to intense historical and ideological scrutiny2. That this is a valid (and valuable) form of criticism is undeniable. The cinema all too easily packages cultural and political positions as a sort of bland neutrality, and it's up to writers to unravel these meanings, whether the subject is the so-called War on Terror or the latest franchise blockbuster. Yet a film is more than the sum of its partisan messages. There is no algorithm for understanding Maya (Jessica Chastain), the protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, when she tells a colleague, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), "I'm not that girl that fucks." There is no data set in which to enter the glimpses of the real within the film's highly constructed realism, flashes of George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech or Barack Obama on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft. There is no formula that expresses director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's deployment of space and time to suggest the bitter depths of America's ongoing "clusterfuck." This isn't math.
In part, the resistance to Greenwald's analysis stemmed from the fact that he had, at the time of writing, not yet seen the film3. Despite his admission that "I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film," reiterated with evident frustration in two subsequent updates, his verbal jujitsu scarcely passes muster. I suspect, for instance, that Greenwald would not appreciate a disemboweling of his journalism on the basis of a secondhand account, and yet he takes the scalpel to Zero Dark Thirty itself ("What this film does, then...") with vigor.
What irks me more than parsing the difference between a review of a film and a review of the reviews of a film, however, is how carelessly the discussion that surrounded the film's release treated the white noise of the text itself. The defining feature of Zero Dark Thirty is its murkiness: the matte palette of brown and beige edges, by the climactic sequence, toward blindness; the narrative's strange, slack rhythms are cloudy with portents. Yet the "torture controversy," in focusing on whether the film justifies waterboarding, force feeding, sensory deprivation, and stress positions or merely depicts them, chipped away at the rough edges of Zero Dark Thirty until it became a prism through which to project whatever assumptions one brought to it. The fact that the film neither celebrates torture nor exactly rejects it is where it comes closest to approximating the actual tenor of American politics during the years in question, but of course we are talking about a period in which many preferred the ease of useful fictions.
"When you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA intelligence officer, tells Ammar (Reda Kateb), a black site detainee, as he strings him up in an unmarked hangar in the early going. Against the washed-out desert landscape just beyond the door, the dingy, barren interior suggests darkness at noon. The film's first images of torture, for us as for Maya, convey not titillation or exhilaration, but horror. Editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg choose not the rapid cuts of suspense but a deliberate series of dreadful images: the strain of the ropes, the kick of the legs, the choking expulsion of water as Dan half-drowns Ammar in search of information on Al Qaeda's Saudi Group. The year is 2003, and though Dan's sneering remark at the conclusion of the sequence refers to the end of Ammar's "jihad," it might also be taken as an allusion to the quagmire just then beginning. "This," he says, "is what defeat looks like, bro."
Much has been made, among Zero Dark Thirty's critics, of the juxtaposition between the mournful sounds of the opening sequence and the subsequent torture of Ammar, and the effect is indeed discomfiting. Yet the construction of the latter scene, with Maya on the margins, wary yet unwilling to speak up, mirrors the cowed silence of many prominent figures in the midst of the transition from September 11 to the war in Iraq. We, as a country, tacitly allowed such strategic decisions and moral compromises to be made in our name, in part because the wounds of that fateful day were still raw. In grief and in vengeance we sacrificed our purported values at the altar of expedience, only to recognize the grave error later—and rather than wholly justifying or condemning torture, Zero Dark Thirty traces this decade-long evolution from Langley to Islamabad, London to Khost. For if the thin line between the voices of the film's first moments and Dan's disgraceful treatment of Ammar suggests, to some, an apologia for torture, there is another echo, much less discussed, that cuts against this reading. The white noise returns as the camera chases a babble of conversation along miles of blue telephone wire to bin Laden's courier in Rawalpindi. The route to the Al Qaeda leader's Abbottabad compound passes not through torture but, as a title card notes, through "Tradecraft."
If the world of Zero Dark Thirty unfurls through Maya's eyes, the halting progression of the narrative depicts an aversion to torture relinquished and then slowly regained. Not unlike the members of the Bush administration who drafted and applied the torture memos, Maya is at first swayed by the notion that these techniques, however hideous, are a necessary evil. Though Ammar, in one chilling sequence reminiscent of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, is collared and leashed like a dog, Maya dismisses his pleas for help; she has another detainee beaten for "not being fulsome in [his] replies."
Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty does not depict these actions as having no consequences, whether for the characters or the citizens they ostensibly serve. The representation of American war crimes counteracts the Orwellian language of "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation," presenting the state's terminology as little more than an attempt to scrub the record clean; archival images of terrorist attacks periodically rupture the impression that such crimes ever achieve their desired ends. Ultimately, Ammar, seeking respite after years in isolation and under duress, cries out the names of days for an operation about which he likely knows nothing—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday. There is no information here. The black site is a black hole.
Perhaps misleadingly, Ammar does provide the nom de guerre of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, which the film then undercuts with a ragged collection of dead ends. Fractured into sections—"September 11, 2001," "The Saudi Group," "Human Error," "Tradecraft," "The Canaries"—Zero Dark Thirty, in its very structure, draws anything but a straight line from the torture memos to Abbottabad. The pursuit of the Al Qaeda leader only gains momentum after a senior CIA advisor (Mark Strong) arrives in Islamabad early in the Obama administration to scold Maya and her colleagues that the preceding years have brought them "no closer to defeating our enemy." When an underling, Debbie (Jessie Collins), finally presents Maya with her first real piece of actionable intelligence—Abu Ahmed's real name, Ibrahim Sayed—she reveals that it was in "the system" all along, on a watch list provided by the Moroccans after September 11. "Nobody saw it, most likely," Debbie says. "There was a lot of white noise after 9/11, countries wanting to help out. We got a million tips, and things got lost in the shuffle. Human error."
From here, Zero Dark Thirty homes in on bin Laden with bribes, pilfered telephone numbers, circling vans, and satellite images, marking the passage of time with Maya's red scrawl; whatever your opinion of these tactics, they are most assuredly not torture. By the time the raid begins, the vast majority of information that leads to its successful completion is gathered by means other than undisclosed locations and unnamed prisons, and yet the film acknowledges that violence of a kind we might have considered unimaginable on September 10, 2001, has been the central element of all that's happened since. Zero Dark Thirty is, in the end, a document of a nation prone to human error and inhuman choices, lost in the white noise of perpetual crisis. The history it tells is one in the life of a country made "walking shadow," as Macbeth had it, by ten years "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Of the hours that passed after I walked into the student lounge on my first day of high school to find masses of fellow freshmen, upperclassmen, faculty, and staff standing in silence before a handful of wall-mounted televisions, I recall frightfully little that went unmediated by those who covered it live from New York or Washington. All day and then all night the images played on a loop: the fireball of the second plane, the collapse of the towers, the burning gash in the side of the Pentagon, the black scar in some Pennsylvanian field. Though I might once have considered this a unique feature of the experience, I see now that we were already elaborating a mode of engagement with current events—at once omnipresent and reassuringly distant—that now seems all too familiar. From the outset, the war we're in has been a war of white noise, passed at every stage through the sieve of our proliferating screens, from Peter Jennings staying on air until the wee hours of September 12 through the beheadings recorded by ISIS; at times I feel as though my entire political consciousness emerged in response to one long, ghastly snuff film, strewn with corpses and bombed-out buildings. It has been said that my generation developed no meaningful resistance to the war because we were not drafted, but at least in my case an abhorrence of violence in any form need not have derived from a direct threat to my personal safety. The visual evidence is enough to suggest that we cannot go on like this indefinitely.
By mid-afternoon on the 11th, our heartfelt embraces and whispered comforts appeared awfully insignificant, yet they were our only way of connecting, of communicating that we knew something—maybe everything—had changed. The events of Zero Dark Thirty correspond closely with the timeline of my own burgeoning adulthood, comprising the decade between my first day as a high school student and my last day as a high school teacher with almost sinister exactitude, and I suspect my appreciation for the film stems from a sense that it explains, or at least expresses, the endlessness of it all—the way the white noise of that single day denatured, then expanded, until it consumed something, maybe everything, that came after. I am now 28, twice the age I was then, and in some nightmarish, necessary way, Zero Dark Thirty narrates this half-life of conflict as nothing else has, which is to say that it begins to suggest what it might be like to know that one has lived longer in war than one did in peace.
As I write this it is Memorial Day, a steamboat on the Mississippi whistling "America, the Beautiful" in the middle distance, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to see the water under the bridge in patriotic terms. Four years after the death of Osama bin Laden, six after the end of the Bush administration, 12 after "Mission Accomplished," 14 after the day that dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States, all the stories for which September 11 once seemed a terrible prologue are no nearer their respective conclusions. At what point does the distinction between "before" and "after" simply become the way things are, and will be? At what moment does the very vastness of a conflict replace any particular calculus of means and ends as its defining characteristic? Stretched almost to shattering across time and space, Zero Dark Thirty remains one of the few cultural artifacts from this age of grief to suggest the actual experience of living through it, which has been, for me, a process of realizing that the war is forever even as our reasons for embarking upon it have begun to fade from view.
I can confirm that the day in question was perfect until it was not, that we sat in mourning under the late-summer sky as the music teacher played "Taps" on his silver horn, but I am no longer convinced that this is in any way related to the moral of the story.
Parallel or perpendicular, left jagged or sanded clean, it's clear that the narratives of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the reception of Zero Dark Thirty, and the War on Terror itself remain in flux, as if to illustrate the impossibility of closing the circle on what we'd prefer to call "the past." Soon after I began scrawling new notes on the film—which, upon additional viewings, still shored up my conclusion that it does not obviously favor torture—Seymour Hersh published a 10,000-word retelling of "The Killing of Osama bin Laden" for the London Review of Books, and PBS' Frontline followed with an episode that discussed Zero Dark Thirty within a larger reconsideration of "Secrets, Politics, and Torture." Here we were again, sifting through the muck to redraw the boundaries between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy—an eternal return of America's own campaign of terror, purportedly waged in our defense.
The segment on Zero Dark Thirty in Frontline's report, from filmmaker Mark Kirk, includes a few misleading details of its own5. Its general thrust is to recapitulate Greenwald's argument that the film, as former National Security Council member Richard Clarke avers, "left the American people with the impression that torture worked." Rather than dig into Clarke's reading, or Kirk's—much less question the particular magic by which any one of us might determine what "impression" a film has left on "the American people"—the Frontlinedocumentary uses Zero Dark Thirty as a narrative wedge, a transition into the Senate's examination of "highly classified" CIA documents. The notion that the film might be open to multiple interpretations melts away, only to be replaced (as Greenwald replaced seeing the film with a handful of reviews and a quotation from another outlet's interview with Bigelow) by Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assessment that the film is "so false." Feinstein walked out of the film 15 minutes into its running time.
It strikes me now that these critics of Zero Dark Thirty not only underestimate "the American people," assuming that the public thoughtlessly inhales anything set before them—not only declare the intentions of the filmmakers and their CIA sources to be exactly equivalent to any meaning the story might contain—but also offer a queasy mirror image of the very qualms they express. The aforementioned detractors tend to squeeze the broadest strokes into a compelling narrative of Hollywood "seduced" (as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer tellsFrontline) by, well, a compelling narrative. That Greenwald and Feinstein had, as of their first forays into the debate, not yet seen the film suggests that their interpretations are no less a form of propaganda—promoting or publicizing a misleading point of view—than they claimZero Dark Thirty to be.
Then again, transforming the fact of the film's white noise into a single reading is just one more of this era's useful fictions.
For what if the film is untrue, and not only in the particulars? In the context of Hersh's reporting, which calls into question a number of key elements in the official narrative of the pursuit of bin Laden, the potential inaccuracies of Zero Dark Thirty may seem insignificant. However, the scaffolding around this essay is my unshakeable belief that images matter, in real time and in retrospect, because visual media can and do shape the way we see the world, frequently more than we bargained for. Does Hersh's account transform Zero Dark Thirty from half fact into whole fiction? If the cinematic treatment of a supposedly true story turns out to be a lie, does that make it propaganda? To what, exactly, can we ascribe the profusion of doubt that's accompanied this tale of sound and fury, and what does it mean that this is a story we can't seem to tell, much less find the moral in?
First things first: Hersh's pedigree begins with his revelation of the massacre in My Lai and passes through Abu Ghraib on the way to Abbottabad. He's earned our trust more than most. One of his most provocative claims—that a 2010 "walk-in" from Pakistani intelligence, and not years on the trail of bin Laden's couriers, led to the eventual raid—has been confirmed, in part, by The New York Times, NBC News, and Agence France-Presse, though whether this Pakistani informant provided bin Laden's exact location or merely information that aided in the CIA's hunt remains unclear6. Hersh's reporting, if accurate, severs Zero Dark Thirty's connection between "Tradecraft" and "The Canaries"—its suggestion that the collection of information on Ibrahim Sayed led the United States to bin Laden's front door. What it does not do is render all extant readings of the film null and void.
I'd argue that, with or without the link to bin Laden, the film's depiction of the evolution of U.S. tactics during the War on Terror—from the most brutal tortures and illegal detentions to wiretapping, satellite surveillance, and fake immunization drives—remains rooted in truth. But even if Zero Dark Thirty is no more than a useful fiction, the question remains: useful to whom? In what way is a film that portrays a decade lost to the search for a single man "useful" to the United States, particularly in light of the fact that his death did not end the conflict? In what way is the portrait of our "enhanced interrogation" program as a brutal, globe-spanning regime, extracting exactly one nom de guerre of one courier at the cost of our most cherished ideals, "useful" to the CIA sources who passed information to Bigelow and Boal?
Propaganda may be like pornography—you know it when you see it—but in this case I am hard-pressed to see Zero Dark Thirty as anything other than a history of failure so prolonged, so total, that I can honestly say it has defined my life, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Even if you believe "the American people" don't know that the words "based on a true story" already contain at least one lie, movies are not simply the sum of their filmmakers' intentions, their source material's purpose, and their critics' qualms.
As it happens, the one American success in Zero Dark Thirty is the one detail as yet unquestioned in any of the narratives I've read, which is that Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden dead in Abottabad that night, accompanied by the screams, as Hersh writes, of one of the Al Qaeda leader's wives. In a film of two hours and thirty-seven minutes, the endgame itself comprises the thwack of a single report from a SEAL's silenced weapon, perhaps one second in a war that had lasted to that point more than 3,000 days, but I fail to see how this fact is any more useful than the fictions that surround it.
Zero Dark Thirty does not end here, as tidy as that might have been, but with Maya, alone in the cavernous hold of a transport plane, suddenly beginning to cry. It's unclear to me in this moment, from Chastain's inscrutable face, if these are tears of relief or desolation, tears for what has been won or tears for what has been lost. The ambivalent image has always seemed to me reflective of the film's stance on the historical moment in which it takes place. Completing the singular mission of her career leaves Maya, and the country, no nearer to closing the book on the War on Terror. Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty constitutes but one, lengthy chapter in a story still playing out, as of this writing, in Syria and Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I've thus begun to see the film as a kind of fictionalized reckoning with the reality of what T.S. Eliot called "the awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract."
We are Maya, in the sense that we, too, have no answer to the question, "Where do you want to go?" The open-endedness of the film's conclusion, like the open-endedness of the conflict itself, ultimately suggests that we should read Zero Dark Thirty as a parable of what happens when you sacrifice so much to win the battle that you forget you've lost the war. Whether you think the film's politics admirable or reprehensible—its truth content substantial or almost nil—the fact remains that we did indeed imprison, torture, invade, and bomb in the name of order and security, only to create a political situation that seems as sunk in chaos and fear as ever. The broken world that Zero Dark Thirty depicts, or perhaps only imagines, is not dissimilar from the broken world in which it was made, and either way the shadow cast by an unforgivable decade promises to be an extraordinarily long one. I can see its outline in Hersh's sentences, in Frontline's segments, in the margins of my memories and the essay I've now built atop them, and it's this frightening impression that our history of violence remains unfinished that lashes them all together, facts and fictions both.
This is what defeat looks like, bro.
1 The journalists and columnists included, in addition to Greenwald, Jon Schwarz, Jay Rosen, Adam Serwer, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and Frank Bruni; the critics included Matt Singer, Scott Tobias, Alison Willmore, Mark Harris, and David Edelstein.
2 See, for example, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, American Sniper, and Selma.
3 Whether or not he's seen it since, Greenwald apparently stands by his argument: this May, on Twitter, he called the film "one of the sleaziest and most manipulative pieces of pro-gov[ernmen]t propaganda in Hollywood history."
4 In retrospect, I suppose it was, unspooling in surreal time on Good Morning America as if some half-remembered dream, but so much water has since gone under the bridge that I have a hard time picturing what it was like before.
5 Including, most obviously, a severely truncated, spliced-together clip of Ammar's tortures and a mash-up of Maya watching interrogation footage while verbally demanding information from a detainee (which in fact come from two distinct scenes).
6 This is where Hersh's heavy reliance on an anonymous "retired [U.S.] senior intelligence official" proves most worrisome, for it's not through complete fabrication but slight exaggeration, through understatement or omission, that a canny source is most likely to fudge the details.
Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.