29 January 2013

Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Zero Dark Thirty (known to aficionados as ZD30 and meaning 00:30 pm) is attracting much attention, not all about the film itself.  ZD30 tells the story of the search for Osama bin Laden by CIA officers in the years after 9/11 leading to his elimination in 2011 by US Special Forces in Operation Neptune Spear. To call it controversial would probably be an understatement. Many people will find the early interrogation of al Qaeda suspects using waterboarding and the like to be upsetting. Bigelow has defended herself against criticisms of the way the film depicts torture in an article in the Los Angeles Times. She pointed out that her goal was “to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history” and that:
Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.
It’s doubtful whether she will convince many of her critics – some people are viscerally opposed to torture in any circumstances whatever the legalities, just as others are to nuclear weapons.

Another preoccupation, particularly in the US, seems to be the nature and extent of their government’s support to Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal. The National Security Archive hosted by George Washington University has put together in “one Electronic Briefing Book all of the available official documents on the mission to kill the notorious al-Qaeda leader” in an effort to balance the record, because in the absence of an authoritative account of Operation Neptune Spear:
In this extraordinary case, a Hollywood motion picture, with apparent White House, CIA, and Pentagon blessing and despite its historical inaccuracies, is now the closest thing to the official story behind the pursuit of bin Laden.
The document which seems to have generated most excitement is the transcript of the interview which Bigelow and Boal secured with Michael G. Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The fact that it refers to her as “Katherine” only adds to its bureaucratic authenticity. In the background to this fuss are concerns that the original release date for ZD30 would have been just before the presidential election when a reminder of bin Laden’s demise could have been helpful to the incumbent.

Another strand of controversy seems to be about the film’s realism, or rather its lack of it. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian thought ZD30 and Argo should be rated L:
Nothing should be banned, but the British Board of Film Classification should make itself useful and revise its categories. If "true story" appears in a film's preamble and is clearly wrong, the film should carry certificate L, for lie. We would then know where we stood.
His criticism of Argo seemed to centre on its stating that the Brits "turned away" the fugitive American diplomats. The opposite was the case but they did have to be moved on to the Canadians fairly quickly. This was almost certainly a regrettable simplification rather than Argo’s being anti-British. In fact, someone who can be assumed to be an SIS officer is shown providing the CIA with helpful information early on in the film. As for ZD30 being ‘clearly wrong’ – who knows? As Winston Churchill said nearly a century ago, “In time of war, when truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” So films like Argo and ZD30 come, like the original Smith’s crisps, with a pinch of salt to be added at the time of consumption. Do CIA officers really use Le Carré-esque words like “tradecraft”, and can a cell phone only be localised by careering around with a gizmo in the back of a van in its vicinity? Did SEAL Team 6 really do such a good job in destroying the pranged helo? I have no idea and after all ZD30 is a drama, not a documentary. It’s never difficult to find faults in a film, as the contributors to the Goofs on IMDb seem to do without fail:
The breed of dog used in the actual capture of Osama Bin Laden was a Belgian Malinois. The breed of dog used in the movie is a German Shepherd.
"knocking on the moonlit door": SEAL Team 6 near their goal in Zero Dark Thirty
Bigelow, who in the past studied both art and film theory, told the Observer that some of her earlier films:
"took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it. I realised there's a more muscular approach to film-making that I found very inspiring". It may come as no surprise to learn that she studied film theory as a graduate student. The upshot was that she decided painting was "a more rarefied art form with a limited audience" and that film was "this extraordinary social tool that could reach tremendous numbers of people".
So being deficient in the semiotics of film theory, I had better confine myself to saying that ZD30 is very skillfully made in a cool and good-looking style in keeping with its director. Jessica Chastain plays the character ‘Maya’, who dominates the film, in the fashionable obsessive-woman-in-a man’s-world mode (cf The Killing, Homeland, The Bridge). As also seems to be currently fashionable, ZD30 is a long film, too long in my opinion! The strongest criticisms of it that I’ve come across are from Tom Streithorst on the Prospect blog:
There is no arc to this movie, no character development—all we see is surfaces. In a few years this tedious, didactic movie will feel dated and inconsequential.
If I haven’t offered enough background links already, Time has some interesting reading based around an interview with Bigelow, copiously so for subscribers or purchasers of the current issue. I would like to know more about Manhunt, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary dealing with the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden from well before 9/11, which has just been shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It includes interviews with former CIA employees (normal Americans rather than Hollywood’s finest, see below) including some of “The Sisterhood” of female CIA analysts supposedly amalgamated into ‘Maya’. Hopefully Manhunt will appear here, perhaps on BBC or Channel 4 before too long.

Update 21 February

Further interesting views on ZD30 from various quarters. Starting at the top, Leon Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time and is portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini, was reported by AFP as saying:
… that the Oscar-nominated film did convey some sense of the years of legwork it took the CIA to track down the Al-Qaeda mastermind to a hideout in Pakistan. "I think people ought to make their own judgments. There are parts of it that give you a good sense of how the intelligence operations do work. But I also think people in the end have to understand that it isn't a documentary, it's a movie."
In the middle, as reported in the Pacific Standard last month:
Nada Bakos, who spearheaded the CIA’s Zarqawi Operations team from 2004-2006 as a targeting officer, weighs in. Prior to the operations position, Bakos served as an analyst for the agency primarily in the Counterterrorism Center, and was a member of the team charged with defining the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and 9/11. … Zero Dark Thirty occupied an odd space. It’s not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief. I get that Hollywood needs to sell tickets, but it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and later, a targeting officer in the clandestine service.
And at the bottom, the navy SEAL ("The Shooter") who killed bin Laden was interviewed by Phil Bronstein for Esquire:
During the daylong briefing, the SEALs heard how the government found the compound in Abbottabad, how they were watching it, analyzing it, why they believed bin Laden might be there. He, UBL, had become known as the Pacer, the tall guy in satellite imagery who neither left nor mixed with the others. It was the CIA woman, now immortalized in books and movies, who gave the briefing. "Yeah," she told us. "We got him. This is him. This is my life's work. I'm positive."  
… The Shooter is sitting next to me at a local movie theater in January, watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time. He laughs at the beginning of the film about the bin Laden hunt when the screen reads, "Based on firsthand accounts of actual events."  
… when a SEAL Team 6 movie character yells, "Breacher!" for someone to blow one of the doors of the Abbottabad compound, the Shooter says loudly, "Are you fucking kidding me? Shut up!" He explains afterward that no one would ever yell, "Breacher!" during an assault. Deadly silence is standard practice, a fist to the helmet sufficient signal for a SEAL with explosive packets to go to work. During the shooting sequence, which passes, like the real one, in a flash, his fingers form a steeple under his chin and his focus is intense. But his criticisms at dinner afterward are minor.  
"The tattoo scene was horrible," he says about a moment in the film when the ST6 assault group is lounging in Afghanistan waiting to go. "Those guys had little skulls or something instead of having some real ink that goes up to here." He points to his shoulder blade.  
"It was fun to watch. There was just little stuff. The helos turned the wrong way [toward the target], and they talked way, way too much [during the assault itself]. If someone was waiting for you, they could track your movements that way."  
The tactics on the screen "sucked," he says, and "the mission in the damn movie took way too long" compared with the actual event. The stairs inside bin Laden's building were configured inaccurately. A dog in the film was a German shepherd; the real one was a Belgian Malinois who'd previously been shot in the chest and survived. And there's no talking on the choppers in real life. There was also no whispered calling out of bin Laden as the SEALs stared up the third-floor stairwell toward his bedroom. "When Osama went down, it was chaos, people screaming. No one called his name."  
"They Hollywooded it up some."  
The portrayal of the chief CIA human bloodhound, "Maya," based on a real woman whose iron-willed assurance about the compound and its residents moved a government to action, was "awesome" says the Shooter. "They made her a tough woman, which she is."

"Where did the makers of movie Zero Dark Thirty get detailed intelligence about the raid that killed terror chief Osama bin Laden? After much claim and counterclaim in the corridors of power in the US, the whodunit now appears to have been solved once and for all."
According to this report, the ZD30 scriptwriter, Mark Boal, was admitted by mistake into an awards ceremony during which Leon Panetta gave a speech which included classified information about the mission.


According to this report last month from Stars and Stripes, the ZD30 investigators are now being investigated themselves by the US Defense Department Inspector General's Office. For those of us a long way from the Beltway, all rather impenetrable.

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