Truth Told Through Lies

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that didn’t need to be made — it strives for realism, but ends up rehashing Bush-era tropes about the ‘war on terror.’

In a 1992 interview with Edward Said, Gillo Pontecorvo described The Battle of Algiers, his masterful film about the Algerian War of Independence, as imposing a “dictatorship of truth.” In coining that phrase, Pontecorvo meant to capture the implications of his film’s membership in the seemingly paradoxical genre of the fictional documentary. The aim of films in this genre, many of which were made in the 1960s by left-leaning directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Pontecorvo himself, is to produce works of fiction that can in some sense masquerade as works of fact in the service of political ends.

There has been a widespread failure on the part of critics and audiences to interpret Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty as a film belonging to this genre. This failure has dictated the terms of the debate about the film, generating the questions we have posed about it and supplying predictable answers to those questions. Questions about whether or not the film endorses torture, in particular, have become central in critical discussion of the film, and form the locus of both its accolades and its recriminations.

But whether or not the film endorses torture is emphatically not the right question. Focusing on that question obscures the true role of torture in the film and ultimately masks many of the film’s more subtle — and more sinister — implications. Like The Battle of Algiers, Zero Dark Thirty employs the trappings of documentary-style objectivity in order to persuade at a sub-rational level. In understanding Zero as a fictional documentary, we can both refocus the critical conversation and uncover the film’s underlying point of view.

The intentionality of that point of view is, however, an open question. In fact, Bigelow has made it clear that her goal was to suspend, not impose, judgment. As she told the Guardian, “I was presenting the story as faithfully as I could, based on the research we gathered.” This is reinforced by what many critics have described as the film’s dry, taut style, which gives it a general feeling of objectivity and disinterestedness.

But the important fact of the matter is that the film does, intentionally or not, advance a point of view by perpetuating — as if they were totally uncontroversial facts — a series of background assumptions about the nature of the war on terror, the structure of al-Qaeda, and the psychology of terrorists. The film reinforces the Bush-era dogmas that al-Qaeda is a coordinated, coherent enemy, that the war on terror in some sense resembles a conventional war, and that terrorists are motivated merely by a fanatical hatred of America. That the film uncritically advances these assumptions and all the misinformation they carry with them tells as much about the failure of the film as it does about our contemporary political imaginations.

Fictional documentaries typically make some claim to historical accuracy; they also strive to create a sense of intimacy by providing access to spaces that are off-limits and, within those spaces, showcasing behavior that is illicit or transgressive. This intimacy ultimately works to underscore the film’s claim to represent the “real story” that has not been censored for public consumption. As accuracy and intimacy help establish a fictional documentary’s claim to authenticity, they also aid the film in covertly advancing subjective agendas.

Algiers exemplifies these two characteristics in a skillfully subtle manner. While its plot and characters are largely fictional, Pontecorvo employed a range of cinematic techniques to make the film seem like a documentary. He shot the film in black-and-white in order to make it seem more like newsreel; he employed non-professional actors, many of whom were Algerians who had been involved in the war. The film was shot in the kasbah where actual fighting took place. Finally, the plot, while still fictitious, remains extremely faithful to the actual events of the War of Independence.

The film also creates a feeling of intimacy on both a stylistic and a substantive level. In the famous scene where three Algerian women don European clothing in order to plant a bomb in a French café, Pontecorvo’s use of close-ups compels the viewer to breach the privacy of their changing room. By voyeuristically gazing into the private space of the women’s changing room, the viewer feels as though she is experiencing an authentic story that has not been modified for public consumption. This is the role that torture scenes play in Zero: breaching privacy to give the viewer access to privileged space.

Zero, like Algiers, makes a claim to historical accuracy while simultaneously purporting to be a fictional portrayal of events. The film opens with the text: “The following motion picture is based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Immediately following the opening text, we hear real recordings of the World Trade Center victims on September 11. The film tracks real, public developments in the war on terror, including the 2004 Khobar Towers bombing, the 2005 London bombings, and the 2008 Islamabad hotel bombing. We frequently see real footage of various political figures commenting on terrorist attacks.

If the film lays its claim to accuracy and authenticity through its documentary style, it rhetorically reinforces this claim by giving the viewer access to spaces typically demarcated as private. The film repeatedly identifies the torture scenes and other interrogations as occurring at CIA “black sites” in undisclosed locations. This gives the audience the sense that they are bearing witness something that they are not supposed to see — and to which they’ve been given exclusive access. Zero’s torture scenes largely occur in these black sites, in poorly lit rooms or shacks.

What we witness in these locations is brutal, disgusting, upsetting, and morally if not legally transgressive. In one scene, Ahmad, a member of al-Qaeda, is made to crawl on all fours led by a dog collar. We see him stripped naked and covered in feces. That these details offend us is precisely the point: it wouldn’t feel as much like the “real” story if the film portrayed torture practices in a manner that was banal and inoffensive. This is how torture functions in Zero Dark Thirty: it creates a sense of intimacy in order to heighten the film’s authenticity.

That these scenes portray the CIA’s torture practices in a way that is wildly inaccurate underscores this point. Steve Coll, in his New York Review of Books piece, observes that Zero’s sensational depiction of torture stands in stark contrast to the clinical and bureaucratized manner in which the CIA actually carried out interrogations. The CIA kept doctors on hand for interrogations to check the prisoners’ vital signs and painstakingly documented the details of each session. As Coll notes, “this CIA office routine might have been more shocking on screen than the clichéd physical abuse of prisoners that the filmmakers prefer.”

While this is probably true, that the filmmakers took such massive liberty with the details of the torture scenes is deeply revealing. Were they to portray torture as a clinical “office routine,” it would lose its status as a practice that occurred in secret, as something that was transgressive and private. It would become public, officially sanctioned, banal. As with other films in its genre, Zero needs private, intimate scenes of transgression in order to convince the viewer that the film’s content is authentic. Paradoxically, in Zero, these scenes rest upon massive inaccuracies. If anything, this paradox casts doubt on Bigelow’s claim that she merely sought to render events accurately and objectively, leaving the question of whether or not the subliminal messaging in the film was intentional open and unanswered.

That torture functions in this way allows us to see how discussion about the role of torture in the film has rested upon the conflation of two distinct questions: Does Zero endorse torture? and Why is torture depicted at all? Those who say the film endorses torture have tended to mobilize that answer in responding to the second question — suggesting that torture scenes were included in the film so that the film could endorse torture. Understanding the film as a fictional documentary, we see the answers to these two questions come apart. The torture scenes have an ulterior motive — one totally distinct from the endorsement question — that is at bottom rhetorical, designed to persuade the audience of the film’s authenticity.

So Zero isn’t, as most critics have suggested, a film about endorsing or condemning torture. In fact, by setting the torture question aside, we can see that the real manipulative power of the film lies in the way it presents — as if they were uncontroversial facts — a range of the CIA’s background assumptions about the nature of the war on terror, the structure of al-Qaeda, and the psychology of terrorists. This is another important feature Zero shares with Algiers: both films use the style typical of objective documentaries to advance points of view. Yet this is also where the analogy between the two films breaks apart. Despite the fact that Algiers advances a point of view, it daringly challenges both Algerian and French colonial narratives of the conflict by humanizing both sides. Zero does no such thing.

Zero’s main failing in this respect is its suggestion that the war on terror resembles a conventional war, with a single, identifiable origin and a coherent, coordinated enemy. Given this suggestion, which is itself deeply misleading and problematic, the film makes absolutely no effort to include the “other side,” or perspectives that might dispute the major themes in the conventional American narrative about the conflict. That the film opens with the voices of World Trade Center victims clearly locates the origin of the conflict in the attacks of September 11. Perhaps it is too much to expect out of a Hollywood movie that it locate al-Qaeda’s emergence in a complex set of circumstances in the 1980s, one in which the United States played a substantial role. Yet the way in which the film opens by reminding us of American casualties makes us feel as though no matter what horrible things the CIA does and whether or not we approve of them, it has justice, or at least a right to vengeance, on its side.

The film is at its most misleading when it appears to be merely reporting bare facts about terrorist attacks that have occurred globally in the past ten years. The film leads the viewer to believe that the bombings mentioned earlier as well as the 2010 Times Square bombing were all perpetrated by al‑Qaeda, implying that al‑Qaeda is a coordinated, coherent network where individual mujahideen report directly to al-Qaeda leadership. The film also deliberately leads the viewer to believe that the perpetrator of the 2009 Camp Chapman attack was an Islamist doctor close to top al-Qaeda leadership.

In reality, only one of the attacks cited in the film can be definitively traced to al-Qaeda: the 2004 Khobar Towers bombing. The perpetrators of the 2005 London bombings were homegrown British terrorists with no al-Qaeda ties. The perpetrators of the 2008 Islamabad hotel bombing are unknown, and there is only faint speculation that al-Qaeda may be responsible; several other fundamentalist groups were considered just as likely or more likely to have carried out the attack. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010, was inspired by the writings of an al-Qaeda member but funded the bombing himself; he likely had no concrete ties, personal or material, to the group. While it is still unclear who was responsible for the Camp Chapman attack, many agree the attack is most plausibly attributed to the Taliban, and that the Haqqani Network, a Taliban ally, was intimately involved. Though the Taliban and al-Qaeda do have ties, they are two distinct groups with very different constituencies and goals. Conflating them is a hallmark of Bush-era war-on-terror dogmatism.

The film does not explicitly mislead the viewer by directly stating that each of these attacks was carried out by al-Qaeda. The film merely maintains it as an uncritical background assumption, which makes it more subliminally persuasive. After the attempted Times Square bombing is shown, the film’s protagonist, Maya, is chastised to end her obsession with searching for bin Laden and is ordered to “start working on the American al-Qaeda cells” as if some cohesive al-Qaeda cell had carried out the attempt, and not a lone extremist. What is most telling, though, is the film’s silence about the true perpetrators of each attack, and the inclusion of the attacks in a narrative that is exclusively about al-Qaeda. Any viewer who did not know in advance that al-Qaeda was responsible for only one of the attacks portrayed in the film would leave thinking it was responsible for all of them.

The film fails to contend with the messy reality that not only is al-Qaeda deeply fragmented, but terrorist acts are perpetrated by many different groups and individuals with a wide variety of motives and backgrounds. By remaining silent on these fundamental points, the film ultimately lumps all Islamists together under the umbrella of “terrorists who hate America.” This is reinforced by the film’s willingness to perpetuate conventional American prejudices about the psychology of terrorists. In the only discussion of the possible motives of al-Qaeda operatives, Maya and a fellow CIA agent debate whether terrorists can be bought off with money or whether they are so fanatical that money isn’t persuasive. Noticeably absent is any attempt to supply terrorists with something resembling motives that are intelligible to us and that could provoke our sympathy.

Terrorists do not, for example, seek revenge for family or friends who were lost to Western military operations, have intellectual objections to American imperialism, or rebel against economic or political disenfranchisement. They are driven either by greed or by fanaticism. By contrast, the CIA agents in the film are given a multiplicity of motives, both abstract and personal. They are patriotic but also seek revenge for comrades who were lost in terrorist attacks. They are painted as intelligent and credentialed; Dan, the CIA agent responsible for the film’s early torture scenes, “has a PhD.” They are also flawed — Maya is sometimes brash, aggressive, too cold and unfeeling — but these flaws emerge only as part of a relentless devotion to the noble objective of protecting America.

It may be misleading to attribute these background assumptions, many of which rest upon gaping factual inaccuracies, to some specific directorial intention to produce a film sympathetic to the CIA’s worldview. Perhaps Bigelow truly did intend her film to be a neutral, objective rendering of events. Yet, regardless of her intention, the fact that the film ultimately reiterates and perpetuates all of the generalizations and inaccuracies of the conventional narrative of the war on terror points to a more troubling conclusion. Perhaps Bush-era war-on-terror ideology, and all of the basic factual inaccuracies that accompany it, has penetrated our national consciousness so deeply that even a director faithfully attempting to render events objectively cannot avoid accepting that ideology’s assumptions.

This is why Zero, despite sharing a genre with Algiers, fails while the latter succeeds. While Pontecorvo’s sympathies lay with Algerians and not the French colonists, he tried seriously to do justice to historical fact. The film was widely praised for its fair-mindedness, exemplified by Pontecorvo’s willingness to humanize both sides of the conflict. In doing so, he interrogated both Algerian narratives of the conflict and French colonial ones. In this sense, Pontecorvo’s dictatorship of truth is a regime in which no perspective is entirely immune from criticism. Perhaps this is because he believed in only making films that “need to be made”: films that strive to communicate some truth that would otherwise go unexpressed. Zero, to its great detriment, lacks this critical spirit, ultimately rehashing assumptions about the war on terror that are both problematic and predictable. By Pontecorvo’s standard, Zero Dark Thirty didn’t need to be made.