Last night, I watched the new Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal offering Zero Dark Thirty, which purports to dramatize the actual events and people involved with the finding and assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Unlike the previous Bigelow/Boal collaboration The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is primarily a procedural and contains much “shop talk” and little in the way of action, suspense, drama, or characters about whom you much care. The denouement of the story will be well known to all who view the film, because the script relies heavily on placing the viewer at major, well-known moments of terrorism (9/11, 7/7, the Marriott Islamabad Bombing, etc.) in order to make clear what’s at stake, much of the film feels more like a plodding, 48-Hours-style news show re-enactment than an original screenplay.
Having said that, I don’t write this blog with my film-critic hat on, so I’ll leave most of you to decide for yourselves if you think Zero Dark Thirty succeeds as a film. I will try not to include any so-called spoilers in the following analysis, but since the film doesn’t depart much from what most of us already know, I’m sure I won’t be ruining anyone’s holiday if a few details slip through. Just be warned.
My concerns with Zero Dark Thirty are with the way the film depicts, matter of factly, a CIA-controlled, Navy-operated death squad flying into a sovereign country (Pakistan in this case), and shooting people that they easily could have captured alive. To be fair, much — much – of Zero Dark Thirty is taken up with the various fits and starts of the investigation into where to send this death squad in the first place, but the only part audiences are likely to much remember is the assault on bin Laden’s actual compound. No one in the CIA, the President’s office, no newsman, nor any character in the film whatsoever, seems to have anything but assassination in mind as a given. There is no voice of: should we be doing this? What are the moral consequences? Sure, it’s a dramatization, but for a film so concerned with “telling the real story,” is there no voice to be given to another point of view. Maybe nobody even thought there could be another point of view. Even more disturbingly, however, none of the real-world film critics I’ve read on Zero Dark Thirty (and I’ve read quite a few) have even raised the issue of inappropriateness — if you want to call it that — of sending a kill team to execute somebody, without even being sure of who that somebody is.
Let’s be clear: Osama bin Laden was as bad a guy as they come, and no one laments justice being done to him, but what about doing that justice with proper procedure? At one point in the film, the primary CIA operative, “Maya” tells one of the SEALs that she didn’t even want to use the SEALs for a raid, but wanted to “drop a bomb” instead. Drop a bomb on a house she knows is the residence of at least nine children. Instead, however, she does send in the SEALs, who kill every adult male member of the house they find with extreme prejudice. Sure, one of the terrorists shoots at the SEALs through a door, and they kill him in response. No problem there, and that first kill comes with an armed terrorist to reassure the audience that yes, these guys are dangerous and need to die. But the SEALs also kill the first guy’s wife, although Bigelow justifies this with a one-second shot of the woman perhaps reaching for her dead husband’s AK-47. Later, the SEALs lure a second man out of hiding by whispering to his name in the darkness. When he cautiously emerges, they instantly shoot him dead. He is unarmed. They repeat this exact procedure with bin Laden himself. No attempt whatever is made to capture anyone alive. Presuming any of this is true, should we be given pause here? Even if it’s fictional, should audiences feel this is a “victory” (albeit an ugly one, war being hell and all that)?
Meanwhile, simultaneously with the assault on the house, Pakistani civilians in the neighborhood outside begin to mass and approach bin Laden’s house. The SEALs threaten to kill them if they don’t retreat. The civilians do hold back, but one wonders just how much leeway the SEALs had been given by the CIA at this point. Could they have en masse killed Pakistani civilians, if they felt there was a threat to their mission? If so, would that change the moral calculus here?
My point with all of these questions is to ask: where were the questions in Zero Dark Thirty? Where are the questions from the critics? Many critics have discussed the film’s depiction of torture as a necessary step in capturing bin Laden, and we should all worry about that. But the real question is much deeper. The real question is: do we, as Americans, condone the sort of summary justice that occurs in this film, even to really, really bad guys? Was bin Laden a terrible human being? Yes. Did he deserve to die? Probably. But even if he did deserve to die, does that give our government the right to send a team of killers into a foreign country and summarily execute him (and other members of his household)?
Ask yourself if the reverse had happened, how you’d feel. The United States has been responsible for some awful war crimes in its history, no one denies that. I’m not trying to create a moral equivalency between the U.S. and al-Qaeda, but I want people to understand that there are folks out there, foreign governments too, with real grievances against the U.S. and its agents. If one of those foreign governments organized a team of hit men to infiltrate the U.S. and kill one of these war-criminal Americans, would you be okay with that? Would you simply say: “well, he deserved it,” and go on your merry way? Or would you be disconcerted? Would you wonder about the limits of what’s acceptable for one country’s armed forces to do, just because they can? You might wonder what, in the end, really stops governments from using force for whatever ends they might desire, so long as those ends are popular enough. Actions have consequences in the lives and minds of others that ripple far beyond our meager, human ability to predict.
Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, via Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings
Why couldn’t bin Laden have been captured alive, and then tried for his crimes? Perhaps there is a good reason, but Zero Dark Thirty does not posit it for audiences. Zero Dark Thirty certainly demonstrates that the wherewithal was there for him to taken alive, but the mission was instead to terminate with extreme prejudice. I think we should all be concerned that movies like this dilute our ability to understand the real moral issues at stake here. We focus only on the goal, without asking ourselves if the goal we’re after is right — or even worthwhile. Killing others without trial or due process of any kind, no matter how bad those others are, ought not to be what America is about. All the pundits discussing Zero Dark Thirty‘s depiction of torture have raised the salient point: what gives government the right to torture people, even really bad people, to achieve their ends? But these same pundits have ignored an equally important issue: what gives a government the right to kill people, even really bad people? There seems to be little moral difference between torture and killing, in my estimation. I wish Zero Dark Thirty had made audiences leave the theater with more questions than: “Do I still have any time left on my parking meter, because that movie was two-and-a-half freakin’ hours long.”
Anyway, Merry Christmas.