There's another big difference between journalism and moviemaking. Great journalism is about fact-finding -- unearthing and presenting multiple perspectives to paint a rounded picture of complex reality. But great filmmaking is about emotional storytelling, and the most dramatic stories are often told through one person's eyes. This is what ZD30 does, pulling us into the feelings, actions, perspective, and journey of one fictional CIA officer named Maya. The film is not rounded or objective. It is narrow, intensely personal, and intentionally subjective, tethering the audience's feelings to the protagonist's in a shared journey.
Bigelow and Boal put us on the same emotional page as their heroine from the film's first seconds, playing the haunting voices of 9/11 victims calling from the burning World Trade Center on a black screen. The film then cuts to Maya entering a dark cell where a beaten terrorist detainee, Ammar, is being held. The filmmakers do not want us to enter that cell as dispassionate bystanders of history, but as outraged Americans sharing Maya's raw pain and desire for justice. With the victims' voices fresh in our heads, we and Maya witness Ammar's torture together. In that moment, exactly how many audience members are saying to themselves, I am appalled by the inhumanity of this interrogation? And how many are thinking, I hope that motherfu*#king terrorist gives it up so we can put a bullet in bin Laden's head? I'm betting the latter.
Maya's story is our story, and there is no doubt that she comes to see torture as necessary and efficacious, approving the very methods that first make her squirm. In the movie, after enhanced interrogation methods are banned, the leads go dry; Maya and her dogged hunches are all the CIA has left. And we are rooting for her, waterboarding and all, straight to Abbottabad.
My husband and I also agreed that Zero Dark Thirty is not "just a movie." Bigelow claims that her film is just putting it out there for others to debate the issues. But Zero Dark Thirty is not neutral about the effectiveness of torture any more than Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is neutral about the horrors of the Holocaust. (Make up your own minds: Nazis, good or bad?) Nor is ZD30 about ancient history. It charges headlong into headlines about an ongoing debate that is still shrouded in secrecy -- while claiming the mantle of truth based on some interviews with senior officials who dribbled out selected bits of information and had every reason to portray their own decisions in a favorable light.
The stakes are high. It is one thing for Argo to spice up the plotline of a 30-year old CIA hostage escape operation by downplaying Canada's role. Angry Canadians are unlikely to affect U.S. national security policy. It is quite another thing to weigh in on one of the most controversial counterterrorism tools while the war on terror rages on and lives are on the line.
Bigelow recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement." Well, those of us who work in the academy know something else: all too often, depiction is bad education. This is especially true with the CIA, where public information is scarce but public interest and controversy are intense. My research has found disturbing evidence -- in national polls, Senate hearings, and press interview transcripts -- that spy-themed entertainment is shaping public attitudes towards torture, coloring the questions asked in CIA director confirmation hearings, and even influencing how presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices think about intelligence issues. Fake spies are influencing real intelligence policy.
Bigelow and Boal have prodigious talent and a powerful medium. What they do not have is a free pass to present their film as truth and hide behind artistic license when the real world cries foul. If you're going to see Zero Dark Thirty, I'd suggest skipping the first frame and reading this instead:
This film is a work of fiction that tells the story of the hunt for bin Laden from one imaginary CIA officer's perspective. Some of the events depicted are real. Many are not. You won't be able to tell the difference. Plus we made up a lot of shit about torture. We arrogantly contend that this motion picture is the first draft of history even though actual history says otherwise. But don't judge us: it's just a movie.