Zero Dark Hurty: A Tale Of Torture?

She was right. It was bin Laden. They killed him.

That’s the plot of Zero Dark Thirty, another tour de force from Kathryn Bigelow, but notorious for apparently condoning torture. The film does start with a long segment of waterboarding and shouting used as routine interrogation methods, and heavy rock music played all night to keep the prisoner sleep-deprived and stressed. I don’t have a problem with mind games, making someone think they’re drowning. And loud music? Heck, I used to stay up all night in my younger days listening to Hawkwind at full volume. Bring it on. At one point they put the prisoner in a wooden box. Really? The horror of it all.

The debate of the moment of course is about the morality and usefulness of torture. I’m on the side of those who thinks it doesn’t work and for that reason alone, I think it shouldn’t be used. Otherwise, if it works and if it saves lives; do it. I have no moral compunction about using the tame methods shown here, nobody was pulling fingernails out with pliers, or crushing bones, or burning soles of feet. Zero Dark Thirty is ambivalent about torture. It is just presenting what went on, albeit heavily sanitised, without moralising for or against. However, it does give us a wrinkle. It was what the prisoners omitted to say or what they said they knew nothing about that gave Maya, the CIA heroine of the film played by Jessica Chastain, the idea that the unknown figure they were asking about could lead to bin Laden. Maya was alone in that, and we see her bosses making decisions on what intelligence was reliable and actionable on the basis of how much it would harm their careers if they were wrong, they having been burned in the past relying on faulty intelligence obtained through torture. Inertia ruled. But Maya’s dogged pursuit of bin Laden finally wins the day after further corroborative evidence is obtained by traditional means, and a raid is mounted.

The whole film runs like a documentary, plain facts presented without varnish. There are even section titles such as “Tradecraft” flashed on the screen as the film moves into different segments. As such it is hard to develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters, even bin Laden’s ultimate death is underplayed and anti-climactic, coming at the end of another segment that shows all the preparations leading up to the raid the execution of which is nonetheless engrossing and incredibly tense.

Watching Maya following events back at headquarters as the raid unfolds reminded me of a scene in the World War Two movie, The Dam Busters. Barnes Wallis, inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’, is waiting back at RAF Scampton having seen the bombers take off for the Ruhr dams. He is evidently distressed at having devised the means to mount the raid in the first place and this makes him feel personally responsible for putting the aircrew in harms way. Many did die. Maya was clearly having the same attack of guilt and this was perhaps the most touching part of the film although all her boys got back safely.

This is no gung-ho Bond movie, it is a gritty, realistic, gripping drama.

The problem with treating enemy combatants as civil defendants. It doesn’t work.

The scene: The Old Bailey, sometime in 1942. Four German Luftwaffe airmen are in the dock charged with dropping bombs over England.

Defence Counsel rises: “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, my clients emphatically deny the charges you have heard today that they did deliberately drop explosive bombs on the Assembly Rooms in Bath, Somerset, causing the deaths of several residents of that fine city. The prosecution have presented no evidence whatsoever to link those bombs which tragically fell on the city that night, to my client’s aircraft, a Ju 88 manufactured by Junkers and Company of Dessau, Germany. My clients were in just one of many aircraft flying in the area at the time and any one of the others may have accidentally released the bombs with unfortunate consequences. Yet the prosecution have singularly failed to arrest any of them as suspects or even to question them as witnesses. The case against my clients is therefore one entirely of speculation. My clients were on an innocent pleasure flight, wishing only to enjoy by moonlight the pastoral scenes made famous by such renowned artists as Mr John Constable, RA, and to admire the architecture of some of our great cities, assisted in their exploration by a guide to Great Britain published by that noted Anglophile, Herr Karl Baedeker, a copy of which they had with them on their journey. It has to be said that their treatment as visitors to our country has been deplorable. They were quite outrageously attacked and shot at by a Royal Air Force fighter plane, causing them to crash land and to sustain whiplash injuries which may keep them away from operational duties for days if not weeks. The unprovoked attack on their aircraft, from behind, was a cowardly act completely disproportionate to the offences for which my clients stand accused and which they emphatically deny. Furthermore their subsequent treatment at the hands of the police fell far short of that expected in a civilised society such as ours. The police failed to provide wurst and sauerkraut when requested, and served instead tea with cucumber sandwiches from which the crusts had not been removed. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I am sure you share a deep sense of shame at what has been done to these fine young men in the name of our country, and I urge to you find them innocent of all charges.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Crown ordered to pay compensation to the aircrew, and damages to the German government for the loss of their aircraft.

Further news: An un-named RAF pilot has been arrested and charged with causing criminal damage to a Junkers bomber.

Further further news: A former poet has been jailed for life for race hate crimes after inciting violence against the residents of Slough, Berkshire. Sir John Betjemen said as he was lead away to prison, “I weep for my country.”