Friday, January 11, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty": Riveting and Provocative

From the East Room of the White House on May 2, 2011, President Obama announced to the nation that Osama bin Laden, “a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children,” was dead. Since the 9/11 attacks, the President said, “bin Laden had avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world ... Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

But what is the real story behind one of the largest manhunts in history? Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Best Director Oscar in 2010 for her Iraq War-based “The Hurt Locker,” has done an even more impressive job with “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is a bona fide thriller about locating and killing bin Laden, almost 10 years after the United States had declared him public enemy number one.

This riveting movie has also garnered its share of controversy. Three senators
- Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) - wrote an open letter to "express our deep disappointment with 'Zero Dark Thirty.' We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama Bin Laden."

The torture scenes that include repeated beatings and waterboarding of an Al-Qaida operative named “Ammar” (a fictional amalgam, played by Reda Kateb) who refuses to give up the identity of “Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti,” thought to be bin Laden’s confidante, are harrowing, but the movie makes neither the case for nor against torture. It only depicts what took place. Are we really surprised to learn that the CIA engages in torture to extract information from detainees? If so, perhaps we live in an Utopia after all!

Most of the action take place in Pakistan and Afghanistan, after a young CIA recruit, a female no less, joins the US embassy in Islamabad. Code-named “Maya” and played by Jessica Chastain, she is a tenacious, hard-working intelligence officer who follows her hunches that pit her against practically everyone in a world of secrecy thick with male chauvinism. Maya is convinced that the man who drives a white SUV in the crowded marketplaces and whose phone signals have been picked up by informants is the key to locating bin Laden. She has several showdowns with her superiors who dismiss her hunches as worthless but who back down after she threatens to raise hell in Washington about their incompetence.

It is indeed this elusive courier Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti who eventually leads Maya and her Pakistani helpers to a compound in Abbottabad in which bin Laden is holed up. The scenes and the actions are stunning - a shopkeeper here, a taxi driver there confirming the movement of the SUV as it navigates its way toward its destination via serpentine alleys and mountainous highways. The truth, or at least what can be captured within the constraints of a visual medium, gives the movie a feral edge that is beyond the reach of any fiction.

Thirty minutes after midnight (hence the name, Zero Dark Thirty) on May 2, 2011, four helicopters bearing the Seal Team 6 squad take off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan for Abbottabad, Pakistan, a distance of about 160 miles. The mission: Kill Osama bin Laden and bring back his dead body. The Black Hawks fly through the fabled Khyber Pass, night vision painting the darkness a feverish green. What happened at the compound is known to practically everyone but still, the reenactment of the raid is so extraordinarily vivid that the viewer gasps at the rendering.

Zero Dark Thirty is a cinematographic tour de force. I found Jessica Chastain’s performance (nominated for Best Actress Oscar) adequate but nowhere near as compelling as Angelina Jolie was in the 2007 movie, A Mighty Heart. Although the movie has been nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, conspicuous by her absence is Kathryn Bigelow as Best Director. There is speculation that she is the victim of politics. The letter penned by the three senators (claiming that the U.S. does not use torture to get information from suspects while the movie suggests that it does) probably played a role.

Perhaps the senators should be reminded of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. If that will not jog their memories, how about (as columnist Tom Engelhardt points out in the Los Angeles Times on 1/11/13) “the secret kidnapping of a Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003 and his handoff to Egyptian torturers,” or the case of “Khaled El-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, who, on New year’s Eve 2003, was pulled off a bus and kidnapped by the CIA because his name was similar to that of an Al-Qaida suspect. After spending five months under brutal conditions, in part in an "Afghan" prison called "the Salt Pit" run by the CIA, he was left at the side of a road in Albania. In between, his life was a catalog of horrors, torture and abuse.”

The senators should perhaps carefully see the movie at least one more time. Perhaps then they will understand what the CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke), subjecting Ammar to “enhanced interrogation” in Zero Dark Thirty, means, when he says: “In the end everybody breaks. It’s biology.”



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