Moral Low Ground

War & Peace

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” Opens with 15-Minute CIA Torture Scene

Viewers will quickly realize that Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is not for the faint of heart. That’s because the first 15 minutes of the film is basically one prolonged torture scene.

Called “jarringly gruesome” and “extreme,” the film’s opening scene shows a CIA officer at a secret ‘black site’ interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), a detainee who is believed to have information about Osama bin Laden’s courier. Ammar is tortured, subjected to many of the actual horrific techniques banned by US and international law but embraced by Bush administration officials in America’s War on Terror. He’s dog collared, deprived of sleep and food, blasted with ear-splitting heavy metal music for hours and hours on end and waterboarded.

But despite the role of the Bush administration in promoting and practicing torture, “Zero Dark Thirty” is notably– and refreshingly– apolitical. US conservatives had been worried that Bigelow, whose previous film “The Hurt Locker” won six 2010 Academy Awards including Best Picture, would be a very pro-Obama production. It isn’t. Yes, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were given eyebrow-raising access to the Pentagon, the White House and the CIA as they set about making their film. But just as “The Hurt Locker” eschewed politics and focused on on-the-ground people and procedures (in that case, an Army bomb disposal unit during the Iraq war), “Zero Dark Thirty” is about the men and women of the CIA who tirelessly hunted down Osama bin Laden.

Especially one woman. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a brilliant young intelligence operative who, like all characters in the film, is based closely on a real-life CIA agent who was instrumental in finding bin Laden. Maya is also unflinchingly tough. Having lost friends and colleagues in the 2009 Camp Chapman suicide bombing and burning with determination to bring the man behind 9/11 to justice, Maya is a willing participant in what everyone but American conservatives would call torture.

Particularly jarring is Ammar’s waterboarding. While many conservatives deny that the interrupted drowning technique is not torture, the Obama administration says it is and has stopped the illegal practice. Even many Republicans agree that waterboarding is torture.

“Anyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was tortured for years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, emphatically asserted. “It is a horrible torture technique and should never be condoned in the United States. We are a better nation than that.”

“I believe, unlike others in this administration, that waterboarding is torture,” Bush-era Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge concurred. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

But “Zero Dark Thirty” is not about the politics of torture, and by remaining above the political fray while still depicting the horrific reality of American torture in service of what the torturers believe is the greater good, the film accomplishes something remarkable. By almost all accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a cinematic achievement that’s a worthy follow-up to “The Hurt Locker.” And like “The Hurt Locker,” there’s also plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding the new film.

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in select US theatres on December 19th and nationwide on January 11.

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