I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about killing Osama bin Laden last night. Although it is quite good, as an American with a conscience, I didn’t find it a particularly encouraging or comfortable film. I heard conflicting accounts concerning whether or not the movie defends or criticizes torture, but after seeing the entire thing it’s pretty clear that it’s the former. The heroes, if you can call them that, make use of some pretty awful techniques, and there’s no sense that any of them did even a bit of soul-searching over it. The message is clear: the ends justified the means. However, I suspect this is not the director’s voice speaking (she approached the issue mechanically rather than enthusiastically), but rather screenplay writer Mark Boal’s.
Although I’d rather not dwell on the torture for too long, it came off as essentially pornographic, which, given Abu Ghraib’s house of horrors, is probably a fairly accurate depiction of the practice. The interrogator, who goes by “Dan” (played by Jason Clarke) introduces hero Maya to torture immediately. At first she’s shy – a torture virgin if you will – but it doesn’t take long before she’s having a beefy officer smack her subjects around. Dan comes off as a vicious Irish gangster who looks like he’d be right at home on the streets of Belfast circa 1978, kneecapping people for the sheer fun of it.
Perhaps people who work in the front line of this business are natural sadists — I’m not sure, but in the film it didn’t seem that compassion for the victims of 9/11 was what drove the agents so much as the “hunt.” For foreigners who see the movie, I’m afraid Americans are going to come off as a bunch of psychopaths, which is too bad, but sadly that’s the face we tend to show the rest of the world these days. The only major character who appeared to be a normal human being throughout the film was Hakim, a CIA officer played by Fares Fares. None of the white characters display normal human emotional responses given the circumstances, with the possible exception of CIA station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). Additionally, they swear like sailors, using filthy language constantly. James Gandolfini of The Sopranos plays the CIA director, further impressing on the viewer that the CIA operates much like a criminal gang. Although some may read the above as criticism, it is entirely possible that Bigelow’s portrayal of these people is accurate — if a lowly divorce court judge can go home without any distress over removing children from loving parents, it is likely that people working in the CIA feel little to no discomfort over killing people, and may actually enjoy it.
As for the hero, she is a complete fabrication. “Maya” never existed. Some of the characters, however, represented real people. For example, Maya’s friend Jessica, the woman who got blown up in Afghanistan by a double agent, was based on a real female CIA officer who was really blown up (she made a fatal mistake). However, there was no skinny young woman who took charge and personally sealed the deal with her dogged determination and force of will, but a lot of people who see the film are going to leave with that impression. Although the character Maya may have been the necessary ingredient for creating a major hit with widespread appeal, she detracts significantly from the credibility of the film.
Overall, despite the flaws, it’s a well-made film. Bigelow is clearly a pro. The depiction of the assault on the compound brings the operation to life without indulging in any unnecessary fireworks. In fact, Bigelow was very clinical about this scene. The slow, deliberate nature of the assault added significantly to suspense. The emotional detachment of the SEAL operators as they despatched their targets was chilling, but after all it is what they do for a living, and I’m fairly sure that’s how they approach these tasks.
I have to hand it to Kathryn Bigelow for doing a stellar job — the movie is well worth watching. However, it depicts Americans and our government in a far from flattering light, and leaves the viewer confused as to whether this is the kind of thing we ought to cheer about. Here, I think Bigelow leaves it up to us. Rather than agonize over the moral ambiguity of our war on terror, she simply leaves it in plain view, like a car wreck we can’t help but stare at dumbly as we slowly drive by. It’s an interesting approach, but far from heartwarming or reassuring.