Saturday, February 09, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Tuesday was the first day of the school year, and also my dear wife returned to work. So, as a person who works from home, you would imagine I just revelled in the peace and quiet and/or called a No Pants Day. In fact I decided that I, - free of the need to include, involve, listen to or supervise others - would walk to North Hobart, see a very long movie, then walk home again. And that would be my day.

So, I had a very nice walk. I get anxious about being late for things, and that has spoiled my enjoyment of many a walk - the thought that if I don’t speed up I’m going to miss something. I walked to school with Elf and the kids thinking after that I would walk home, and then at some stage head off to the cinema for the 10.45 showing. At some point I abandoned that plan, and after seeing the kids to their new classrooms, I just kept on walking, and gave myself a very, very leisurely stroll.

Now to the movie. I had seen that it had very positive reviews, and the chap in the local paper said that it dealt with the very violent real events (torture, terrorist attacks and the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden) in a restrained way - which convinced me to see it, as I am not interested in gore & splatter.

The first two minutes are sound only - over a black screen you hear very affecting audio from September 11. At the start of the film we meet Maya, the young, slim, redhead CIA officer who becomes obsessed with finding Bin Laden. This is all supposedly based on the facts, but I don’t know if this is a montage of more than one person or a completely invented character.

She is newly arrived in-country at one of the CIA’s secret bases. I forget if this was in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Her new boss Dan is waterboarding a prisoner, and we get to see plenty of that. It’s monstrous. Some such as Waleed Aly have called this a pro-torture film. Maya goes from being very uncomfortable witnessing waterboardings, to ordering them to be carried out. As she is the “hero” of the film and is ultimately successful in getting intelligence that leads them to OBL, it leaves itself open to this accusation.

But I disagree. The film does not show any prisoner giving up intelligence while being waterboarded or immediately after. Maya’s stroke of genius was  POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT  to convince a disoriented and sleep-deprived man that he had already told them what they wanted to know. From there, he let his guard down. Yes - waterboarding, 24-hour death metal music and other abuses of human rights got him to that point.

I am an Amnesty member and anti-torture. The reality is that there is a wide grey area between what is illegal and what I am comfortable with. Do I have the right to urge the banning of things that are a) effective and b) not illegal? 

One of the planks of Amnesty’s anti-torture platform is actually expressed by a sceptical character in the film, and it’s not about human rights at all. It is that “intelligence gained through torture is low quality intelligence - in these circumstances people just say anything”. This is an amoral argument against torture, but a good one, which is why Amnesty uses it.

I think what the film does show is that the treatment the US defines as being short of torture is (as depicted) torture. The US military says that waterboarding is OK as it is not “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Dan says repeatedly to the prisoner - “You lie to me, I hurt you” and then does. Whether it’s severe - well, Maya didn’t want to watch when she was first confronted with it.

I got caught up in the spy thriller aspect, but a bit confused by some of the helicopters-over-Abbotabad stuff.  PSA  One chopper is damaged on landing and can’t take off. Some of the SEALs on the ground blow it up, as it is a top-secret weapon, but we see that from within the other chopper that has taken off. So guys were left behind? No - it looks like everyone makes it back OK. Odd.

It was a very good film, but one that filled me with dread and paranoia. If I was backpacking near the Pakistan border now (rather than 15 years ago) this is NOT a film I would like see. It is not going to win any friends in the Pakistan Tourism Board, that’s for sure. 

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