Interrogating Zero Dark Thirty

Paper by Darby Neveu.

Kathryn Biegelow’s political action film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the story about the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden, has variety of mixed reviews. The movie was praised with five Academy Award nominations as well as four Golden Globe nominations, but the movie has received a great deal of criticism regarding its portrayal of torture as key component to killing Osama bin Laden. The film generated a lot of political chatter grabbing the attention of many again discussing the impact of the torture scenes. The scene in Zero Dark Thirty where prisoner Ammar is subject to numerous torture tactics exemplifies the political message of the use of torture to extract information was key in locating bin Laden through its cinematic style, outside research, and other political films.

The first torture scene takes place after the prologue where we hear real calls and messages from people that fell victim the 9/11 terror attack and we open to see Dan (Jason Clarke) an experienced CIA analyst interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb) a former al-Qaeda member taken prisoner, the protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) a new and young CIA analyst who has just arrived in Pakistan is seen off to the side watching in. This scene acts as an introduction to the numerous other torture sequences. About fifteen minutes in Dan and Maya return to interrogate Ammar where we see him slumped over with loud music playing, Dan plays good cop at the beginning giving him food and water he begins to question him and when Ammar pleads he doesn’t know Dan humiliates him by stripping him of his pants in front of Maya, Ammar pleads with Maya for her to help him, Dan returns and puts a dog collar on him and proceeds to walk him like a dog whilst trying to get him to admit what he knows about the next attack. Lastly, Dan proceeds to lock him the box for not complying. An attack in Saudi Arabia takes place in May 2004 leaving Dan, Maya and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) a fellow CIA analysist discussing how to use the recent attack to their advantage and against Ammar. Ultimately, they trick Ammar by using his sleep deprivation and memory loss, via different methods of torture, against him and tell him he gave them some of the names of his fellow brothers he then reveals the name of bin Laden’s courier. Through Ammar’s reveal, the film transitions focus to locating bin Laden’s courier known at the time as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. According to the article, “From Zero to Hero: The CIA and Hollywood Today” by Tony Shaw and Tricia Jenkins the “harrowing scenes of officially prescribed torture are an integral component of Zero Dark Thirty the film also shows the CIA making serious errors” (96), supporting the statement that the torture scene is key to the narrative as well the political theme of the use of torture was key in locating bin Laden.

The cinematography/camera work seen in the torture scene and throughout the film assist in the development of narrative and the political theme of torture a key component in locating bin Laden. In Shaw and Jenkins article regarding Hollywood’s relationship with the CIA they discuss the impact the camera work had on how the torture scenes are perceived:

Part of the reason so much attention was paid to the films depiction of torture is that Zero Dark Thirty’s style could not help but invite viewers to evaluate its verisimilitude. The film relied on documentary cinematic techniques, such as shooting with handheld cameras; Boal claimed that his scripts were based on firsthand accounts of actual events; and it was widely known that Zero Dark Thirty came with both the CIA assistance and imprimatur… (p. 101). The camera techniques used in the torture scene give the effect that you are bystander watching this interrogation occur. There multiple instances where we are given close up shots of Ammar and Dan where Dan is shown to be very easy going with Ammar such as giving him water and food but once Ammar decides to continue on keeping information hidden the mood shifts as well as the camera angle goes from a close up to a wide shot illustrating the rapid shift in mood and that idea that keeping information hidden will result in more torture. In the article “Picture Show” by an unstated author examines the way the torture scene is structured virtually encourages the audience into supporting the torture:
It’s torture sequences, and the photographs or videos of nameless prisoners that reappear throughout the films long lead-up stoke the viewer for climatic killing that everyone knows is coming. They do not excuse or glorify torture; they do something worse: they draw the audience into accommodating it (p.6). The camera work shown within the torture scene demonstrates the political theme of torture as a key component to catching bin Laden.

The mise en scene encompassed within the torture scene and throughout the film aids in the development of the political theme of torture as a key component in locating bin Laden. When the torture scene opens it is completely dark and loud, obnoxious music is blaring the only light source is the natural coming through the door and the small holes in the walls. When we enter the room, everything is a dull and grimy it’s sad to look at. Similarly, in the movie, The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), “the opening scene, a man being led down a sickly pale green and white hallway to a 48-hour interrogation, where the pale glow of the morning sun eventually shines into his sleepless tear-filled eyes, the film’s uncomfortable aesthetic sets the mood” (Coulter 3). The ‘torture room’ gives off similar dismal and wicked mood as we all have seen what goes on in there. The lighting in the room once lite is equally as gloomy with a yellow-greenish hue that hangs onto the character faces similar to how one’s face gets when you feel ill like who Maya who was seen reacting to the sights and smells of the room. In Lennard Davis’s article regarding Zero Dark Thirty he discusses the setting of the tortures scenes:

The torture scenes themselves are filmed in settings that are far from impressive. They look more like Abu Ghraib than the back rooms of army bases or Langley and lit in a way that speaks of slovenliness and haphazard cruelty”(1).

The setting and lighting add to the uneasiness of what is going on in the torturing scene and additionally help reinforce the theme of the use of torture was a key component to locating bin Laden as the environment around the scene helped contribute to effects of the torture and extracting the information.

Lastly, the way in which the torture scene as well as the other torture sequences were edited displays the way the political theme of torture was a key component in locating bin Laden. As stated above the first scene in the movie is a torture scene and the scene focused on in this paper is followed closely by but straight away we are thrust into this cold and uncomfortable scene creating this argument that the torture was an integral part in the hunt for bin Laden. By placing the torture scene before the scene where Ammar reveals the name Abu Ahmed to Dan and Maya it creates that message that through that torture and interrogation of Ammar they are able to get key information out which then lead to the numerous other torture scenes where detainees are questioned about Abu Ahmed and ultimately gets them bin Laden. It’s stated above that Bieglow, “likes to set up scenes and then capture the action with numerous cameras-almost like it’s a documentary…The objective is to have a feeling of ‘you are there’…” (p. 23) which can be seen after the torture scene by the footage Maya is watching on her computer. The composition of the torture scene and sequences within the film drive the theme of torture and narrative in Zero Dark Thirty similarly in the movie Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) where there are numerous sequences placed strategically in which demonstrate ‘paths’ such as, “Colonel Dax takes a long, nightmarish walk down the trench…the nerve shattering march to execution” (Burgess, 7) which enforce the themes of antiwar and antimilitarism. The editing style of the torture scene displays the political theme of torture as a key component in locating bin Laden.

The scene in Zero Dark Thirty where prisoner Ammar is subject to numerous torture tactics exemplifies the political message of the use of torture to extract information was key in locating bin Laden through its cinematic style, outside research and other political films. The torture scene and sequences develop the narrative and enforce the political theme of issue of torture as a key component in locating bin Laden.

Works Cited

Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick.” Film Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1,
1964, pp. 4-11.
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Story Telling and History as a Great Toy – the Lives of Others.” Wide
Screen, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2010, pp. 1-10.
Davis, Lennard. “Zero Dark Thirty : The Politics of Art or Why All the Critics Are
Wrong.” Huffington Post, 20 Apr. 2013
Peters, Oliver. “Editing Zero Dark Thirty.” Digital Video, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 22-23
“Picture Show.” Nation, vol. 296, no. 7, 18 Feb. 2013, pp. 6-8
Shaw, Tony and Tricia Jenkins. “From Zero to Hero: The CIA and Hollywood Today.” Cinema
Journal, vol. 56, no. 2, Winter2017, pp. 91-113.


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