Can Monitors Monitor the Monitors?, or Reality as an Extension of Fiction by Other Means

One or two impressions of _Zero Dark Thirty_.
David Phelps

A response to what's probably the best piece on Zero Dark Thirty, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “The Monitor Mentality”.

And to a movie I'd like no one to see.


Everybody likes cake,” says peppy girl-agent Jennifer Ehle, the kind of personality who likes to dish sex over cocktails at hotel bars Thank You For Not Smoking-style, as she dollops the last of the frosting on her little home-baked house-warming gift for an informant about to penetrate their chummy compound. A riposte: “Not everyone likes cake,” Jessica Chastain's wan CIA agent, Maya, warns a moment before, her note of caution sounded off with judicious regularity throughout the movie to more colorful personalities—all to make her ultimate confidence in the final operation ring with resounding pluck after two hours of trepidation. Not everyone likes cake? Any reference to Ministry of Fear aside, these are fighting words, a salvo for the sweet-toothed: what heathen hellhole is this where the locals (only heard praying to wind-pipes at every cut to the city) are so savage that they might even think of disparaging baked goods? A ricochet of precariously lifted eyebrows only signals haplessly that we're about to find out. A few moments later, our intrepid girl-agent decides to screw the protocol of patting down the informant as she has, after all, a good feeling, and besides, a strip-search is bad hospitality when hand-frosted cake is waiting. So the informant suicide-bombs them all. From which we might construe the horrible moral, just as Maya ponders on-screen and violas brood on the soundtrack, that's every bit as bad as Chastain’shelpless moral center portends: terrorists don't like cake.

The other lesson here is a Zero Dark Thirty title card: “human error.” For all the movie's pretty-good impersonation of process—long, durational sequences; a rank-to-rank profile of a decade-long investigation; constant discussion of the roles that ops must inexorably play—not one thing is learned the entire movie, not a single systemic rule established (as in Rossellini) or even presumed (as in Preminger) about CIA operations beyond headline news (torture, explosions) and Hardy Boys proficiency. Causality plays no role outside the sudden, inexplicable revelations, Great American Manhunt-like, facilitating new operations; and the emphasis throughout is on human agency to enact these roles to one's advantage, even as the lack of psychology and moralizing can coax one into thinking this is The Human Factor after all, that human autonomy must buck the machine, instinctual reactions bilk directives, as the cake mission only seems to prove. Zero Dark Thirty's outward apolitics ensures there can never be a right reading of it, that it will remain critical silly-putty for the self-righteous, a calculatingly ambiguous object for unambiguous perspectives. But while it's easy to see the fatal frosting as a lesson in the horrors of human sympathy versus rational protocol (already a semi-neocon moral), I'll wager a personal perspective, as Zero Dark Thirty never quite does, and say that I think the real point here is in the movie's premise that Ehle’s agent, based on Jennifer Matthews, could and would both frost the cake herself (according to investigations, she ordered the base's chef to do so, in the kind of execution of protocol nowhere seen in Zero Dark Thirty) and personally wave off security protocol, whereas by all accounts normal security protocol was being observed. Similarly, we’ll soon see that “Maya” is an entire distillation of the whole process, including most of the upper ranks.This condensation of entire, hierarchical operations into single character motivations—human agency where there was almost none—is the perfect demonstration of Zero Dark Thirty's whole American ethos, packaged as operational methodology, that it is people who determine history for all the appearance of vice-versa. 

The “enhanced interrogation” example: when a good-cop-bad-cop torturer threatens his subject, mid-violence, that he doesn't want to be brutal, but it's the subject's lies that lead him to it, we might think we're getting some insight into the CIA protocol of extrajudicial extortion, in which his threat is both true—he really does have to stay violent according to the precepts of his position—and false: for this lie he tells is no complaint against CIA protocol, but a recitation of it exactly as he's been instructed to deliver it (so we might think). But this second position, in which we would collapse the actor and the role into a horrible mask of modern politics, Preminger-like, will be totally eschewed as the movie proves his threat sadly right after all: his “bro” epithets are not only good-cop stylings, but the natural personality of a man who, we find out, likes to listen to Bob Marley, is friends with the torture bay's monkey population, and laments how he'd love to get out of the torture business and hold down a steady office job. Bloomberg & Kelly had no trouble finding brutes eager to club down protesters in the streets of downtown Manhattan, but as the police preen in violence, this exemplar of the CIA Torturer, we're told, is a good guy in a bad spot, stuck in a shit job doing the dirty work that someone's got to do.

Nobody here quite so openly debates the efficacy (never mind morality) of torture—such a utopian show of conscience would invalidate the movie's somehow successful affect of apolitical process—yet this very debate about torture's effectiveness composes the movie's own internal structure, and does so in a false set of terms. For even to stare down at a brutal interrogation scene and wonder whether it’s worth it, whether torture really does work as an information-gathering tool, is still to presume that it would, in fact, be legitimized by its revelations—and to assume that if torture doesn't work, then surely some other operation does. In other words, to ask, as Zero Dark Thirty has its audience do throughout, whether the end justifies the means, is to presume that the end is a worthwhile one to begin with. Contrary to public evidence, Zero Dark Thirty shows that torture can work as a threat when leveled against good-cop ingratiation. But this Greenwald sticking-point is an ethical decoy—or ethical rorscach test—that will give all sides, liberal, conservative, progressive, the false satisfaction of a morally-righteous campaign of critical prowess, and one which can only double as good PR for the movie (this piece included). For Zero Dark Thirty shows torture working, and shows it working badly; it is effective ineffectively: laborious, unpleasant, and redundant to the information in the file that—another neat lesson here—could have been gained through cleaner, more rational means. Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty will trace the progressive genealogy from unwieldy Bush-era human-scale interrogations, one-on-one, to slickly effectual Obama-era methodology, programmed virtually across screens, as Chastain's very own character development from a gangly novice, ungainly in the torture role, to the surefire arch-programmer behind the scenes by the movie's end.

For the real hero here is Chastain’s mini-Obama, real-Obama nowhere seen outside a TV clip, even while his control-room direction of the Osama attack, as seen in that one picture that survives publicly of the whole operation, is incarnated by Chastain's own for the last third of the movie, with nary a word from her superiors. And this amazing premise starts to redress the one above that the movie's Obama-era technics are really so slickly contemporary, when ultimately the entire operation is pitched on the single-minded determination of a lone operative who employs the latest in text-messaging, IMing, emoticons, and laser-tag nightvision to secure her shadowy target. In short, with all the resources of a Scooby Squad of 13 year olds, c. 2002, at her disposal. And as we discover, until that missing file crops up on the desk of some sleeping-on-the-job agent, the whole operation is hitched from the start on Scooby Error #1: don’t mistake one brother for another just because they have the same beard. Even if they are Muslim brothers!

As the cake would suggest, this is a homegrown operation, with human know-how and human error in equal measure, technology only the arm of individual initiative. Whatever the emphasis is on role-playing, roles are only obstacles testing one’s mettle in overcoming them, and so our aggregate heroine, without any distinct position in the operation throughout the movie, seems to assume every crucial role in the history of the Osama hunt, Forrest Gump-like. Thus “Maya” removing her gimp mask her first day of torturing to work uneasily alone as if in a frat boy initiation, to prove herself in her role; thus the dude-torturer complaining he's got to get a desk job between his earthier moments offering his pet monkey a lick of ice cream off his cone, while lost in affecting contemplation; thus the CIA director having no idea who she is until she single-handedly seizes this 10-year operation by vowing with “100% certainty” that she is the bounty hunter to go recruit a team of Midwest badasses to come out of Harleytown for one last job and get the guy (shades of however many Westerns and samurai flicks); thus the director responding by getting lunch with her in the blue-collar, CIA employee lunchroom, where underclass agents like the girl who's going to catch Osama bin Laden routinely get lunch, far below power's purview, very human-like. ZDT's war is wagered on human agency. No real world benefits are shown because there is no other world than this one and no other goals than these—perhaps the one respect in which Zero Dark Thirty partakes of traditional, political propaganda, in which the means is celebrated as an end in a self-contained Universe of Force: a parade that justifies itself. The ending of Chastain crying alone in an empty military cargo plane in the sky, her stature bespeaking heights of S.Coppolasque bling, is as opportunistically open-ended, which is to say, outwardly meaningless, as the rest of the movie—one friend sees it as an attack on the pointlessness of the whole operation—but seems to me to culminate the movie's sturdy deployment of her as a modern Joan of Arc and Mrs. Norman Maine, the poor, pretty girl, having done man's work for an entire movie, only to cry now with nothing left: for what better a show of human determination than self-sacrifice to one's role and official protocol?

So clearly the humans are the determinate factors—nothing suggests otherwise—and yet this impression of protocol, of process, is necessary to cinch that impression of inexorability, that sense that this-is-how-it-must-be-done. And so—as Andy Rector has suggested—the chest-thumping heroes of propaganda’s traditional, jingoistic rallies become conflicted, weeping-torturers, morally drained antiheroes, in a less hammy vision of Lincoln's Passion Play liberalism: all those ethical compromises, moral indignities, and lubricating roles are weathered even as proof that the objective they attain is a necessary one. That nobody says so so overtly in Zero Dark Thirty is a testament to how well it maintains a guise of moral ambiguity even in seeming to leverage its portrait of scrappy, human spirit against the requirements of protocol—human determination against predetermined mechanisms—so that each is much less apparent that this pervasive feeling of Big Ethical Questions. (That is, whether torture and cake-baking were really ever justified when compared to the department’s exacting, effective surveillance.) Maybe most buried is the reconciliation that human determination must enact these predetermined mechanisms—and that it’s at that point that everything goes right. The entire dramaturgy of Zero Dark Thirty, down to its nightvisionending, seems a direct adaptation of Silence of the Lambs (Silence of the Lambs II: Afghanistan), in which national history has been slotted in as a series of plot MacGuffins, and both Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill have been replaced by the clenched hand of Terror, entirely in keeping with two successive administrations that would have us believe that Terror is not an entity but a shadowy force everywhere and nowhere and once, and thus justifying all means against something one is never quite sure is there.

The foundational suggestion, beautifully camouflaged by the guise of Moral Questions, that this operation was ultimately executed as it had to be, is legitimized all along by technique. Nearly every shot is handheld—shaking ever so slightly in Terror reportage’s most prestigious mode, the all-too-real Realism of a phantom war, favored through Blackhawk Down, The Road to Guantanamo, and United 93. One favorite form of establishing shot here is the rack focus, clarifying for us that the camera is live-on-the-ground, a posteriori, finding its subject as it documents the action. That no viewer will ever believe that they’re watching the war as it unfolds (not even the first audiences ducked at the Lumière’s train, after all) is beside the real point that they’ll fall for its inevitable plausibility, believe that this is a perfect reenactment even down to the camera focus of what would have happened were we there—and could not have happened otherwise. Christ, isn’t that better than Kapò? Again as in Lincoln, Realism—the sense that no moral issue is being evaded, that history’s darkest blotches are finally brought to light—becomes cheap insurance for the credibility of an art-house audience too jaded to believe in Riefenstahl (or Bay’s) hagiography.

But this can be trusted. Democrats and Republicans can join hands that the movie shows us torture something like it happened. Let’s excuse: 1) the nowadays never-raised issue of whether torture can be shown on-screen at all (long after his Kapò piece against the camera’s anticipation of torture on-screen, Rivette would cut a scene of Léaud torturing himself spontaneously, the camera ignorant what he would do next, from Out 1); 2) any consideration that the water-boarding and rope-crucifiction is nowhere near as brutal as the torture in Man on Fire or, surely, the Hostel films, which might now play as documentaries of The Torture Years when the homeland couldn’t get this stuff on TV; and 3) my own, personal guesstimate that scenes of torture occupy maybe five minutes of the movie’s 167-minute running time, though they clearly last longer for other viewers.

It’s enough to look at how it’s filmed: extra-shaky shots, swish pans cutting away from the brutality to Chastain’s ever-pained reaction, quick cutting to condense the interrogation to its most forward moments of violence. In other words, the camera flinches alongside Chastain and seems to show only those darting moments when she would, for an instance, face the torture directly. Besides building complicity with her—and her pain, probably more than the prisoner’s—this filmmaking seems to register the horror of the action even while almost entirely refusing to register the action itself. This is not quite the same as evocation, since nothing, here or elsewhere in the movie, is left to the imagination. The technique does, however, bowdlerize the horror it’s also stressing. The crime of water-boarding, after all, is not simply a crime of throwing water on a man masked in cloth, but a crime of duration: that he’s made to drown in it for an indefinite period of time. Godard throws himself into ethical no-man’s-land in his own, mock-verité (Algerian) war exposé, Le Petit Soldat, by filming waterboarding in a flagrantly subjective long-take (that is equally “objective” as mock-documentary) which is some milestone of Bazinian realism: the torture lasts as long on-screen as it has in front of the camera. Kathryn Bigelow saves her audience such exertions: the action is condemned, with only these violent mementos to suggest it’s been faced, and the audience, calculating the scene against a parade of art-house shock effects from the past 15 years, is safe to conclude that this torture was pretty bad, but at least it wasn’t Haneke.

Godard’s scene is irreducible—the extent of its violence is so particular to a place and (long-held) time that it hardly brooks the terms by which it might be compared to any other scene of spectacular torture. As she offers just the impression of process, Bigelow’s scene offers just the impression of violence, enough for us to believe this is plausibly how torture would have happened, how the rest of the movie would have happened, so that we can dwell on better things for the next two hours. And yet its own veneer of Realism, a perfected version of Godard’s much-more-real parody, reacting off-the-cuff to so many blows as if each were happenstance, entrenches the movie in its own place and time, in the makeshift, eye-to-eye responses of interrogator, prisoner, and camera alike. Nothing in this ungainly theater-piece suggests that these rituals are institutionalized or happening anywhere else outside the aegis of our token interrogator in a team of what looks like a dozen people throughout the movie out to get Osama.

As in Carlos and Che, despite the suggestions of a comprehensive survey of the entire operation, the whole overtone of human contribution and on-site Realism finally works to strip the proceedings of any context at all—a ground-level view can be complicit in individual engineering, but not anything like historical overview. And isn’t it better to see the operation in operation? Thus no Obama (outside his TV spot, promising as benevolent master that there will be no more torture), and thus no sense at any point that this operation reached beyond Chastain’s office. After whatever it chalks up to a disquieting past, Zero Dark Thirty leaves us with this more or less restorative vision of a CIA as a p2p operation, one that employs surveillance to beat faceless enemies but has no broader network to spy systematically, and no broader manpower to analyze anything but the most pressing data (even then, we see, it can take years). Human assembly is required because otherwise nothing would get done: an appealing view of an agency reportedly now hoping to let citizen’s gadgets spy on themselves. When drones are shown obliquely late in the film, the movie assures the knowing among us that it’s tracking its way expansively through the whole labyrinth of wartime infrastructure, when this image is only decipherable by the same news it illustrates so obscurely: news whose “secret information” on drone strikes across the Middle East is regularly fueled by White House insiders who are happy, presumably, to consider much more trenchant depictions than Bigelow’s as unofficial campaign propaganda. If the administration considers drone attacks worth spilling to the news on a weekly basis, even while marking these events officially “confidential" to keep the POTUS from having to talk about them in an open conversation with the American people, we can wonder how much they might mind Bigelow's non-revelation here.

Since Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t talk either. When ample time is devoted to the disassembly of Osama’s computers in the final compound raid, the movie again showcases its Realistic paraphernalia, the nuts-and-bolts details of a real-time search, without ever offering any nuts-and-bolts context of what they’re looking for, what’s inside, or even what the procedure is to disassemble a computer as part of a military operation. The impression is what counts. We can be inveigled into believing that we are learning the full extent of what happened when these peripheral details are part of what keeps us from learning anything at all. 

The process that I.V. sees the movie depicting—”warfare becomes data,” the conversion of human life into categorical information—I only see the movie doing itself. The entire war becomes digestible information, torture, cakes, texts, drones, and all, each helping us color between the lines in a sufficient reconstruction of how it all went down. We can put aside whether an ongoing war whose drone strikes alone have killed about 1,500 civilians under the Obama administration really requires any measure of “ambiguity.” The mere presentation of information alone should be enough to label Zero Dark Thirty as propaganda: for any movie that purports to illustrate a black hole of history of which no images publicly survive is propaganda simply for showing us how it plausibly happened—the Holocaust has been in black-and-white in my head ever since I saw Schindler’s List, and I’m sure that thanks to Bigelow’s ace Realism, any Osamas of the imagination will be shaking ever so discreetly from my hand-held, mind's-eye's lensing here on out. That this particular propaganda, miniaturizing Discipline and Punish, charts the development of unfortunate, semi-effective physical coercion into fully-effective surveillance, and leaves us confident in the abilities of the latter to do its job properly now that, as we see, the Obama era has solved all of Bush’s problems, should show just what kind of propaganda, far more up-to-date than anything it depicts, this is. Point Break is good evidence that the culture industry has had its own losses this past decade, but at least there’s Michael Bay, whose own propaganda permits itself the stupidity to actually reveal some of the forces and impulses in which our nation basks.

Reporting contributed by Thomas Howell and Gina Telaroli.

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