The events of the past decade in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the war on terrorism are too close in time to be portrayed accurately in a film. Perhaps they never will be. There have been plenty of films—Rendition is a good example—that treat complex subjects like torture sensitively. But most degenerate into plain morality tales, removed from reality. This is not unexpected as either the facts are not fully known or simply get crushed under the weight of the opprobrium generated during the George Bush Jr. years. Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the subject, comes close to capturing the happenings of this turbulent period. For Indians, the attraction, apart from skilful execution, is likely to be the proximity of the events located as they are in South Asia.
Zero Dark Thirty can almost be viewed as America’s learning of hard realities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst freshly introduced to the murky world of detainees being questioned using “enhanced interrogation techniques”—CIA-speak for procedures such as waterboarding. Her task: hunting down Osama bin Laden.
The film says much about the ambivalence and confusion that prevails among field officers on the situation in Af-Pak. This is best captured in the contrast between Maya and her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Jessica believes that money can do the trick and interrogating ideologically hardened terrorists cannot yield useful information. This can almost be read as the standard, rational, Western approach in weaning away Al Qaeda operatives. Maya, to begin with, is ambivalent about this position. She’s in a liminal moment—her discomfort with hard interrogation is obvious but so are her doubts about the rational abilities of terrorists to accept money and move on. All this comes to an end when Jessica gets blown up in Khost, Afghanistan after a meeting with a contact goes horribly wrong—instead of an informant comes a suicide bomber. There’s something touching about that scene. Like a good American, Jessica has even baked a cake for the Jordanian terrorist and is constantly exchanging text messages with Maya, who is located in the US embassy in Pakistan. Suddenly, the messages stop coming and all one can see is the blinking cursor on the computer screen. At that moment, Maya’s beliefs undergo a switch. Her response is simple: “I am going to smoke everybody involved in this operation. And then I am going to kill bin Laden.” In the end, she does. Were it not for the actors delivering these lines, one could have almost said it was Columbia blundering her way through the dark defiles of Afghanistan. In reality, this is roughly the way events panned out south of the Hindu Kush. As Ahmed Rashid detailed in Descent into Chaos, the Americans did try suitcase filled with money to pacify Af-Pak for some time. It did not work. Zero Dark Thirty—fictional to the extent that it patches events as diverse as the London bombings, the blowing up of the Marriott in Islamabad and the hunt for Laden—is probably not far from truth.
The film has evoked strong reactions. Cinematically, it has been executed well and borders on to being realistic. Audiences have found it to be agreeable. (Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 8.7/10 rating; the audience rating stands at 4.1/5). Politically, the reaction has been different. Zero Dark Thirty comes at a wrong time. Far from the sanitized perceptions of intelligence analyst staring at computer screens, the film hands out a very different message about torture. The fact is that “hard” interrogation does yield useful clues when carried out in the right manner. The problem is that today expressions like waterboarding are inextricably linked to abuses in Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Guantanamo. The reality is different. Any intelligence analyst knows that data gathered from detainees under duress requires careful verification. It is a cinematic myth that intelligence officers unquestioningly accept the output from interrogation. In Zero Dark Thirty, it is amusing to watch senior CIA officers wanting to know “probabilities” that Laden is located in the house in Abbottabad. In one scene, the director of the agency is seen taking a poll of probabilities issued by his officers. This appears naïve. But is it? In the end, it was probability that sealed Laden’s fate. The problem lies elsewhere: the world wants to live in a morally pristine condition without wanting to know what it takes to keep it secure. For all practical purposes, Barack Obama is doing what George Bush Jr. did but far more quietly. The political reaction against the film has much to do with its blurring the claims of difference between the two administrations. It is bound to grate the sensibilities of many in Washington. In the end, the lesson is clear: to get “Arithmetic on the Frontier” right, one needs predator drones and reconnaissance UAVs and an occasional raid or two. The Americans have learnt this well, their occasional moral squeamishness notwithstanding. The sooner they realize that foreign policy of the kind Andrew Jackson variety works, the better it will be for everyone.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist-