The Down and Dirty on Zero Dark Thirty

Last week, director Kathryn Bigelow went on Stephen Colbert’s show to defend Zero Dark Thirty. It was a surreal moment: A filmmaker masquerading as a journalist telling a comedian masquerading as a news anchor that her fiction film masquerading as a documentary is the “first draft of history.” Seriously? The film is lousy journalism and even lousier education about one of the most important CIA successes in history. Here’s my full review

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

8 thoughts on “The Down and Dirty on Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. Your research has found evidence that entertainment is shaping policy. Can you link us to some of this evidence? I have intuitions that the depiction of events on TV and in movies can influence how the public perceives the real world, but I have no data. The nature of your evidence would be of considerable interest.

  2. Hey Amy, your link goes to the last of the 3 pages of your review. This is the first page, for those of you who haven’t clicked through yet.

  3. The conformity and affirmation of the (falsely depicted) status quo is rooted, contrary to claims of great artistry, in the conformity of the film to movie conventions. The latter is only allowed to happen, from what I can tell not really intentionally by the makers, because of how trite and cliched everything – characters, dialogue, plot, events – in the film is. I don’t see how dialogue like “I’m the *** who found him” “your gonna find him and kill him for me” “do your jobs and bring me ppl to kill” etc (approx) are beautiful and worlds apart from 24/melodrama. The film, in the loner workaholic obsessive main character, in the death of her only friend, in a rookie being shown how the real world works by a cocky but professional but also weary old pro, in the depiction of masculinity that finds its intellectual precursor in the opening of Predator, follows, hand in glove, the long-approved grooves of conventional hackwork; yeah, this time, the train is going slower and the design is less obnoxious, but the inside and the ultimate destination are the exact same. The gritty (also called ugly and boring) direction tries to steal a poignancy and documentary value unearned by the terrible (frankly awful, just awful) script. This fake meaningful approach leads directly to the lack of substantial worded debate about torture; it would have ruined the precisely technicianed emotional shots of faces that, in about 2 minutes total, make up the sum total of conflict in the entire movie. If the script was good, and crafted with an aim to avoid being a cliche-ridden conformist tract, the problems brought up would never have occurred with ostensibly liberal makers. Every single one of these condemnations of ZDT have had these ridiculous concessions to its amazing artistry and how brilliantly made it is, etc. when really, at bottom, it is because of how bad a movie it is, because of the bad faith towards true artistic values (originality, personality, truth, depth), that allows it to be interpreted fairly as pro-torture. The film has no stance, no point of view. It meanders around thinking a vague questioning implied in the aimless pace is a valid substitute for actual dramatic conflict. But because it only ever depicts the status quo, and the obverse it very obtusely implied, the master-note of the whole piece is ““torture is complicated, but! terrorism? you know – probably we should do it still, don’t you think?maybe …..” It abdicates all responsibility it took on by dealing with the subject, and asking, in its tone, to be judged on this level. It leaves everything up to the viewer, which might be ok if the actual situation was accurately shown (I’m not referring to just the importance of torture to OBL’s discovery, but the entire operation and the internal debate/problems/etc it caused), but it doesn’t. It, the script, simplifies them to one character, one proper scene, and more implications. There is so little in this movie; it hovers above the facts on the ground offering only a blurred view from which the viewer, depending what one brings/expects/hopes/believes, can find all positions on the spectrum. It is only because of how obviously wrong the facts are that ppl are taking issue; but by approving of one type of conformity they inevitably breed another. Argo is just as cliched, its root problems the exact same as ZDT, ZDT is just unlucky enough to matter and have lots of ppl who care currently about it. At every step it chose cliche over reality, and this is let go as artistic license, as if art is to simplify life not show its vast complexity. By approving of Argo you approve of ZDT, they are siblings of the same parents and until ppl call it all out, regardless of political pov or facts, conformity will persist in all areas.

  4. The 9/11 families were famously thwarted by our own government when they tried to sue Saudi Arabia, worldwide sponsor of the global Wahhabi cult. “soft focus” torture porn like Zero Dark Thirty merely obscures the fact that Osama bin Laden – former “freedom fighter” in our proxy war against the Soviets – was the fall-guy for an *ongoing* policy of backing these murderous al-Qaeda thugs (see Libya, Syria, etc).

  5. I am not planning to see this film any time soon, mostly because of this whole reality/fiction issue. I am just very sorry that the director and writer got too close to the flame in this case, because I gather that they had the very worthy intention – somewhere in there – of getting Americans to think about the price we’ve paid since 9/11 and how much we let those bleepers change us. (Though, arguably one might say that since we practiced rendition before 9/11 — didn’t we? — maybe it wasn’t as big a change as it might have been.)

    I hope they get back up on the horse. It’s not easy to make a movie, I hear.

  6. Dr. Z., as a longtime member of the IC I didn’t have too much of a problem with the movie, which worked OK as fiction based on history. The abuse & torture happened, regardless of whether the positive ID of the “courier” resulted, & I doubt if many viewers closely followed Maya’s name trail through the multiple interrogations depicted. (In fact, wasn’t there also one brief scene in which a junior analyst tells Maya that she found old information in the files that corroborated the name search she was working on?) I thought the tradecraft depicted in getting a look at the courier and tracking him to the compound in Abbottabad was plausible, and the resulting uncertainty as to OBL’s actual presence in the compound — and corresponding uncertainty at the NSC level as to whether an attack was warranted — was well-portrayed. (The senior DO exec who told the DCI that the level of operational security was what convinced him that OBL was probably there seemed convincing to me.) The raid itself was well-done & the Seals’ emphasis on collecting hard drives & documents with the body as almost an afterthough also made sense. All in all, I think Bigelow was (like a journalist) a bit more interested in telling a story her way than in getting all the convoluted facts straight, but I think the story she told was “close enough” and did show the unsavory side of our GWOT. She’s an accomplished filmmaker. I still like Lincoln for the Best Picture Oscar.

Comments are closed.