Film review: Zero Dark Thirty

Recently, our politics department sponsored a showing of the film Zero Dark Thirty.  This was then followed by a discussion of the ethics of national security information gathering and the film’s portrayal of torture.  One of our students attended this event and completed this summary…


Promotional materials for this film were very interesting in their artistic depiction of the theme. Above is the movie poster from the American release, showing multiple scenes from the film.

Released in early 2013, Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the CIA operation that located and ultimately killed Osama bin-Laden. More specifically, the film follows a young operative named Maya in her nearly eight year long struggle to find bin Laden in Pakistan. Zero Dark Thirty has garnered attention from critics for its depictions of torture, as well as its alleged use of confidential government information. These topics, along with others, were analyzed in a discussion lead by Professor Erikson after a showing of the film on May 2nd.

The theme that was covered most extensively was the way in which torture and imprisonment were shown in Zero Dark Thirty. Critics have pointed out that the violence and mistreatment of Arab inmates at the hands of Americans presents a pro-torture agenda. However, this perspective was not shared by the audience at last Thursday’s showing. In fact, it was agreed that torture was presented as an excessive and cruel act. One student pointed out that imprisonment was cast in a negative light because in one capacity or another, all of the characters in the film are imprisoned by something. Obviously, the characters detained by the CIA are true prisoners, but even Maya herself is a prisoner of her own mission, and visibly suffers as a result.  In general, I felt that the film depicted violence–especially the raid on the bin Laden complex–as grim and tense, making the entire work a subtle critique of the United State’s position on war and torture.

Professor Erikson explained that since the George W. Bush administration, US policy with regards to torture has remained virtually unchanged. The anti-torture reforms that President Obama enacted at the start of his presidency were actually started by President Bush. He also noted that despite Bush’s reputation of a pro-war president, it is Obama’s use of drone strikes that has likely resulted in more civilian deaths than during the Bush’s administration.

Another issue that was raised was the treatment of SEAL team 6 after this highly-publicized mission. During the discussion, a student brought up an article published in Esquire magazine that was written by one of the members of SEAL team that carried out the raid in Abbottabad. The article addressed the actual events that transpired, how the mission was dramatized, and the lasting effects of the operation of the lives of these servicemen. I was unaware that the Navy dismissed these soldiers after the assassination of bin Laden, and was shocked to find out that some of the members were relieved of duty just shy of a completing their 20 years of service, effectively eliminating their right to a pension. Experiencing the film for a second time, in conjunction with the wealth of information that was provided by Professor Erikson, has sparked my curiosity about the CIA and the history of US covert operations.

The Japanese poster highlighted the secretive nature of this event, while the Canadian poster emphasizes the gritty, tense nature of the SEAL team attack.
The Japanese poster highlighted the secretive nature of this event, while the Canadian poster emphasizes the gritty, tense nature of the SEAL team attack.
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