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January 13, 2013

The Vigilantism of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Posted in: Film Review,War on Terrorism

"Zero Dark Thirty" movie poster (Photo found at Wikimedia Commons)

The Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty depicting the hunt for Osama bin Laden opened everywhere in the United States this weekend. Coincidentally, the date it opened was also the eleventh year anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Much has been written about the film throughout the past month, particularly how it shows torture helped the US government obtain the information necessary for eventually finding Bin Laden. Less has been written about the vigilantism of the film.

Just over a week ago, film director Oliver Stone appeared on “Up” with Chris Hayes on MSNBC to discuss the “Untold History of the United States” project he produced with Peter Kuznick. During his appearance, he addressed Hollywood mythmaking and said:

Zero Dark Thirty is to me biased (ph) on just on the torture level, but it`s biased among the fact that they don`t even think about the idea of taking the man back alive and wounded back to trial and showing him and dealing with the consequences of what he did. That kind of open discussion would have been very helpful. We would have been like Nuremberg, which [was] very important. It`s one of the best movies actually, Judgment at Nuremberg.

They took the Nazis. They unmasked them. They diminished them and we understood it better. But we never dealt with that. We just killed him, threw his body in the sea and walked away. We never talk about it. There`s no discussion about it.

Was it ever the intention of the CIA, JSOC or the Obama administration to capture Bin Laden alive?

The film leads one to believe there was no meaningful debate over executing Bin Laden in his compound. No scene shows discussion among officials at the CIA or any other government agency prior to the operation over whether to kill or capture him.

Two radar-evading black “Silent Hawk” helicopters carrying SEAL Team Six take off from Forward Operating Base Afghanistan. One of the helicopters crash-lands at Bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. The other lands without malfunction. At the entrance to the compound, one squad shoots Ibrahim Sayeed, the courier who helped the CIA develop their hunch that Bin Laden was at this location. The other that crash-landed goes into where Bin Laden is hiding through another entrance. (And each one harbors a little to a fair amount of doubt that Bin Laden is actually in this compound.)

Inside, all military-age males are shot on sight, even if they are not holding weapons or firing at the team. Members of the team, who land kill shots, also do not hesitate to pump extra bullets into these men. The women scream and are restrained or held at gunpoint. The children cry and are put in another room.

The team continues to tactically move through the compound killing military-age males they encounter. Abruptly, shots are fired at a man who cannot be seen fully. He falls to the ground. Two team members look at who has fallen to the ground. It is Bin Laden. He never fired at anyone. One team member says, “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” He pauses and then adds, “Geronimo EKIA.”

SEAL Team Six collects hard drives, digital media and other files from the compound. They put Bin Laden’s corpse into a body bag and load into helicopters as Pakistan authorities are nearing the compound and may discover what happened. The team takes off and, when it lands, the body is identified by Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who was 100% sure Bin Laden would be there. And no scene features any official asking whether SEAL Team Six could have taken him alive.


Initially, “American officials” told the New York Times that a “firefight broke out shortly after the commandos arrived and that Bin Laden had tried to “resist the assault force.” There is no firefight in the film.

Mark Bissonnette, the SEAL from the team that went on the raid who wrote a detailed account in No Easy Day, claimed on “60 Minutes,” “We weren’t sent in to murder him. This was, ‘Hey, kill or capture.’” Weeks were spent training on a “full-size model of the compound.” They had many chances to “train on a mock-up” for “three weeks.”

None of this appears in the film. One would not know there was this much preparation ahead of time. There is a scene at Area 51, a Nevada Air Force Base, when SEAL Team Six is informed they will be going on a mission to get Bin Laden. There is also a scene with the team playing horseshoes right before the mission is given the final go ahead. Other than that, the audience does not witness any scene, like this one, which Bissonnette describes in his book:

…Bissonnette and his fellow SEALs conducted a nighttime dress rehearsal of the raid, on a mock-up of Bin Laden’s house, for the president’s national security team. As Bissonnette and the other SEALs slid down ropes and stormed the fake house, administration officials like Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood by and watched through night-vision goggles…

According to Mark Bowden, Obama believed “if we had captured him” he “would be in a strong political position to argue in favor of giving bin Laden the full rights of a criminal defendant if Bin Laden went on trial for masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.” He would have argued “that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaida, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.” Yet, Obama “expected Bin Laden to go down fighting.”

On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama said, “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable, or unwilling, to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill Bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” Then, he was not concerned with capturing Bin Laden alive.

The mission was launched without certainty that Bin Laden was actually even in the compound. Obama took law enforcement into his own hands, deciding the benefit of Bin Laden’s elimination outweighed all possible costs.

There is no reason to believe these convenient and baseless counterfactual statements about giving Bin Laden due process. The due process he was to receive was the execution he was duly subjected to in the night raid on his compound.


Films are not produced and released in a vacuum. Especially when they present events in history of critical importance that are symbolic to a nation, they take on a power of their own. In this case, Zero Dark Thirty presents the evolution of the use of lethal force by the US government and the movement away from war and occupation of countries to covert/secret operations.

As clear as day, the film is a straightforward presentation of vigilantism. The SEAL Team Six displays no respect for humanity or justice in their act of aggression. It is a targeted killing operation like the targeted killing operations carried out by CIA drones. All military-age males living with Bin Laden are guilty by association, whether they have engaged in violence or terrorist attacks against the United States or not. But it is the type of film that plays to a society that celebrated Osama bin Laden’s execution on the streets of New York…

…in front of the White House…

…at Ground Zero, site of September 11th attacks he was allegedly behind…

…through exaltations of vengeance scrawled on body parts…

…and on the front pages of tabloid newspapers.

The Post’s front page cheered, “Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard!” The first sentence in the Post read, “We finally got the miserable son of a bitch.” That sort of crude reflection does not clash with the hollow treatment Bigelow, Boal and others involved in creating the film gave to the story.


Recall, filmmaker Michael Moore said on Piers Morgan’s show after the news of Bin Laden’s execution, when Americans reacted by going out to party:

…We’ve lost something of our soul here in this country…something that separates us from other parts, other countries where we say everybody has their day in court no matter how bad of a person, no matter what piece of scum they are, they have a right to a trial…after World War II, we just didn’t go in and put a bullet to the head of all the top Nazis. We put them on trial…

At sites like the left-leaning Huffington Post, commenters blasted Moore, “I often agree with Michael Moore, but NO WAY on this one!! A trial for Bin Laden would have been a circus and would have cost a fortune. We’ve already spent too much money on these extremist Muslims. The 3000+ people that Bin Laden killed had no chance to live and he shouldn’t either!!” Another commenter wrote, ““There are times to play Mother Teresa to the world, and there are times to blow a quarter of someone’s skull off…….” One more person added, “Second that – justice was properly served can we do the same to KSM and end the drama over him too.” Yet another commenter put it succinctly, “There are evil people in the world for whom there is no remedy but death. He was one of them.”

However, there was one voice in the wilderness—a Huffington Post community moderator, who reflected:

I used to believe, as I was taught in school, that America was different from other countries. We had due process. We had fair trials for people accused of crimes. We didn’t do summary executions. We didn’t torture people. Our system was based on laws and rights and the Constitution.

I used to believe that America was better than other countries- more moral, more just. Maybe I was naive and this was never the case. Anyway, it’s not true today.

Not just in Osama bin Laden’s case, but in thousands of other cases and situations. Poor people and minorities are routinely railroaded in our “justice system”. We invade other countries who have done nothing to us. We bomb innocent civilians. We torture and kill and hate. We leave millions of our own citizens without access to adequate food, shelter, education or medical care.

Most other countries do not do these things. Does Japan act this way? Switzerland? Norway? Costa Rica? Why does America act worse than other countries?

Zero Dark Thirty completely lacks such honest reflection.

Yes, at the end of the film, Maya looks like the soul in her has been completely sapped by this operation. But, Bigelow and Boal adopt a post-9/11 view and choose to not be critical of what played out and how culturally society has transformed. What about the countless people who died in wars since the September 11th attacks? What about the loss of civil liberties? How about the increased perception that government will act unethically and betray the rule of law but that this is justifiable because we are targeting bad men who hate America? What about how this reinforces the idea that people suspected of horrific acts of terrorism do not deserve to answer for their crimes in a court of law but rather deserve a bullet to the head? And how about the unquenchable bloodlust and thirst for revenge not just among Americans but the political class tasked with determining US policies?

Upon considering these questions, it is impossible not to conclude that this film is the kind of production that greatly pleases the national security state especially because it does not question what they do. Both Bigelow and Boal have displayed great reservation when asked to explain their depiction of torture. They would probably laugh at someone who suggested, as this review has, that the film normalizes the increased use of targeted assassination operations by the US government. Trailers for the film presented the film as the story of how it really happened, but, faced with criticism, they claim they had a right to engage in artistic license. So, in that respect, the level of access the CIA and other agencies gave to the filmmakers and the trust which officials gave to them  paid off.

There is no attempt in this film to make a larger comment about all the country has done in the name of ensuring Bin Laden did not attack us. Nor does it take a moment at the end to give viewers an introspective conclusion with characters asking if this “it”—the point when the War on Terrorism may finally be coming to an end. Though troops may have pulled out of Iraq and will pull out of Afghanistan eventually, there are thousands of bases all over  the world that are “leap pads” for the American empire to launch incursions or covert operations into any country whenever necessary. But, the codification and entrenching of policies that have put America on a path to permanent war are not questioned.

This is the hunt for Bin Laden told with information from officials in government, who have no objection to America’s increased reliance on secret war or covert operations. Bigelow and Boal wanted the information necessary to tell the version of the story that they believed to be true in a way that would garner them high praise. The CIA gave them that while at the same time manipulating them into presenting torture tactics used to create learned helplessness in prisoners as part of the timeline of events that eventually led to Bin Laden. They showed the NSA intercepting communications and the dolly shot past hardware with wires and cords popping out is made completely innocuous and acceptable. A scene shows a video screen with imagery from a drone striking a target and Maya looks on coldly, completely numbed by the lethal use of force.

The filmmakers played their part. They were given access and what Americans are flocking to this weekend is nothing that would alienate the officials they collaborated with and nothing less than a conventional story of revenge on an American enemy.

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