Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.

The story of Curveball

2012 has been the first year for almost as long as public conciousness seems able to remember that the world has not lived under the shadow of one of the most controversial and tumultuous events of the 21st century- the Iraq war. From 2003 to December 2011, the presence and deaths of western soldiers in Iraq was an ever-present and constantly touchy issue, and it will be many years before Iraq recovers from the war’s devastating effects.

Everybody knows the story of why the war was started in the first place- the US government convinced the rest of the world that Iraq’s notoriously brutal and tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who had famously gassed vast swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish population prior to his invasion of Kuwait and the triggering of the First Gulf War) was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The main reason for the US government’s fears was, according to the news of the time, the fact that Hussein had refused UN weapons inspectors to enter and search the country. Lots of people know, or at least knew, this story. But much fewer know the other story- the story of how one man was able to, almost single-handedly, turn political posturing into a full-scale war.

This man’s name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, but he was known to the world’s intelligence services simply as ‘Curveball’. Alwan is an Iraqi-born chemical engineer, who in 1999 fled to Germany, having embezzled government money. He then claimed that he had worked on an Iraqi project to design and produce mobile labs to produce biological weapons. Between late 1999 and 2001, German intelligence services interrogated him, granted him political asylum, and listened to his descriptions of the process. They were even able to create 3-D models of the facilities being designed, to a level of detail that CIA scientists were later able to identify major technical flaws in them. Despite the identification of such inconsistencies, when Curveball’s assertions that Iraq was indeed trying to produce biological WMD’s got into the hands of US intelligence, they went straight to the top. US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Curveball’s evidence in a 2003 speech to the UN on the subject of Iraq’s weapons situation, and his evidence, despite its flaws, pretty much sealed the deal for the USA. And where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

Since then, Curveball has, naturally, come under a lot of criticism. Accused of being an alcoholic, a ‘congenital liar’ and a ‘con artist’, he is quite possibly the world record holder for the most damaging ‘rogue source’ in intelligence history. Since he first made his claims, the amount of evidence showing how completely and utterly false they were has only stacked up- a facility he attested was a docking station was found to have an immovable brick wall in front of it, his designs were completely technically unsound, and his claims that he had finished top of his class at Baghdad University and had been drafted straight into the weapons program were replaced by the fact that he had finished bottom of his class and had, as he admitted in 2011, made the whole story up.

But, of course, by far the biggest source of hatred towards Curveball has been what his lies snowballed into- the justification of one of the western world’s least proud and most controversial events- the Second Iraq War. The cost of the war has been estimated to be in the region of two trillion dollars, and partly as a result of disruption to Iraqi oil production the price of oil has nearly quadrupled since the war began. The US and its allies have come under a hail of criticism for their poor planning of the invasion, the number of troops required and the clean up process, which was quite possibly entirely to blame for the subsequent 7 years of insurgent warfare after the actual invasion- quite apart from  some rather large questions surrounding the invasion’s legality in the first place. America has also taken a battering to its already rather weathered global public image, losing support from some of its traditional allies, and the country of Iraq has, despite having had an undoubtedly oppressive dictatorship removed, become (rather like Afghanistan) a far more corrupt, poverty-stricken, damaged and dangerous society than it was even under Hussein- it will take many years for it to recover. Not only that, but there is also evidence to suggest that the anger caused by the Western invasion has been played for its PR value by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, actually increasing the terrorism threat. But worse than all of that has been the human cost- estimates of the death toll range from 87,000 to over a million, the majority of whom have been civilian casualties from bomb attacks (courtesy of both sides). All parties have also been accused of sanctioning torture and of various counts of murder of civilians.

But I am not here to point fingers or play the blame game- suffice it to say that the main loser in the war has been humanity. The point is that, whilst Curveball cannot be said to be the cause of the war, or even the main one, the paper trail can be traced right back to him as one of the primary trigger causes. Just one man, and just a few little lies.

Curveball has since said that he was (justifiably) shocked that his words were used as justification for the war, but, crucially, that he was proud that what he had said had toppled Hussein’s government. When asked in an interview about all the death and pain the war he had sparked had caused, he was unable to give an answer.

This, for me, was a both shocking and deeply interesting moral dilemma. Hussein was without a doubt a black mark on the face of humanity, and in the long run I doubt that Iraq will be worse off as a democracy than it was under his rule. But that will not be for many years, and right now Iraq is a shadow of a country.

Put yourself in Curveball’s position- somebody who thought his words could bring down a dictator, a hate figure, and who then could only watch as the world tore itself apart because of them. Could you live with that thought? Were your words worth their terrible price? Could your conscience ever sleep easy?