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Paul D. Miller

Justice at Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Ft. Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.


I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty. The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.

Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence—I love the Alien franchise—but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide-bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.

The scene is based on a true incident—an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.

A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.


Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.

But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife, after seeing Bigelow's Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.

Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Ladan but all of al-Qaida and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie—the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flair. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.

Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and lets us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound—"sound and fury"—that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.

The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al-Qaida, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.


Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly in other ways as well. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of such interrogation techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.

The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that. The scene of waterboarding that Bigelow included in the movie is an accurate dramatization. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the "enhanced interrogation" the United States conducted after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.

Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.

Is that just? Are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12, " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things—acts of revenge or humiliation—that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act—like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique—is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.

Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different from the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."


The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence [this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave], showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Ladan's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy—and a good swath of the American population—woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment—even refusing to show bin Laden on camera—lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.

I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party—the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly—but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.

No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty—it is a very good movie—but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.

How? And where do we want to go from here? These questions, implicitly raised by the closing scene and the film's brilliant final line, leave us to consider, once again, how to respond. In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.

Paul D. Miller is assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own. This piece was first posted on Patheos.

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