This is the text – with slides – of a talk that I gave yesterday (11 November 2013) at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.
I am very grateful to Dr Ben Morgan for the invitation to talk. I hope that the below, when presented, stimulated some interesting discussion/debate.
I have retained my original paragraph spacing – so apologies in advance if some of these are long.
When Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 2012) was released in 2012, the film was the subject of criticism as a result of its seeming pro-torture stance. To take two examples, both from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald (2013) called the film ‘pernicious propaganda’, while Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2013) argued that the film ‘normalises torture’, suggesting that if another film tried to normalise rape in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, then it would be accused of moral indecency.
My task today is not expressly to agree or to disagree with these criticisms (though, should anyone care to know, I tend to agree with them – and will return to the issue of the ‘normalisation’ of on-screen torture and violence during this talk). Rather, what I would like to discuss today is how Zero Dark Thirty, as much as it is a ‘procedural’ looking into the way in which Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed by the CIA and the US military, is also a study in, precisely, the dehumanization of one’s enemy, a kind of willed lack of empathy for other human beings, or what I shall provocatively term ‘war autism.’
This is achieved primarily through Jessica Chastain’s remarkable performance as Maya, the CIA agent who single-mindedly hunts down bin Laden in the film through her pursuit of Abu Ahmed, or Ibrahim Sayeed (played by Tushaar Mehra), who is believed to be the only connection between bin Laden and the outside world. But it is also achieved through director Kathryn Bigelow’s stylistic choices, in particular her use of editing and framing, as we shall see. Having analysed how Chastain’s performance in conjunction with Bigelow’s direction conveys a willed lack of empathy, or ‘war autism’, I shall briefly suggest that Bigelow’s film may indeed normalize torture, as well as the mental conditions that allow it (i.e. a lack of empathy), and that this in turn may well influence audiences and their attitudes towards violence.
Dutch neuroscientist Christian Keysers, who was one of the key figures in the discovery of mirror neurons, describes his experience with an autistic gentleman, Jerome, as involving Jerome always looking around the room but—significantly—‘never into my eyes’ (Keysers 2011: 18). Meanwhile, Simon Baron-Cohen, Britain’s leading expert on autism, suggests that there are two stages to empathy: recognition and response. As Baron-Cohen says, ‘[b]oth are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t emphathised at all’ (Baron-Cohen 2011: 12). Recognition involves both identifying and responding to another person’s emotions, and Baron-Cohen suggests that one can recognize emotions by reading faces. However, he does suggest that ‘if your attention has a single focus—your current interest, goal, wish, or plan—with no reference to another person or their thoughts or feelings, then your empathy is effectively switched off… In such a state of single-mindedness, the other person—or their feelings—no longer exists’ (Baron-Cohen 2011: 12-13). Baron-Cohen then suggests that there are seven levels of empathy, from zero to six, with zero empathy being the lowest. People with zero empathy can be zero-negative, which involves borderline personality disorder, psychopathy and narcissism, while people with zero empathy can also be zero-positive, which Baron-Cohen associated with various forms of autism (especially Asperger’s syndrome; see Baron-Cohen 2011: 30-87).
On a similar note, film scholar Tarja Laine (2007) has studied the emotion of shame in relation to cinema, drawing upon Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding of the emotion to suggest that shame is an excellent means of regulating human behavior, because it is a public, or intersubjective, emotion. That is, it is when one’s acts are recognized as being seen that one modifies one’s behavior, or acts in a more social/sociable fashion. Although relatively unexplored, it nonetheless seems intuitively logical to suggest that empathy is to a large extent intersubjective, or a two-way process, akin to shame: one does not just see in order to recognize an emotion, but one is also seen.
In other words, there seem to be several traits that are linked to a lack of empathy, which in turn is linked to various psychological disorders, including autism. These are an inability to look people in the eye—as well, notably, as being single-minded of purpose. Not looking someone in the eye logically would lead to an inability to recognize the emotional condition of others (because one does not look at them to recognize that emotional condition), which would also mean that one could not respond to those others and their emotional condition, which thus results in a lack of empathy, and therefore in a condition like autism.
Now, with regard to Zero Dark Thirty, it is not that Maya is an autistic character, or a character with a psychological disorder—although such characters do exist in films and television shows about the CIA, with Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Showtime’s Homeland (Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, USA, 2011-) being an interesting case in point (and one to which I shall return). However, I would suggest that Maya wills herself into a sort of temporarily autistic condition, which I shall term ‘war autism’, over the course of the film.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and sounds from the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that took place on 11 September 2001. We then jump forward to two years later, at a ‘black site’, the whereabouts of which are unknown, or undisclosed. Dan (Jason Clarke) is interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), a Saudi connected to the World Trade Centre attacks, and also torturing him via the use of the infamous waterboarding technique, humiliating him by stripping him, enclosing him in a box, keeping him in soiled clothing, keeping him upright and his arms suspended for protracted periods of time and so on. Maya is initially observing Dan’s work wearing a balaclava. Dan says to Ammar early on in this sequence: “Look at me. If you don’t look at me, I hurt you.” In other words, the issue of looking and eye contact are quickly introduced into the film, but importantly the first we see of Maya is when she is, so to speak, eyes without a face.
That is, Maya observes, but she cannot be seen. And what is literally true of Maya is also figuratively true of Dan: Dan repeatedly tells Ammar that he ‘knows’ him—and reels off facts about Ammar’s life to prove it. Meanwhile the American agents function in anonymity; indeed, their anonymity is to be preserved at all times—and we see one agent, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), dismissed from his post as the CIA’s Chief of Staff at the American Embassy in Islamabad when his identity is uncovered.
The anonymity of Maya and the other agents is important, because while they can demand that Ammar looks them in the eye (otherwise they will hurt him), he cannot really see their faces. We have here a sense of how intersubjectivity is a key component to empathy. That is, even though Ammar must look Dan and Maya in the eye (and thus feel ashamed that he has soiled his own clothes or is naked, because he knows that he is being seen), Dan and Maya can look at Ammar and know that they are not being seen—literally when wearing a balaclava, and figuratively when shrouded in anonymity. Nonetheless, Maya at first seems upset by Dan’s interrogation techniques, nervously observing from a distance. However, it is she who insists upon returning to Ammar and continuing the investigation, suggesting her first steps along the road to willfully refusing to empathise with those she is interrogating.
Her transition seems fast and is signaled by the moment Dan asks her to put some water in a jug so that the waterboarding of Ammar can continue; interpellated—that is, called into action—Maya becomes not just complicit by observation, but complicit by deed, in the torture of Ammar, and from this point on Maya’s descent into war autism is rapid.
We then see Maya several times through screens—her face obscured in a window, through a glass at the American Embassy in Islamabad. When Maya first meets Joseph Bradley, she makes eye contact, half-smiles, and then her eyes dip down—a refusal of eye contact that will become a signature of Chastain’s performance (and which Bigelow will repeatedly insist, via her editing, on showing, typically in relative close up).
Maya gets to work in Islamabad, the film conveying to us that she watches numerous DVDs showing footage of interrogations and torture sequences. At the end of this sequence, Maya has noticed that many interrogatees mention a certain Abu Ahmed—and so she approaches Dan to ask to investigate this lead. Notably, Maya does not look at Dan until he has left the room during the scene of her request. Thereafter we see Maya in a wig talking to Abu Faraj (Yoav Levi), asking about Abu Ahmed.
Not only does the wig signal a procedural reality of CIA operatives, but it also suggests Maya’s transformation from potentially empathic human being to a willed sufferer of ‘war autism’.
Significantly we only discover Dan’s name after 44 minutes of the film’s running time. Similarly, we only discover that Maya’s main female colleague in Islamabad is called Jessica 56 minutes into the film—just before she is killed by a bomb at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. Furthermore, we only discover that Jessica is called Jessica because her name appears in type on a computer screen as she instant messages with Maya as she is about to interrogate a key lead; it is not because we hear her name spoken. In other words, Maya’s lack of empathy with the likes of Ammar is matched by the film’s decision to make her co-workers seem anonymous; it suggests a lack of empathy with/for even her own colleagues.
Maya works with a single-mindedness of purpose that we might well associate with a lack of empathy, as suggested by Baron-Cohen, such that even her colleagues have no names. Meanwhile, her refusal to look others in the eye—which Keysers sees as a sign of autism—becomes clear when Maya has dinner with Jessica in Islamabad, just prior to when we discover her name, and just before a bomb explodes at the city’s Marriott hotel where they are eating. As Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is explaining to Maya that she must relax a bit more, Maya refuses to look at Jessica, suggesting that she can only think of work, and this comes at the expense of any human relations. Notably, the film is structured here in such a way that just as Maya might be thinking of relaxing and (re-?)becoming a bit more human, a bomb explodes to remind her that her task—God given in her eyes (“I believe I was spared so that I can finish the job”)—is all-consuming. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty is a study of how Maya wills herself into a kind of ‘war autism’.
Just before she dies, Jessica says to a colleague “here’s to big breaks and the little people that make them happen.” After Jessica’s death, Maya is also told that her key lead, Abu Ahmed, is similarly dead (she does not look at the colleague who tells her this). Maya’s senior colleague, George (Mark Strong) berates his team for their lack of progress (Maya averts her eyes when he enters the room). And then Maya is handed a lead suggesting that Abu Ahmed is in fact alive—by her colleague Debbie (Jessica Collins). In effect, Debbie is the ‘little person’ who makes the whole bin Laden manhunt happen, but it is Maya who egotistically gets the credit. The only demonstrations of emotion that we see from her are when she shouts at Dan, and then George, in order to get her way.
We see her permanently at work, distancing herself from colleagues by wearing shades, and refusing to look at other members of staff, including Larry (Édgar Ramírez), with whom she works closely in Rawalpindi. When Maya gets a meeting with various CIA and National Security honchos, she blurts out in a somewhat autistic manner that the compound in which bin Laden is supposedly hiding is close to eight tenths of a mile (4,221 feet, to be exact) from Pakistan’s Military Academy in Abbottabad. She egotistically says that it is ‘for me’ that the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (or DEVGRU) soldiers will kill bin Laden. “It’s her against the world,” remarks George. In other words, Maya seems willfully to isolate herself from others, beginning to lack empathy for colleagues (to Larry: “I don’t care if your guys get any sleep or not”), and in particular to lack empathy for her enemies, as suggested by her complicity in torture.
Disguises—in the form of wigs, veils, dark glasses, and even a full burqa in Islamabad—help Maya to perform this ‘autism’, which is reflected in the night vision goggles and uniforms that the DEVGRU troops wear during the film’s final operation. Seeing the world through a screen helps to distance them from the human aspect of war, mediation in Bigelow’s film consistently separating soldiers, including torturers, from their victims, be they innocent or otherwise. Maya stays on in her job for 12 years—much longer than Dan, who has to leave and pursue a desk job in Washington DC.
The persistent presence of the media no doubt has a role to play in Maya’s ‘war autism’; Christian Keysers argues that ‘each hour spent in front of the television is an hour less in front of a reacting human being’ (Keysers 2011: 173), the argument being that it is human interaction that helps prevent autism, rather than simple observation. A set of eyes without a face, then, Maya observes without empathy, often via screens, such that she is without empathy. Her only emotional display—apart from anger at her colleagues—comes at the film’s climax when a tear runs down her cheek as she flies home, to an unknown destination.
However, the question becomes: what effects might Zero Dark Thirty itself have a role to play in helping to develop empathy, given that it is a film that we watch via the medium of cinema, DVD, television, the computer screen or the internet? Maya says that she is 100 per cent certain that bin Laden is in the compound that she has found, before saying she is only 95 per cent certain, because total certainty “freaks you guys out.” In other words, we have here a gendered ‘craziness’. As Shohini Chaudhuri (2013) has pointed out, Hollywood has a propensity for making films in which revenge is exacted and enacted by a woman, from I Spit on Your Grave (a.k.a. Day of the Woman, Meir Zarchi, USA, 1978) to Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003-2004). As mentioned, it also has a propensity, as in shows like Homeland, to show dedicated American agents to be female, unstable (and, in the case of both Maya and Carrie from that show, ginger).
In other words, the film seems to want to naturalise the idea that revenge is a feminine trait, that the USA is a feminine body that has been attacked and metaphorically raped during the 11 September 2001 attacks, and that it is righteous in its pursuit of revenge. Maya’s single-mindedness also naturalizes the hard work ethos behind contemporary capitalism—suggesting that one will get nowhere without being as egotistical and as dedicated as Maya. Although Baron-Cohen suggests that women have more empathy than men (Baron-Cohen 2011: 19), here we see Maya willfully shed herself of empathy in order to achieve the ‘higher goal’ (seemingly God-given) of defeating bin Laden.
Whether Bigelow’s film simply observes or whether it actually endorses such ideas is open to debate. I could, for example, imagine a ‘haptic’ critique of the film, suggesting that it allows us to ‘feel’ more than it allows us simply to observe Maya’s ‘war autism’, such that, paradoxically, we have empathy with someone who denies themselves an empathic response to those around her. Nonetheless, the film does seem to naturalise ‘war autism’, as well as torture, not least because what we see is mediated—we are watching a film.
Kathryn Bigelow’s relatively fast cutting rate (the film has an average shot length of 3.4 seconds, according to the Cinemetrics website) places it firmly in the category of ‘intensified continuity’ that David Bordwell (2006) sees as characteristic of contemporary cinema: faster cutting, an always moving camera, more significant changes of focal length between shots, and so on.
I have argued elsewhere (Brown 2011) that such demands on our attention via fast cutting rates might distract us from closer analysis of the film; by making the film exciting via rapid cutting, even if it depicts deeds that we are not particularly happy to watch, such as torture, what is on screen is thus glamourized. And if what is glamourized is torture, then Slavoj Žižek’s dislike of the film is arguably justified. Nonetheless, Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating study of what I am terming ‘war autism’. And it may serve as a piece of propaganda designed to endorse such a feminized, victim-like and single-minded approach to revenge. More worryingly, it seems to endorse torture (contrary to many statistics suggesting that torture is not a particularly useful method of extracting information; see Chaudhuri 2013 for a discussion thereof).
Perhaps the normalization of torture via films like Zero Dark Thirty as fast-paced entertainment needs to be countered by slower films that show the effects, both short-term and long-term, of torture not on the perpetrators, who themselves view torture via screens in a bid to become less empathic with those they are torturing, but on the victims.
4 thoughts on “War autism and film style: Zero Dark Thirty”
You are confusing knowing someone’s emotions with giving a toss about them.
Potentially. This was a topic of discussion – though not put in the same terms – at Oxford when I gave the talk. The psychological literature that I have read would suggest – to the best of my knowledge – that the two are linked. If you don’t give a toss about other people, you can *think* you know their emotions because you can guess or simulate how they are feeling, but you basically do *not* know those emotions. Indeed, if autism is also a kind of solipsism, in that one does not connect empathically with other people (Baron-Cohen’s argument), then thinking you understand other people on an emotional level, while not understanding them or being empathic at all, is in itself a form of solipsism. If you will, empathy is also an embodied ethics: empathy should follow with ethical behaviour (that probably would not include torture). Put more bluntly: you can think in your own head that you are not an arsehole, but in everyone else’s… you most likely are. Beyond which, you are confusing my use of Baron-Cohen for the sake of arguing about a film with my belief that Baron-Cohen’s arguments are both correct and my own.
Total lack of capacity for emotional identification and bonding makes a sociopath, and sociopathy is a form of mental illness. We evolved the capacity for emotional identification as a means of bonding within families and groups. Only genius-level sociopaths can function successfully in a human society, and they have to do it by a process of continuous dissimulation and acting.
Indiscriminate sympathy is another form of crippling mental (and/or moral) illness, paralyzing the will and the ability to act effectively. I personally call it “Mrs. Jellyby Syndrome”, after the character in Dickens’ “Bleak House”. It’s likewise dysfunctional, though less obviously so.
Deliberate and coldly malignant lack of -sympathy- for an -enemy- is entirely natural. Maya in the film is perfectly capable of emotional bonding (as with her friend Jessica, for example). She just doesn’t extend that to her enemies; they are, after all, -enemies-.
They want to kill her; she wants to kill them. They’ve dedicated their lives to the task of destroying their group’s enemies, often sacrificing all of life’s normal rewards, and so has she.
It’s a mirror-image symmetry. That’s one of the points of the (rather subtle) film.
The ability to -analyze- the emotions of others, to introject a model of their mental processes so as to know what’s going on in their heads and predict their actions and their response to your actions, is on the other hand a -tactical- ability. It doesn’t necessarily involve emotional identification at all.
It evolved to enable us to deal with other human beings more effectively… whether with friends or enemies. Like any human trait, the blind and kludge-ridden process of evolution has handed it to us with built-in drawbacks and inefficiencies.
For example, our tendency to project intentionality, personality and emotion onto things that don’t have them, such as inanimate objects or natural phenomenon. A good deal of religion stems from this urge to assign emotions to the natural world, and to assume that events like the weather must be the result of intention.
The Maya character understands her enemy, both their ideology and their mental/emotional processes quite well.
Much better than her friend Jessica, who’s imprisoned in a late Cold War mindset, where she was fighting opponents many of whom didn’t believe in their cause, or didn’t believe very strongly.
Maya understands that the beliefs of her Al Qaeda opposite numbers are sincere and that they’re devoted to them, so that they’re not vulnerable to the strategies used against ordinary criminals or low-motivation mercenaries. They can’t be bribed with money and they’re nearly impossible to threaten in the usual sense, since many of them sincerely don’t fear death or at least are very determined to act as if they didn’t. It’s a mirror, again. She wouldn’t be tempted by bribes, and the attempt on her life doesn’t deter her.
Incidentally, this is why waterboarding is a particularly effective form of torture. It’s not that it’s incredibly painful, not compared to being burned or having your eyes gouged out, though it’s quite unpleasant in an objective sense; I’ve had my head held underwater until I passed out myself, so I can testify from experience. However, a really determined person can stand an amazing amount of sheer physical agony, and a brave one can steel themselves to face the dread of death. Hence suicide bombing.
The reason waterboarding is so effective is that it -feels- like dying to your subconscious mind, in a way that triggers instinctual fears. You may consciously know that you’re (probably) not going to be killed, but that layer of your being is convinced that you -are- dying.
Over and over and over again.
The psychological impact is nearly the same as actual death, only it can be repeated indefinitely. The fear and horror builds up until the conscious mind is broken and overriden by instinctual responses.
There’s an old saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies only once.” With waterboarding, you can make a brave man die any number of times, as far as subjective experience goes.
Incidentally, this is where the film is inaccurate in its depiction of torture. The CIA’s interrogators didn’t do the dog-leash stuff; that was bored soldiers at Abu Ghraib having fun. The Agency did things much more clinically — the waterboarding subjects were strapped to gurneys, not wrestled to the ground, and there was a doctor standing by with monitors to ensure that the torture didn’t kill. Not that it made it any less unpleasant for the subjects, of course. Quite the opposite, if anything.
More generally, I detect an attempt to smuggle utilitarian philosophy in here, the unacknowledged ghost of Jeremy Bentham haunting the discussion… 8-). And to redefine ideological disagreement as mental illness.
Many thanks for the detailed, and interesting, response.
I think the idea of Mrs Jellyby Syndrome is right – too much sympathy (as you term it) can be ‘crippling’. But the truth of this assertion is only enabled by the conditions that allow it. What I mean by this is that too sympathetic character (as you might call said person) is at a disadvantage because others exploit this and/or because such a person ends up incapable of taking sides. But this assumes that one has to take sides (i.e. there is a binaristic logic at work that insists that one must have enemies).
Now, don’t get me wrong: one can happily wield that term ‘realism’ and say that ‘in the real world’ one has enemies. I’d like to think – though I am not sure that I can know this for certain – that I am not a moron, and I understand that in the real world combat situations arise. The point is that if everyone had Mrs Jellyby syndrome, then we might in fact not have enemies or fight at all.
It is not a case of how ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’ this idea is; it is a means of trying to think that ‘reality’ is not a static and fixed entity, but dynamic – the world may change and conditions could arise in which the likes of Mrs Jellyby are the most successful. However, which mode of existence is the most successful is what I might term an ‘ideology’ – it is the prevailing ethos of the times in which we live. Everyone being like Mrs Jellyby is unlikely to come about (though that there are people like Mrs Jellyby suggests it can and thus could come about). Nonetheless, conditions shift. And so the assumption of what is best, or what constitutes reality is the expression of an ideology; the belief that the world is unchangingly and only this. And if one assumes that having enemies and a need for violence are unchanging real or true, then by definition we are going to live in a world in which such (otherwise immoral?) things are going to exist.
The deliberate lack of ‘sympathy’ as you insist is thus ‘natural’ – but again, only in the current conditions that demand it. (It would be natural under any conditions, as Mrs Jellyby Syndrome is natural – even if unusual. But it may not be the predominant way in which humans act.)
The insistence on the term sympathy is fine by me – though I don’t really think I somehow stand ‘corrected’ by your use of the term. I am using empathy as defined by numerous psychologists, but Baron-Cohen as perhaps the most noted of them. If what I term empathy is what you term sympathy, then we are having a semantic argument (with a weight of scholarship supporting my side). So ‘correcting’ me as if empathy were something else (not defined by you) seems a bit redundant, if I also can confess apologies for saying this.
As far as the film is concerned, Maya’s so-called enemies do want to kill her. But we never see them and Maya barely sees them either. As such, the film is biased: it encourages us to assume (based upon preconceptions) that these terrorists are evil. And, indeed, that they are ‘naturally’ so, whilst Maya must ‘become’ so in order to combat them. Why does an Al Qaeda terrorist, given that she also is a human being, not ‘become’ unsympathetic in your language? And if she does, why does she? And why not validate her in a film rather than validate Maya? Politically, of course, this would objectionable in the West: ‘you made a film about our enemies!’ However, philosophically I think that the question is valid, since once again it exposes (quite obvious) political and ideological bias.
In other words, the assertion that ‘They’ve dedicated their lives to the task of destroying their group’s enemies, often sacrificing all of life’s normal rewards’ is invalid. We simply do not see this in the film.
As such, the ‘mirror-image symmetry’ that you describe simply isn’t there. It is at best implied, but certainly not shown. If there is subtlety, it is perhaps in the viewer who reads the film this way, but not in the film. (Although from my perspective, such an obvious reading of war is not particularly subtle. Binarisms like this are generally always reductive and unsubtle.)
When you say that suppressing emotional engagement (what I term empathy) and instead ‘coldly’ (my term) ‘analysing’ (your term) the emotions of others ‘doesn’t necessarily involve emotional identification at all’, we are in total agreement (yay!). This is, indeed, almost entirely my point: a lack of emotional identification is precisely what Maya wilfully undergoes in the film.
This may be quite normal in war, or with one’s ‘enemies’ – and I am not trying to dispute that. I simply saying that the film quite skilfully observes this. And I am saying that Chastain’s performance as Maya involves her taking on many of the tropes of autism – as if she wilfully suppresses her lack of emotional identification. Since this is basically the nub of my argument – and since you say it, too – I am not sure how we seem otherwise to be in disagreement…!
You then talk about how religion stems in good deal from ‘this urge to assign emotions to the natural world’. That is, it seems that religion is in some ways similar to Mrs Jellyby Syndrome: a tendency to find emotions and emotional responses where they may be inappropriate.
I wonder that this creates a paradox, or a contradiction, in your argument. For, if Maya’s enemies supposedly suppress their emotions, just as she does (this is your assertion; I say that the film does not show us this, so we cannot know it), and if this suppression takes place in large part as a result of religious conviction (again, not necessarily asserted by the film, but the extreme form of Islam that Al Qaeda embraces/exploits it widely recognised), then we have too great an emotional response to the world marrying a lack of emotional identification with various others called ‘enemies’. So we surmise from this that terrorists are too emotional and not emotional enough. I am not sure that this follows.
But, if it does follow, and if Maya does indeed become ‘like her enemy’ (your so-called mirror-system, not really supported by the film – since we do not really see Maya’s ‘enemies’ – but we can work with it, anyway), then Maya is like an Al Qaeda terrorist. If, in effect, both sides are ‘as bad as each other’ – then the film interestingly critiques the ideology of the American side: it is as fanatical as the terrorists against whom they fight.
I don’t believe that the film does this; but it is the logical consequence of your thinking about the film. And yet a consequence that I don’t think is one that you would support. So I hope it points to a lack of consistency somewhere in your argument. (It could similarly point to a lack of consistency in mine, and I’d be keen to know what it was if there is one – learning is an excellent experience!)
Maya understands her enemy better than Jessica: Maya and Jessica have an argument about Al Qaeda, yes. And Jessica ultimately suffers through death from thinking that she can buy off informants and the like – whereas Maya survives. So I see how the film is suggesting this. But we do also see Dan buy off an informant with a Lamborghini – so the film might suggest that there are some zealots, but it does also point to the way in which the same old propensity for humans to betray their side for bribes persists.
In other words, while Maya’s Al Qaeda ‘opposite numbers’ (whom we never really see) might be devoted to their beliefs (though the film does not show us this), it seems that Jessica is not wholly wrong, either – and perhaps simply more unlucky than wrong.
I am very sorry to hear about your passing out as a result of having your head held underwater. I hope that the bullies who did it were found and brought to justice. And I think you are right about the repetitive nature of water boarding – as best as I understand it. But as I mention in the original posting, it has been suggested that torture techniques (including water boarding?) have been proven somewhat ineffective in the gathering of (reliable) intelligence – Shohini Chaudhuri argues this, with references – so check out her essay on the film.
So while the technique is no doubt effective in making a brave man become a coward, it would seem that cowards do not offer reliable evidence – which in turn makes the technique potentially pointless, and certainly questionable from the legal perspective.
I am not apprised of documentation that would confirm whether the film is accurate on the score of CIA interrogators using dog-leashes, etc. I know that screenwriter Mark Boal did undertake enormous amounts of research, but this does not necessarily mean he did not succumb to a bit of Hollywooditis and insert references to popular images from other places into his script, or that Bigelow did not do this for her film. Indeed, you assert with seeming authority about the Agency, so I am happy to take your point as valid (until proven otherwise?).
If I am smuggling Bentham in, then it is in an unconscious fashion, since I have not read Bentham (I am ashamed to say) in order to acknowledge his supposed influence. If, however, I can say from my reading a long time ago of J.S. Mill (another utilitarian philosopher, but one whose work I consider a bit weak, in all honesty), then I can say that I do not think it a poor thing to try to maximise happiness, though I have issues with the term utility. Apparently (so you seem to imply), the desire for happiness is illegal, though. For it is a contraband good that one has to ‘smuggle’ in around the place. Heavens – is this the world we live in now whereby (the desire for) happiness is contraband?
As for the final assertion that I am trying to ‘redefine ideological disagreement as mental illness’, I cannot disagree more. My point is that the film is defining ‘ideological disagreement as [wilfully taking on the appearance of] mental illness’. Where the film starts and I end is of course not wholly clear; this is an interpretation, but one based on evidence, I hope; and it is also one based on a grounding in a wider culture – other shows like Homeland – that seems to equate ideological conviction with female mental instability. I am only reading the signs! (And I am trying not to make assertions that the film shows me things that are not in fact in the film at all – something, I am sorry to say, that you seem to do through your ‘mirror syndrome’ assertion.)
Anyway, I hope that my response goes some way to defending my position. Many thanks for articulate and most interesting thoughts on the matter. Since this took me a long time to write, I may not reply again, for which apologies in advance. But please do respond if I have misunderstood anything – and if I can, I shall try to write up some thoughts.