War autism and film style: Zero Dark Thirty

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education

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.