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In Zero Dark Thirty, the audience observes Dan playfully interacting with monkeys in a cage on the base in Pakistan. He jokes with them and feeds them ice cream.

dan and monkey cage

While I think this may be character development, I'm not very confident in this theory. I think there is more to it than that. Are the monkeys meant to be a metaphor for the prisoners, suggesting Dan can be compassionate with monkeys but not them?

What purpose does Dan's interaction with the monkeys serve in Zero Dark Thirty?


Edit: In this interview, actor Jason Clarke confirms that the monkey cages were in fact present on the base in real life.

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I even remember Dan being pissed when they took away his monkeys! –  KeyBrd Basher Feb 19 '13 at 5:25

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IMO, the monkeys at the Army base were a very important plot-device. They are used to portray that the CIA operatives, especially those involved with interrogating the prisoners (like Dan), are not inhumane. The audience may be carried away to believe that these operatives are cruel, heartless beasts inclined towards extracting the info from the prisoners at any cost(say water-boarding, chaining, sleep deprivation) and after a while grow into these monsters that enjoy torturing captives(read more).

The presence of the monkeys and their interactions with Dan throws light to the compassionate side of these operatives. It depicts that while their methods may be cruel, they do not enjoy it and certainly wouldn't subject innocent people to it, even if they are under captivity.

Incorporating dialogues to emphasize this point would had made it only more meaningless and phoney. Thus, the director conveys this sensitive message by using the interaction between Dan and the monkeys.

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