Asking the Right Questions about “Zero Dark Thirty”

So much has already been written about Zero Dark Thirty, and yet we seem no closer to a consensus on whether the film depicts torture as producing information that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has argued passionately that the film suggests that it does, and that it is misleading and irresponsible for it it to do so. Mark Bowden of The Atlantic sees the film as a more impressionistic experience, arguing that it depicts torture as both “repellant and futile.” This dispute over the reality of the film is echoed even in comments made by the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, who has cited her “journalistic approach to filmmaking,” but when pressed on the discrepancies between her story and the facts, says that, well, “it’s a movie, not a documentary.”

So what is a concerned citizen to do? This film codifies into the minds of many Americans a story of we have only heard snippets of. It will be the definitive telling of this event for most Americans, and its depiction of torture gets nearly 45 minutes of screen time. In any film, especially one based on true events, a film reveals its message not by the lines of dialogue the actors speak but by the implicit connections made by its sequence of events. We may never know Bigelow’s intention (her public statements are maddeningly contradictory), but we do know what the film says.

When considering the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, we have to decide which questions to ask. We must assume at this point that torture did not – in real life – play a role in producing information that led to the killing of Bin Laden. Several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after poring over thousands of pages of CIA documents, have stated definitively that torture played no role in the hunt for Bin Laden , and Senator John McCain even stated on the Senate floor that the information that came from the detainee depicted in the long torture sequence that opens the film was “false and misleading.” The CIA also recently released a 6,000 page report on the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques and found that they were ineffective in producing actionable information. Some, such as Bowden, have suggested that McCain is incorrect, and that torture did play a role. For the purpose of this discussion, however, we will assume that McCain, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the CIA are correct – and Bowden is wrong.

Another debate has sprung up over the fact that the film fails to depict the internal ambivalence at the CIA over the use of torture. Arguments were made against it; people quit their jobs in protest. Here, I will let Bigelow off the hook. Zero Dark Thirty is an utterly conventional (and occasionally gripping) film that follows the template of a police procedural. It is plot driven and has little room for ideological debates. It is far more concerned with one woman’s efforts to get her male bosses to listen to her (gender politics make up the entire subtext) than a conversation that likely took place in another room about the merits of torture.

Jessica Chastain

I will say this – I think that torture is presented as an emotional response to 9/11 more than a policy response. For the first two minutes of the film, the screen remains black, and we hear an aural collage of actual phone calls from people in the Twin Towers after the planes had struck them. Those two minutes are emotionally wrenching, and the next sequence we see is a CIA torturing and screaming at a detainee. The torture does not feel like policy; it feels like punishment.

But the fact remains: because the film is plot driven and not an impressionistic look at the War on Terror, the choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal make (based, we are told, on “first-hand accounts”) matter. It matters whether they show torture at all, and if they show it, they need to make clear whether it produced key information or whether it didn’t. To my eyes, it is 100% clear that the film depicts torture as an effective tool in the War on Terror – and specifically that it led them to Bin Laden. From memory, here are the four relevant moments in the film:

  1. In the aforementioned opening sequence, a male CIA operative tortures the detainee at length. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the protagonist, then comes up with a brilliant bluff. They take the detainee out of his box, clean him up, feed him and give him a cigarette. This is the carrot to the proverbial stick. They tell him that he already gave them some actionable information, but he doesn’t remember it (memory loss is a result of sleep deprivation). They tell him they used it to stop a terrorist attack on London – this is all false, but the attack did occur. The detainee believes them, but – this is the crucial bit – when they are pressing him for more information, he only gives in and talks when the CIA operative threatens him: “You can tell me what I want to know, or I can hang you back up on the ceiling.” It is the use of torture and the threat of more torture that causes him to break.
  2. Later in the film, Maya gets another detainee to talk without resorting to torture, but he only does so because he has been tortured before. He couldn’t be more clear about this. “I do not wish to be tortured again,” he says. “Ask me a question, and I will answer it.”
  3. In one startling scene, Maya and her fellow agents in Pakistan are discussing the hunt for Bin Laden at their station. Barack Obama, then a candidate, I think,  is being interviewed on a TV in the corner. At one point, the agents stop their conversation and turn to him, as he declares that torture diminishes our moral standing in the world and will not be a part of his presidency. They say nothing and return to their conversation, with the implication being that his position on the immorality of torture is possible only from his privileged position in DC. These folks on the ground – the ones doing the real work – know better.
  4. As Maya’s boss (Mark Strong) makes the case to the Administration to launch the mission that ultimately kills Bin Laden, the National Security Advisor tells him that they need proof that Bin Laden is there before authorizing a mission. The CIA’s response is that they can’t get such proof without the “detainee program” that has been shut down.

While perhaps only the first of these four points on its own would be strong enough to classify the film as “pro-torture,” taken together it comes pretty close to a full-throated endorsement. A generous reading of the accuracy of the film is that it portrays torture as one of the CIA’s tools in fighting the War on Terror; a more accurate read is that it was a crucial one.

Also consider how this public discussion is being framed. The debate is occurring between those argue the film is pro-torture and those who feel that it shows the realities of torture but doesn’t take a stand on it. Nobody is arguing that the film is “anti-torture.” Given that we can now be pretty sure that torture was not effective in producing accurate information, and given that President Obama has prohibited the use of torture as a matter of official United States policy, shouldn’t the film be anti-torture? It strikes me that anything less than a clear rejection of the use of torture on moral and practical grounds is an implicit endorsement of it.

crazy hair, zero dark thirty

But you know what? I don’t even think Bigelow was thinking this hard about it. It seems that much of the disagreement between people like Greenwald and Bowden stems from a misunderstanding; supporters of the film seem to think people like myself are saying that Zero Dark Thirty is a pro-torture polemic – that Bigelow and company intended to make a film that argued in favor of torture. I sincerely doubt that. Remember that the film was made so very quickly. Bin Laden was killed in May of 2011; the film was released in time for the Oscars in December of 2012. This was more of a cash grab than a principled statement of intent. Bigelow wanted to get to the story before anyone else did, and it is clear from the formulaic Rogue Cop narrative that this was not a subject she thought Americans needed to know the truth about. It was something she thought Americans would enjoy. I do believe that embedded in the narrative is an unintentional depiction of torture as an effective means of procuring intelligence, but I think that it might just be more the result of sloppy storytelling than an actual intent to endorse torture.

When a movie addresses an event this important to our national consciousness, the filmmakers need to try a little harder to understand what they are saying. I think that Bigelow and Boal just wanted to make an exciting, mostly true movie about this event – but that’s not enough. I applaud those critics such as Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and Adam Serwer who have pointed out the film’s false endorsement of torture. Without this debate, I fear that many Americans would have accepted the support of torture implied by the events in the film as a reflection of the truth. This strikes me one of those important moments for the Internet, and maybe an important moment for America, too.


2 thoughts on “Asking the Right Questions about “Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. First and foremost, I think the man that we killed in that fortress was actually Bin Laden, but did you notice how Bigelow left that up to interpretation? The children didn’t identify him as Bin Laden, the shot to the face makes it difficult for the Seal members on scene, and ultimately the confirmation comes down to the eye testimony of an agent and agency, who it was established early in the film has every reason to lie for political reasons. I thought that was a fine bit of writing that was done in order to maintain that clever artistic ambiguity.

    • Very interesting take. My perspective was that if they had showed us the actor playing Bin Laden, it would have ruined our suspension of disbelief. Because we have such a clear idea of what he looks like and have been bringing that image to mind throughout the film, it would have been jarring to see him depicted by an actor.

      I think you’re right about the ambiguity. It seems that Bigelow and her screenwriter were very careful to allow interpretation of their work. They didn’t draw any firm lines in the sand, on torture or anything else. Makes sense that they would do the same regarding the identity of Bin Laden. Great catch.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s