Should Torture Controversy Blindside 'Zero Dark Thirty'?
Is Zero Dark Thirty pro-torture propaganda? Despite fawning praise bestowed last weekend on Kathryn Bigelow's hunt for Bin Laden thriller, that's the growing consensus among left, and left-libertarian film commentators who were deeply disturbed by the film's opening sequence.
The film's opening act depicts the 'enhanced' interrogation of a CIA detainee believed to have information about Al Qaeda operations and possibly the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. Sexually abused, subjected to horrific confinement, and the controversial "drowning" technique known as water-boarding, the prisoner cracks and gives key details that ultimately lead agents on a series of clues that eventually make the successful Seal Team 6 raid possible. The take away for a lot of people is that the film's overall message ends up being "torture works."
Is that a fair assessment of Zero Dark Thirty? That depends on how you view the responsibility of a filmmaker to tell the truth versus their responsibility to tell a great story.
First, it has to be said for the millionth time that we aren't just talking about the film's opening scenes in a vacuum. Since 2003, the United States has been locked in a protracted idealogical battle between people who rightly note that torture, including water-boarding, is banned by just about every treaty on human rights to which the US is a signatory nation, and those who believe that nothing should be off the table, no matter how morally deleterious, when it comes to tracking down those who would do us harm. For the bulk of the last decade the latter camp won this argument. The result was a network of secret prisons, a prison complex in Guantanamo Bay whose territorial ambiguity was cited as a reason the law didn't apply, extraordinary rendition, and a host of other "I never thought I was this kind of person" moments for Americans of all political stripes to savor.
The anti-torture faction found their moment in the sun — kind of — when Obama banned water-boarding and other similar practices as one of his first official acts in 2009. Since then, the wisdom of that decision has been hotly debated (and by the by, Obama's reliance on drone attacks hasn't exactly helped his defenders.) Still, one would think that the question of torture's effectiveness would have been settled by the fact that the guy who banned it ended up catching and killing the terrorist who had for years eluded the guy who endorsed it. Of course it hasn't been settled, and so it is that Bigelow's decision to depict torture as being vital to the successful location and assassination of Bin Laden has reopened some rather gaping national wounds.
Writing for Vulture, David Edelstein was the first to call out Zero Dark Thirty for having basically endorsed the pro-torture side of the fight. "[Zero Dark Thirty] borders on the politically and morally reprehensible," Edelstein wrote in his best of the year list. "By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other black sites"—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture." This view has been seconded by other critics and commenters, and now threatens to overshadow the film's hugely positive reception.
Bigelow's response to these claims is that the scene is included because it happened. "I wish that it wasn't a part of history, but it is and was," she told the New York Daily News. In the New Yorker, she elaborated, saying that "what we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film," later adding that "the film doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience."