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."
The problem? Water-boarding or other marginalized techniques were not responsible for information that lead to Osama Bin Laden's location in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As Dexter Filkens noted in his New Yorker article, most official sources, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein, insist that the clue which led to Bin Ladin's location (and subsequent removal from polite society) simply did not come from a CIA asset. So if it didn't happen, why depict the scene at all?
On that point, ZD30 screenwriter Mark Boal is circumspect. "It’s a movie, not a documentary," he said to Filkens. "We’re trying to make the point that water-boarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. Program." That brings us back to the importance of the story versus the importance of the events that inspired the telling of it. Frank Bruni gave additional context in his very blunt assessment of the film's moral outlook, noting that "the torture sequence immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It's set up as payback."
On a purely narrative level, the scene makes a hell of a lot of sense. Quite frankly, seeing the presumed collaborators of total assholes having their comeuppance delivered to them with a righteous vengeance is cathartic. It's the reason so many ardent liberals (myself included) kind of loved 24, despite that TV show's odious political agenda. But the fact that the story told in Zero Dark Thirty isn't, strictly speaking, fictional is a problem. Recreating something that probably wasn't actually ever created makes sense when you're writing a composite character, or putting someone's words in the mouth of another living person for dramatic effect. Those techniques often save screen time, getting the flavor of history without bogging the audience down with endless cuts and, probably, footnotes during the end credits. The torture scene here approaches something closer to Hate Week.
Bigelow's insistence that there's no political agenda also rings somewhat hollow. In the aforementioned comments made to The Wrap, she said "We're trying to present a long, 10-year intelligence hunt, of which the harsh interrogation program is the most controversial aspect. And it's just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about Bin Laden." Note that she uses the euphemism "harsh interrogation," which it must be noted is the favored phrase employed by those who don't believe water-boarding is actually torture. Of course, she also points out that "If you actually watch the movie, the detainee doesn't say anything when he's water-boarded. He gives them some information that's new to them over the civilized setting of a lunch — and they go back to the research room and all that information is already there."
That would seem to firmly support her position that whatever people take from Zero Dark Thirty, she wasn't trying to make the case for water-boarding, even if the scenes prior to the lunch suggest that good cop-torture cop actually worked to break the suspect. It is, as she would no doubt say, a complicated mess.
For what it's worth, I don't actually think Bigelow is lying when she claims she depicted events as they happened; knowing what we damned well know about the last 10 years, it's absolutely certain that some of the people she spoke to during research for this film told her that torture worked and that it worked on a CIA asset, whether or not that is actually true. When faced with differing accounts of the situation, like any good filmmaker she went for the version of events with the biggest emotional payoff. I'm feel a bit icky paraphrasing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but an action film is as good a time as any to print the legend, even if that legend is rather morally repugnant.
I'm inclined to believe that Kathryn Bigelow did not willingly or wittingly deliver a 2-plus hour ode to the glories of torture. But she certainly chose to believe the narrative that does that for her. Such is her right as a filmmaker, and if it made her movie better, then film historians may rejoice. But these things have a way of sticking. We're still having to debunk Washington Irving's dunderheaded decision to repeat the claim that those who opposed the funding of Columbus' first voyage did so because they believed the world was flat, and that Columbus bravely insisted the opposite*. That's not even a tiny fraction of how annoying it is having to deal with issues related to the war on terror during Christmas dinner, and Zero Dark Thirty just guaranteed they'll be front and center.
Frankly, if her film helps cement the likely false claim that torture helped bring Bin Laden down, she'll have done a disservice to everyone who sees her acclaimed film. But the merits of her ostensible political values shouldn't stop us from rating the film on merit. D.W. Griffith claimed to have been horrified by the racist cultural zeitgeist inspired by Birth of a Nation, as laughable as that sounds, which just goes to show that having good instincts for storytelling and for politics don't always go hand in hand.
So I say see Zero Dark Thirty with a clean conscience. But let's hold out hope that someone with a different perspective makes their own movie about this terrible time.
* The fight was over the size of a planet earth everyone agreed was round. Columbus' critics were actually correct about the size of the earth; he was damned lucky there happened to be a largely undiscovered continent lying between Asia and Europe or he and his crews would have died en route.
Ross Lincoln is a LA-based freelance writer from Oklahoma with an unhealthy obsession with comics, movies, video games, ancient history, Gore Vidal, and wine. Follow him on twitter (@rossalincoln).
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