Before it had even been completed, Zero Dark Thirty was convicted in the court of conservative political opinion: Kathryn Bigelow's film, written with the help of the CIA, was going to be a glowing portrayal of President Obama's decisive leadership in the months that led up to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Republicans scheduled congressional hearings and demanded documents and transcripts, looking to catch the White House in a propaganda-fueled intelligence leak.
Then the film screened for critics, and neither Obama nor former President George W. Bush made more than seconds-long appearances. The political debate, all of a sudden, shifted on the partisan axis: liberals began decrying the stark depiction of torture in the film.
The movie opens with a scene in which a CIA interrogator (Jason Clarke) waterboards an al Qaeda courier, sexually humiliates him and squeezes him into a tiny box, all in hope of getting the location of a higher-ranked terrorist. Jessica Chastain, playing the film's lead, a young CIA agent named Maya, blanches while watching but stays strong.
The scene has inspired a debate over whether Bigelow and Boal's film condones torture -- and whether it credits it as effective.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote on Sunday that he believes the film will strike the fancy of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who famously supported "enhanced interrogation."
"The explicit detail with which all of this is depicted could, I suppose, be read as the moviemakers’ indictment of it, and to some extent Zero Dark Thirty will function as a Rorschach test, different viewers seeing in it what they want to see," Bruni wrote. "But 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."
Liberal Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who has long argued against torture, slammed the film and the critics that have uniformly praised it (some, despite the torture).
"The normalization of torture -- and of all crimes committed by the U.S. government in the name of war -- is both a cause and effect of this film's success," he wrote. "That normalization is what enables a film like this to be so widely admired, and it will be bolstered even further as the film gathers more accolades and box-office riches."
Greenwald also hit Bigelow and Boal for describing the film as journalism when it has been disproved that torture delivers effective and accurate answers from detainees.
"As noted, [Bigelow] is going around praising herself for taking 'almost a journalistic approach to film,' " Greenwald writes. "But when confronted by factual falsehoods she propagates on critical questions, her screenwriting partner resorts to the excuse that 'it's a movie, not a documentary.' "
To be certain, not everyone associated with the film is talking up torture.
"It was really difficult to film, even though, of course, we’re acting," Chastain told The Hollywood Reporter. "But we filmed it in an active Jordanian prison. The energy wasn’t the best in that place. I’m playing a woman who’s trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. I’ve been trained my whole life to be emotional and to let all my walls down and be very vulnerable. So to put myself in a situation like that, it’s like I have to not follow my instincts -- and my instincts, it seemed like that would be to cry. So I had to then show [Maya's] discomfort and go back to her training of being unemotional."
Further, the film does not explicitly show torture as successful. The al Qaeda courier eventually does surrender information, but it comes while he is being treated to food during a more serene interrogation. Whether that's enough to discredit torture -- or whether Bigelow and Boal intended it to be -- is up for debate.