Does Zero Dark Thirty Endorse Torture?

Photo: Jonathan Olley

Zero Dark Thirty is garnering two very loud responses: (1) It is a great film. (2) It glorifies torture. In many cases, those two opinions are held simultaneously. While calling ZDT the best of film of the year, David Edelstein also wrote: “This is a phenomenal piece of action filmmaking — and an even better piece of nonaction filmmaking. It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible.” Expect the controversy to only intensify in the coming weeks, since the film hasn’t even come out yet (it’ll debut in New York and Los Angeles on December 19 before a national release on January 11).

Zero Dark Thirty wastes no time with its most shocking material: In the film’s very first scene, a terrorist with a connection to Osama bin Laden is graphically tortured, and we see him chained by his wrists, degraded, and waterboarded. Later, lead CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) is able to trick the captive into providing the valuable name of a courier for bin Laden … but was that easier to come by, given the man’s weakened state after torture?

Some critics believe that this means director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are portraying the use of torture as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism. Edelstein, who coined the term “torture porn” in a 2006 essay, wrote: “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.” Or, as Frank Bruni wrote for the New York Times, the film implies, “No waterboarding, no Bin Laden.”

The problem is, that’s not what the government says. Most notably, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein went on record saying that the information used to find bin Laden in Pakistan did not come from a CIA detainee.  Mark Harris has a long profile in New York this week detailing the extensive reporting Boal undertook while writing the script. But in The New Yorker, Boal says Zero is “a movie, not a documentary” and notes, “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program.”

To critics, Zero Dark Thirty not only shows torture to be effective, but also universally supported within the intelligence community. Bruni says it wasn’t and isn’t, quotes Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side: “Some of the F.B.I. agents and C.I.A. officers involved in this program at the really gritty, firsthand level were the ones who blew the whistle on it, because they were really horrified.” Adds Bruni, “Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t convey that, nor does it reflect many experts’ belief that torture is unnecessary, yielding as much bad information as good.” 

The film’s biggest detractor is The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. Though he admits to not seeing the movie, he says Zero Dark Thirty is propaganda that’s comparable to the work of Nazi-sympathizing German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and argues that Bigelow and Boal are trying to have it both ways by saying the film is rooted in journalism but is also just a movie. 

Greenwald goes on to question the same critics who laud the film: ”I don’t believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It’s more accurate to say it’s so admired because of this.” He argued: “The normalization of torture — and of all crimes committed by the US government in the name of war — is both a cause and effect of this film’s success. 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.”

Over on Twitter, Greenwald is fighting it out with Mark Harris, who tweets, “Where torture is placed in the film’s chronology and how it’s depicted is more of a gray area than you may imagine,” adding that, “Bigelow does not argue that torture was necessary in TNY or in New York.”

And that’s the crux of the matter: Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t explicitly say that torture caught bin Laden, but in portraying torture as one part of the successful search, it can be read that way. This debate will only heighten in the coming weeks, and if the early award success of Zero Dark Thirty — winning best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review — is any indication, it’s an argument that will continue until the Oscars are given out.

Does Zero Dark Thirty Endorse Torture?