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The Torture in Zero Dark Thirty – Can We Handle the Truth?


Possible spoilers but …I mean, come on. By now?

The truth of the film #1: Zero Dark Thirty is a film about a CIA op whose job it is to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. To do that, she uses every available resource. Research, clues, surveillance, observation and torture. Torture is part of their program in the early part of the film. They torture several suspects. The first guy gives no information. They know that there isn’t any way they can break him. They eventually figure out he doesn’t know anything but they might be able to trick him into giving information.

The second time they waterboard a guy, it’s at the hands of Maya (Jessica Chastain) who repeats what the main interrogator (Jason Clarke) says, essentially, I’m going to make your life miserable if you don’t talk. He doesn’t talk, smack, he gets hit. He doesn’t talk again, smack, he gets hit. Then he gets waterboarded. The next thing that happens is Maya is in the bathroom taking off her wig, spent. After that, there are no more scenes of torture.

The truth of the film #2: After they’ve gone through all of that, and used those interrogation techniques, which include torture, they then hear a speech from President Obama who says “we will no longer torture.” They all look up at the TV dumbfounded. You can read into that scene anything you want — as in, you can read their reactions as “are you kidding me?” Or you can read their reactions as “first you tell us to torture then you tell us we can’t?” Either way, by now, we get that the US is playing games.   To my mind, it looks like politics vs. reality.   When they fail to turn up any real leads they get yelled at. “Do your fucking jobs, bring me people to kill.” So what are they supposed to do now?  They are getting pressured from both sides — don’t torture, says the President; bring me people to kill, says the CIA.

The truth of the film #3: Maya is a badass. It’s somewhat shocking when you watch a film where the woman has the biggest pair of balls. But she does. She is the one who doesn’t flinch.  After they’re done torturing one guy, Chastain says “you want to take another run at him?” And Clarke says he can’t do it anymore. He can’t look at any naked men anymore.

The truth about the film #4: There is no humanity or compassion for anyone on the other side. Maya says “a lot of my friends were killed doing this. I believe I was spared to finish the job.” That is kind of like saying, “God is on our side.”  In The Hurt Locker there were many scenes that portrayed the humanity of the Iraqis.  We were left with a feeling of helplessness.  Had we never found Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty’s original script might have followed that same line.  But this isn’t a story about a failure; it’s a story about success.

At a crucial point, though, the film changes direction. Maya goes after her significant lead and is blocked at every turn by men above her.  She is like a bulldog who goes after her target in any way that works. Torture didn’t really work so well — so now, it becomes a bit of a paper trail and is dependent totally on Maya’s smarts and willingness to take on those patriarchs who doubt her.   This is the best part of the film and it’s where Jessica Chastain really shows that she’s probably given the best performance of the year.

It’s as frustrating to read the denials by people who loved Zero Dark Thirty, pretending the film doesn’t depict scenes of torture as part of the CIA program to interrogate, as it is to read the equally hysterical opinions on the other side,  claiming the film is “pro-torture.” In All the Presidents Men, Dustin Hoffman lies to a source in order to get information. There isn’t anything Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford will not do to get information, to hunt down their story, to bring the truth to America.  In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya is the same.

Those who are anti-torture and pro Zero Dark Thirty want so badly for it not to be a film that depicts characters who use torture because they think it works. They don’t want there to be any hint that torture might have worked. They would prefer the film to be anti-torture the way The Hurt Locker was anti-war.

The only thing that remains to be seen is this: did Mark Boal invent the scenes torture because he assumed that’s what they did? Or were Boal and Bigelow privy to information that confirmed the CIA tortured suspects on the hunt for Bin Laden?  I’m going to take a wild guess that it’s the latter. But I’d be curious to hear what really happened.

None of this changes what a great film Zero Dark Thirty is. If anything, it allows us the chance to ask ourselves whether it was worth it or not to have tortured. We ask ourselves whether it was worth it or not to kill Osama Bin Laden. The film never answers this question for us.  Zero Dark Thirty allows us, and requires us, to reconcile with our own conscience just as Maya reconciled with hers.  And that is perhaps the film’s greatest strength.