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Zero Dark Thirty – The Finer Points of Torture, the Finer Points of Art


It hasn’t been easy, these past few days, watching the war rage on about the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. On the one hand, you have people like Chris Hayes, Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, US senators and the chief of the CIA all condemning Zero Dark Thirty for saying, basically, yeah, we tortured, and yeah, it worked. On the other hand, if you live in my world, you have bloggers like David Poland and film critics who are wholly in denial about the content of the film and are trying to find ways to argue that those scenes show torture doesn’t “work.” The trouble is, they are headed right for a brick wall because the film is crystal clear about torture — though it might take a few viewings of it to see.  But it basically says yes, we tortured, and yes, it worked. Them’s the facts as Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have laid them out.

So that takes us back to our government, what they’re willing and unwilling to reveal, how they want our country’s face to be represented globally. Part of their protest comes from fear. They are afraid that a film like Zero Dark Thirty might incite violence the same way that badly made “video” did. I would say that’s doubtful, given that Zero Dark Thirty should not be sold as the truth, but rather, as a glorious work of art, which it is.

The politics of this conflict are clear. The CIA chief himself backs up what’s in the film, too, with his statement that:

“CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” tells the tale of the decade-long pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Calling it a film that “departs from reality,” Morell said “Zero Dark Thirty” had several fictional aspects in it, but emphasized the inaccuracy of three details of it.

“First, the hunt for Usama Bin Ladin was a decade-long effort that depended on the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers,” Morell said. “The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency–and the broader Intelligence Community–to just a few individuals.”

“Second, the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin,” Morrell continued. “That impression is false.”
Jessica Chastain responds to Zero Dark Thirty’s pro-torture allegations

“Third, the film takes considerable liberties in its depiction of CIA personnel and their actions, including some who died while serving our country. We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory of them.”

And more quotes:

“The fundamental problem,” they continue, “is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts…. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.”

But here’s the money shot:

“As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

The film depicts what the CIA backs up. Yes, torture was used, and yes, it worked.


The “yes it worked” part is what Poland and others are having trouble grappling with. The only reason for any confusion about what is depicted in the film is if you can’t keep the names straight. I will own this, being an American whose ears do not process the names as well as I should. But make no mistake, the film makes it very clear that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used to gain information and a crucial piece of information obtained by these means leads them ALL THE WAY to Usama Bin Laden.

If you care to know what I found out — this is how it goes down:

Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives to help question a detainee with Dan (Jason Clarke). They torture him by chaining him up, water boarding, withholding food and sleep.  They then bring him down and make nice for a bit — orange soda, food, etc. He still doesn’t give up any info. They torture him some more and put him in a box.  Later, they bring him out, give him food and trick him into telling them the name of people around Bin Laden. One of them is the courier who eventually leads them to UBL. The name that surfaces during that moment carries through all the way to the end.

Twice more torture is proven to be an effective method of information gathering. The second time, Maya herself is doing the interrogating. She tortures a guy who won’t break, but that gives her information she needs: he lied about two people and two people only — Usama Bin Laden and the courier. That tells her they are equally important and keeps her lead hot.  She never would have known that if she hadn’t tried to break the guy.  The third incident is when Maya is trying to figure out how many times detainees gave up the name or identified the name of Bin Laen’s courier, each of these incidents occured during torture.

Others have argued that because they got the info while they were having lunch and being nice that it wasn’t gotten from torture. But in fact, it was because that’s how torture works — you deliver pain, then reward, pain, then reward.  Secondly, they are also threatening to hang him back up to the ceiling if he doesn’t talk. He has been sleep deprived and food deprived when they arrive to “trick” the information out of him.  Essentially, the film depicts Americans as willing to do most anything, even if it comes to killing their detainee, to obtain useful information.  Dan says to Maya at one point that enhanced interrogation can mean you either break them or they die withholding.  But nowhere in there, no where in the film does it ever say: the torture isn’t working.

So, these are the facts of the film. The only part that might be difficult for anyone watching it for the first time is keeping the names straight. But once you figure that part out, the rest is crystal clear.

What you are left with is this: the film is a piece of art, it’s not a documentary. It is a great great film. It is a film about America and our bloodlust to capture Bin Laden.  Jardin, at Boing Boing, says the movie isn’t good enough to justify what she calls “torture fantasy.” She’s just flat out wrong. I don’t need all of the critics awards to tell me it’s a great movie. Good thing I have eyes and a thinking brain and can decide for myself what is and isn’t a good film. Zero Dark Thirty is a great film.   Its main character, Maya, is a punk. She’s a dedicated, hard-working, single-minded punk.  She might personify some of the worst traits America has to offer in a CIA agent but she’s also unlike any other character we’ve seen this year or any other.  She’s tougher than Dan, the interrogator. She is the one who wants to “take another run” at the detainee. You don’t often see such a dogged pursuit by a female. This notion that our characters can’t be flawed, especially women, will eventually choke the life out of art.

Americans viewing the film, or anyone viewing it, should watch the scenes of torture with skepticism.  In other words, my earlier post about the torture being “the truth” might not really be the case. The truth might be somewhere in between.  We have no way of knowing. Thus, we can really only look at the film as what it is: a Hollywood movie. And a great one at that.