Can the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty be defended?

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A torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty
  • A torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty
Betrayal is in the air, and it's reflected in the Oscar nominations. Zero Dark Thirty made the list for best picture, but Kathryn Bigelow was passed over for best director. David Denby's New Yorker capsule puts the matter dispassionately and succinctly: "The filmmakers landed themselves in trouble by making the torture of a minor Al Qaeda member by the C.I.A. appear to yield a useful scrap of information—something that did not happen in the actual investigation. Trying to have it both ways, they claimed the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time. Still, it's a great movie."

A great movie whose expedient plotting is all on Bigelow. Mark Boal, who wrote the script, was nominated for best original screenplay.

In a statement defending herself and her movie, Bigelow calls herself a "lifelong pacifist" opposed to "inhumane treatment of any kind," and she wonders "if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies [of torture], as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen. Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement."

But neither is it repudiation. Bigelow offered a pat, unsatisfying defense, and blogger Jonathan Kim, for one, didn't let her get away with it. His long, careful, but also deeply emotional response makes it clear how much the issue of torture matters to a lot of people and how deeply disappointed he is with what Bigelow did with it. "My problem is not that Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture," he wrote, "it's how it depicts torture."

He goes on:

"I am not, as you said, 'ignoring or denying' that torture was used by the Bush administration in the search for Osama bin Laden. It was used, and it's an outrage and a tragedy that destroyed countless lives and is something America's reputation and security may not fully recover from for generations, especially in the internet age. I'm saying that as far as I know, torture did not produce accurate information that led to bin Laden." And he cites senior members of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees who criticize Zero Dark Thirty on the same grounds he does.

Then he walks us through the movie, pointing out scenes in which torture and the threat of renewed torture lead to information that leads the CIA to the Osama bin Laden operative who leads them to bin Laden. "You stated that despite these scenes, it 'doesn't mean [torture] was the key to finding bin Laden', but I don't see why an audience member would think otherwise considering how effective you depict torture as being in gathering the key pieces of information that ultimately lead to bin Laden. What's more, Zero Dark Thirty goes on to consistently portray the banning of torture as a blow to the CIA's vital intelligence-gathering capabilities, and those who seek to ensure the U.S. does not torture are painted as out-of-touch bureaucrats."

He's right. Bigelow might despise torture but Zero Dark Thirty doesn't. And if her temperament is pacifist, her movie isn't. The last half an hour or so showing the raid on bin Laden's compound might as well be a recruiting film for the Navy Seals.

I left the theater after watching the movie wondering why I didn't object to any of it.

The reason is that I never felt Zero Dark Thirty—unlike Argo, which the Golden Globe awards identified as the Middle East thriller that doesn't make anyone squirm—was trying to please me. Americans tortured, and Bigelow's movie shows Americans torturing. And although it's an article of antiwar certainty that torture is, in Kim's words, "ineffective" and "counterproductive" (as well as morally reprehensible), I find it highly unlikely that during the course of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq no single piece of useful information was ever picked up as a result of it. Our interrogators might have been stupid, but they weren't so stupid they'd endlessly flog a dead horse. During the Vietnam War, American POWs were tortured to get them to make statements favorable to the North Vietnamese cause, not to reveal information; but almost all the POWs eventually made such statements. And one POW, James Stockdale, who happened to possess vital information his captors had no inkling of, attempted suicide because he feared that under torture he'd eventually reveal it.

So I accepted the plotting of Zero Dark Thirty as acceptable telescoping. We tortured, and Bigelow showed the torture. Our best people could stomach it, and Bigelow showed that too. And occasional nuggets were gleaned. How we respond to what we see on the screen is our business.

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