Zero Dark Thirty’s false neutrality on torture

The film “Zero Dark Thirty” gives a misleading impression that torture was an important part of finding bin Laden.

People who have defended "Zero Dark Thirty" for its objective depiction of torture "misunderstand the role torture plays in the film and the message the film conveys" [AP]

Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty, has rightly sparked controversy over its treatment of torture. The film charts the United States’ hunt for Osama bin Laden, from the 9/11 attacks until his killing by US forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. While the film does not explicitly condone torture, it suggests that torture played an important role in the US effort to track down bin Laden and gives short shrift to the moral and legal issues that surround it. 

Last week, three influential US senators – Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) – condemned the film in a letter to its distributor, Sony Pictures, calling it “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden”. In support, they cite a still-classified 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee report produced from six million pages of CIA documents – a report that should be released as soon as possible to the public. 

The senators rightly fear that the film’s high-profile – it is widely considered a shoe-in for Oscar nominations – will help legitimise the use of torture, which, they underscore, is not merely ineffective, but also a war crime and “an affront to America’s national honour”.

Various journalists, including New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer and Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, have condemned Zero Dark Thirty on similar grounds. Others who have defended Zero Dark Thirty for its objective depiction of torture misunderstand the role torture plays in the film and the message the film conveys. 

Endorsing torture

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the actual recorded voices of victims of the 9/11 attacks, trapped in the Twin Towers, moments before their death. Viewers are informed that what follows is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”. The film then cuts to a CIA secret prison (or “black site”), where a detainee is hung from his wrists, beaten and water-boarded. His interrogator warns him that although he may try to resist, he will be broken in the end. 

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The detainee ultimately provides valuable intelligence – the name of a trusted courier who unwittingly leads the CIA to bin Laden. While he reveals information to his interrogators in a moment when they are showing him kindness, the film suggests that this information is the fruit of the barbarity that preceded it. Another detainee who also provides information notes timidly that he does not want to be tortured again.  

In a critical early scene, the film’s heroine, a CIA agent known as Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), then a new recruit, watches as an agency veteran named Dan brutalises a detainee to obtain information. The violence is palpable and Bigelow effectively conveys the torturer’s power and potential for cruelty.

At first, Maya seems shocked and appears to recoil. But before long, her qualms disappear and Maya is on board with the “detainee programme”, as it is euphemistically called. Maya tells one prisoner that if he wants the pain to end, he should tell his interrogators what they want to know. She also approves the use of torture against other prisoners. 

Bigelow has said that in attempting to provide a journalistic account of the events leading to bin Laden’s killing she could not shy away from torture. She also insists, however, that the film has no political agenda and does not intend to take sides. Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter, maintains that Zero Dark Thirty tries to show “the complexity of the debate”. 

Whatever its intentions, Zero Dark Thirty fails in capturing complexity. It is a film that deals mainly in black-and-white rather than shades of grey – a film of one-dimensional characters and a simplistic narrative structure. While Zero Dark Thirty may presume to take no stance, its ultimate effect is to endorse torture. 

It is not simply that Zero Dark Thirty wrongly credits torture with yielding critical information. The film also fails to present any real counter-point to suggest torture’s inefficacy and immorality. The first third of the film – nearly 45 minutes – centres on detainee interrogations, but Bigelow and Boal give virtually no sense of the outrage torture provoked not only among human rights groups, but also among many high-level military and national security officials. 

The sole anti-torture statement appears as a blip: A brief press clip, taken from a 60 Minutes interview, in which President Obama condemns torture. As the clip runs in the background for a few seconds, Bigelow focuses on Maya and her colleagues. They appear unmoved. For them, the president’s statement registers only as a signal to change tactics.   

Misleading impression

The film, moreover, repeatedly describes the harmful effects of the CIA’s having to abandon its detainee programme. Without harsh interrogations at its disposal, the CIA cannot confirm bin Laden’s presence at the military compound in Abbottabad, thus requiring the president to order Navy SEALS to undertake a risky mission. As one agency official complains, with detainees at Guantanamo now “all lawyered up”, good information is hard to come by. 

“While technically impressive, the film is clumsy at best, callous at worst, in its handling of torture.”

Zero Dark Thirty depicts legality as an obstacle that intelligence and military officials must overcome in protecting the country. When an emotionally drained Dan, the veteran CIA interrogator, tells Maya that he is returning to Washington after years in the field, he warns her that harsh interrogations have come under political attack.

“You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” he tells her. The problem is not that these interrogations are illegal; rather, the problem is that now one might get caught.  

The film, to be fair, credits other CIA methods in the search for bin Laden, including electronic surveillance and good-old-fashioned detective work. It also shows how bureaucratic inaction and human error are the enemies of security. We learn, for example, that a file that could have helped the CIA find bin Laden much sooner was misplaced, only to be located years later by a new CIA recruit who passes it along to Maya. 

The film ends with Maya boarding a military transport plane. Bin Laden has just been killed, the fruit of Maya’s years of work and personal sacrifice finally realised. The pilot asks Maya where she plans to go. She does not answer. Bigelow cuts to a close-up of a teary-eyed Maya.

Why is she crying? For the victims of 9/11? For her fellow agents who have died avenging their murder? For the lost years of her own life consumed in the quest for bin Laden? For all the detainees she tortured in the process? 

The closing shot provides a rare moment in the film – one that suggests that difficult questions might lurk beneath its “get bin Laden” narrative and force viewers to grapple with dark side of the “War on Terrorism”. It is an ending for the film that could have been, but was not – an ending that Zero Dark Thirty has not earned.

While technically impressive, the film is clumsy at best, callous at worst, in its handling of torture. The take-away is a misleading impression that torture was an important part of finding bin Laden without any real sense of torture’s enormous costs. 

Jonathan Hafetz is Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law and the author, most recently, of Habeas Corpus after 9/11: Confronting America’s New Global Detention System.