Not many films in our time have produced the outraged frenzy of political activists and elected officials alike quite like Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie depicts the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden and, through the eyes of one CIA officer, shows the various intelligence-gathering techniques used to locate the most wanted man in the world. These controversial methods, including tactics that many regard as torture, ignited fierce debate when actually used, but it is the perceived portrayal of torture in Bigelow’s Academy Award-nominated film that has upset so many. Having watched the movie this past weekend, I came away not only applauding the craftsmanship with which Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal created the film, but also questioning liberal critics’ ideological interpretation of the work.
Liberal media outlets like Mother Jones are up in arms over the film’s agenda to “help Americans learn how to love torture,” while veteran actors Ed Asner and Martin Sheen have joined a campaign led by actor David Clennon to deny the movie any Academy Awards. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote a letter to Sony Pictures denouncing the film’s implication that enhanced interrogation tactics yielded specific information regarding the whereabouts of bin Laden’s courier – a vital piece of intelligence in finding bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.
As these critics gain traction, however, I have to wonder whether I saw the same movie. The “Zero Dark Thirty” I saw depicted torture as a horrifying reality, and it was indeed a reality. Actress Jessica Chastain, playing the lead role of determined CIA officer “Maya,” perfectly relayed a feeling of profound discomfort with torture when she is thrown into an enhanced interrogation situation her first day in Pakistan. Of course, she must also do her job, and as the film accurately portrays, some CIA officers’ jobs during the George W. Bush administration involved torturing prisoners. That early torture scene shows truly abhorrent acts, and the prisoners’ cries matched with Chastain’s troubled expressions certainly did not “help me to love torture.”
As to the claim that Bigelow and Boal imply torture proved useful, I disagree with critics as well. Enhanced interrogation techniques, according to the film, yielded one important piece of information: the prisoner Ammar reveals the alias of bin Laden’s courier. Interrogation of other detainees, however, complicates even this intelligence. One claims the courier died, while the man accused of actually using the courier to speak with bin Laden refuses to give the courier’s true identity. The manhunt stagnates until another CIA analyst, a fresh pair of eyes, discovers what could be the courier’s true identity through an old-fashioned archives search. From there, bribery and phone tapping prove most useful. Through this series of events, the film demonstrated the ineffectiveness of torture, not its usefulness.
Now, Senators Feinstein, McCain and Levin very specifically criticize the movie for even suggesting enhanced interrogation techniques were tied to finding the courier. They point to a May 2011 statement released by then-CIA director Leon Panetta who wrote, “No detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.” If we want to be specific then the movie is true to Panetta’s statement. Ammar only reveals the alias of the courier, not his “full true name” and no other detainee subjected to torture in the film’s depiction provided factual or useful intelligence on the courier. I am certain the Senators hold many other concerns about facts presented in the film, but a movie that compresses ten years into two and a half hours is by necessity going to need creative license to simplify.
This simplification, however, does not lead to the “glorification of torture” as the critics have declared. My own interpretation of the movie in fact steered me to the opposite point of view. It appropriately portrayed torture and American national security policy as both morally and functionally problematic. The equally appropriate positive portrayal of our nation’s dedicated intelligence professionals should not obscure that criticism of the system. While it may seem insignificant when compared to the weighty topic of torture, I am disheartened that off-base interpretations of the film could rob it of deserved accolades. (I suspect these interpretations already denied Bigelow a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Director.) Oscars should reward cinematic achievement, and it would be shameful for misplaced politics to sideline one of this generation’s best films.