Does Zero Dark Thirty Endorse Torture?

Zero Dark Thirty is garnering two very loud responses: (1) It is a great film. (2) It glorifies torture. In many cases, those two opinions are held simultaneously. While calling ZDT the best of film of the year, David Edelstein also wrote: "This is a phenomenal piece of action filmmaking — and an even better piece of nonaction filmmaking. It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible." Expect the controversy to only intensify in the coming weeks, since the film hasn't even come out yet (it'll debut in New York and Los Angeles on December 19 before a national release on January 11).

Zero Dark Thirty wastes no time with its most shocking material: In the film's very first scene, a terrorist with a connection to Osama bin Laden is graphically tortured, and we see him chained by his wrists, degraded, and waterboarded. Later, lead CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) is able to trick the captive into providing the valuable name of a courier for bin Laden ... but was that easier to come by, given the man's weakened state after torture?

Some critics believe that this means director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are portraying the use of torture as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism. Edelstein, who coined the term "torture porn" in a 2006 essay, wrote: "By showing these excellent results — and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other 'black sites' — it makes a case for the efficacy of torture." Or, as Frank Bruni wrote for the New York Times, the film implies, "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden."


The problem is, that's not what the government says. Most notably, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein went on record saying that the information used to find bin Laden in Pakistan did not come from a CIA detainee. Mark Harris has a long profile in New York this week detailing the extensive reporting Boal undertook while writing the script. But in The New Yorker, Boal says Zero is "a movie, not a documentary" and notes, "We're trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program."

To critics, Zero Dark Thirty not only shows torture to be effective, but also universally supported within the intelligence community. Bruni says it wasn't and isn't, quotes Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side: "Some of the F.B.I. agents and C.I.A. officers involved in this program at the really gritty, firsthand level were the ones who blew the whistle on it, because they were really horrified." Adds Bruni, "Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t convey that, nor does it reflect many experts’ belief that torture is unnecessary, yielding as much bad information as good."

The film's biggest detractor is The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald. Though he admits to not seeing the movie, he says Zero Dark Thirty is propaganda that's comparable to the work of Nazi-sympathizing German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and argues that Bigelow and Boal are trying to have it both ways by saying the film is rooted in journalism but is also just a movie.

Full article here, going further into Greenwald’s beliefs and some arguments against it.

A couple more articles of interest from Vulture -

Mark Harris does a great write up on the making of ZDT: Inside Mark Boal’s and Kathryn Bigelow’s Mad Dash to Make Zero Dark Thirty

And Edelstein says Zero Dark Thirty Is Borderline Fascistic ... and a Masterpiece

So, has anyone seen the movie in early screenings? Thoughts?