The film Zero Dark Thirty, a docu-drama about the search for and killing of Osama bin Ladin, has been met with a maelstrom of controversy. Hovering primarily around charges that the film promotes the use of torture, many critics feel Zero Dark Thirty shows that information gained from people Americans tortured contributed to identifying the location of Osama bin Ladin. These critics—ranging from senators and activists to journalists and movie stars—seem incensed by this possibility, insisting that torture has been proven ineffective, particularly in the bin Ladin case, and that by suggesting it was the filmmakers are “apologists for evil.” But doesn’t such criticism imply that if torture works, it is acceptable?
A more pointed question may have been lost among the pitchforks.
Is torture a crime?
Maybe information from America’s torture victims did help find bin Ladin. Perhaps torture is the most effective interrogation technique ever. Or maybe it’s not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Who cares? Debating the efficacy of torture is a red herring—something that draws attention away from the central issue: Torture is an unconscionable crime, and the United States should not do it. But we did.
I watched Zero Dark Thirty before reading any criticism. Here’s what I saw: a compelling reminder that after the World Trade Center attacks, our government instituted and engaged in unconstitutional activities and international war crimes. The main characters —the fictional ones and those representing real people such as then-CIA director Leon Panetta—are depicted as ordinary human beings doing their jobs day after day, which meant in some cases carrying out unconstitutional activities and international war crimes. At times, simultaneously, that meant staying focused on the mission when the official parameters of allowable action constantly shifted, along with the level of public concern about these actions and, indeed, about the mission itself.
This is an ugly and shameful time in the culture of our country’s approach to national security. Many critics assert that this film glorifies the improprieties, not just rationalizing and excusing them but promoting them. Is Zero Dark Thirty, then, a mirror or an advertisement? To me, the film reflects the shameful acts, forcing the audience to face some of what happened during this period (whether remembering or learning for the first time). As Caroline Frost put it, “Torture happened, she shows it. It no longer happens, and she showed that too.”
“…I do wonder 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, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen,” director Kathryn Bigelow said. Confronted by our disturbing history in Zero Dark Thirty, people of conscience are called to consider what to do when our government commits atrocities in our name.
For a sample of opinions and analyses of Zero Dark Thirty, here are several that represent points along the range:
Glenn Greenwald (The Guardian), Michael Moore, Jane Mayer (The New Yorker), Steve Coll (The New York Review of Books), Caroline Frost (Huffington Post/UK), Ramzi Kassem (Al Jazeera), Roger Ebert, John Mulderig (Catholic News Service), Peter Bergen (CNN), Rich Lowry (National Review), Mark Hughes (Forbes).
For the most intelligent critique that I found putting Zero Dark Thirty in the context of cinematic history, see Niles Schwartz.