Yesterday I posted on the emerging debate over the heralded Kathryn Bigelow film about the decade-long CIA hunt for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, which has already been accumulating year-end awards, with an Oscar nomination for best picture a no-brainer. The controversy centers on whether the film’s talented creators, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, signal—perhaps unintentonally—that torture was a necessary tool in helping to nail bin Laden, and by extension should not be ruled out for future use in extreme cases.
Frank Bruni of The New York Times (who has seen the film) and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian (who has not) launched twin salvos on Sunday, Spencer Ackerman of Wired and others defended it, then Peter Bergen, who has written a well-known book on the same subject, raised strong concerns at the CNN site. See links and quotes at my previous piece.
Last night I attended a screening at a theater in Westchester County—with five security guards scanning the audience for any signs of filming the film, adding an apt tinge of paranoia—so I can now offer a few opinions of my own.
In summary, I’d simply say that those picking apart various scenes and pointing to key details in the film are not wrong in suggesting that the film’s depiction of torture helping to get bin Laden is muddled at best—but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably will be: Yes, torture played a key (if not the key) role.
Spencer Ackerman and others are correct that most viewers may be sickened by the scenes of torture, so the film could be said to be doing a service in shoving that in our faces, but this does not mean that most will conclude that it was not useful in this case, and could be again.
Because the film is long, and much of the testimony (forced or otherwise) from prisoners arrives early and is often confusing or hard to understand (partly due to accents and language) or hard to remember, most viewers by the end will not be able to recall who said what. Did key tips about that bin Laden courier come from one of those tortured guys or one who was not? For several it’s impossible to know if off-screen torture led to them turning “friendly.”
Yes, we are treated to (the best parts of the film) all of the other tools used to find and track the courier, from tracing cell calls to satellite imaging, but a character near the end does say clearly that they nabbed the key info on bin Laden’s courier “from detainees.” It’s left to the viewers to try to recall the chain of evidence, but they will likely remember that the most severely of the tortured, way back in the first half-hour of the film, was the first to mention the courier’s name.