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.
While some of those defending the film have claimed that it shows that torture “does not work” or is “counterproductive” you don’t really see that on the screen. From their comments, I expected at least a brief scene where one of the CIA types admits this. No such luck. We do hear an FBI agent hitting torture, but it’s very offhand.
Then there’s this: Despite GOPer fears, the film barely recognizes that President Obama ordered the bin Laden raid—and there’s no mention at all that he did it against the advice of some. Leon Panetta seems to be the man in charge. But here’s the point: Obama appears here only on a TV screen during the 2008 campaign, promising to end Bush-Cheney torture. The two central CIA agents—played by the phenomenally appealing Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Ehle—look on, impassively, as if thinking, “He doesn’t know what we know.”
I must say that I agree with much of what Peter Bergen wrote. He gives the film credit for getting much of the story right—and I’d add that I’m glad that it accurately showed the SEALs killing a harmless woman and plugging bin Laden while he was unarmed—but Bergen believes firmly that the audience takeaway will be that torture played a key role in IDing the courier. Owen Glieberman, the veteran Entertainment Weekly reviewer, didn't weem to feel the message was muddled at all, concluding that the film made it clear that torture "worked....in no uncertain terms."
I’ll add a few more comments later, but for now, I’ll close by quoting from an e-mail sent to me by Stuart Klawans, the longtime Nation film reviewer, who raises broader questions about the film, some of which I share.
I can easily name twenty better films released in the US in 2012. But as for the torture:
I said in my column, and will repeat: the movie revels in it. In a film that’s entirely about professionalism—are you, Jessica Chastain, tough enough to do the job?—the ability to overcome a first squeamishness and participate in torture, initiate torture, identify with a torturer as your mentor, is the defining quality of a character who makes herself hard-core enough to earn the respect of Navy SEALs.
Arguments that the film exposes torture as abhorrent are absurd. The movie juices the audience on the adrenaline generated by these physical confrontations, and offers vicariously the sense of power enjoyed by the person holding the leash.
Does the film go further, and present torture as the necessary tool for taking down bin Laden? Absolutely. The key piece of information is the identity of bin Laden’s courier—and that information is secured by taking advantage of the disorientation and weakness (physical, emotional, intellectual) of a man who has been relentlessly, repeatedly tortured. Bigelow and Boal have been going about, mealy-mouthed, claiming they never intended to give the audience the impression that the use of torture was integral to the task of finding and killing bin Laden. If so, I find it very hard to give them better than a C- for screenwriting.
For a take on the representation of “national security” on the small screen, read Leslie Savan on and Obama’s drone policy .