Courtesy: Columbia Pictures
Come on, let’s admit it: Zero Dark Thirty was destined to stir up trouble no matter what. It’s about bin Laden and the War on Terror and both of those subjects still induce nausea. Film critics have spent the last week frustrated with Glenn Greenwald for what amounts to a mere week’s jump of the gun on a debate Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the film’s director and screenwriter, say they were looking to raise anyway. Greenwald, who hadn’t seen the film, insisted nonetheless that all arrows pointed to an endorsement of torture . This is a film, came the indignant cry back. It’s supposed, to use the phrase the counterterrorism journalist Dexter Filkins used in The New Yorker, to “stray from reality ”! Except that the appeal of the film would not be half what it is if it were about the hunt for some guy we’d never heard of and hadn’t spent the past decade on a mission to destroy.
Oh well. Nothing about America in the Bush years lent itself to easy distinctions between fact and fiction. You’d think you couldn’t make up stuff like that “Mission Accomplished” banner, and yet staged it was. Perhaps it makes sense that a movie about its legacy balances uncomfortably on that knife’s edge. Perhaps what makes more sense is that we got a movie. From the minute the Towers collapsed you and I both heard people say it: it was just like a movie. The trope appears throughout Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad, currently the best reporting we have on the subject: the “Dead or Alive” posters now best known to us from sepia Westerns, Hillary Clinton saying that watching the mission on the monitors in that tiny, crammed room was “like any episode of 24 or any movie you could ever imagine.” Except in all the ways it undoubtedly wasn’t, and all the ways that the formula of making a film—the clear plotline, character development, the need to fulfill audience expectations—will necessarily falsify some of the chaos out here in reality.
Perhaps in response to that, Zero Dark Thirty is largely a pageant of reserved judgment, trying for pure objectivity, like journalists of old. This goes for torture as much as anything else. Much ink is already being spilled  on the depiction of waterboarding and confinement boxes that mark the film’s first hour. I’ll spare you the lawyerly parsing of screen time and dialogue and facial expression; the key point is that it is filmed with neither clear endorsement nor disparagement of the practice of torture. These filmmakers leave it to you to determine the issue, which sounds more artful in theory than it feels to watch. Bigelow and Boal conceal what they think, even are afraid to show any opinions on whether it’s their role to think.
Within this “just the facts” framework, the filmmakers aren’t that careful. Judgments sneak in under cover of accuracy. Anyone will find a torture scene more memorable than the break that comes from a staffer delivering a file folder. But Zero Dark Thirty’s script doesn’t worry about making the more mundane aspects of the search exciting. The straightforward drama of a torture scene—soaked towel over face, muffled screaming—is just more memorable. This is the criticism Bergen, the expert, offers himself . In fact, he recently wrote at CNN, in the capacity of adviser he actually asked the filmmakers to soften the scenes from an earlier, and bloodier, cut.
But it goes beyond those scenes. The hunt for bin Laden looked more like a figure eight than a straight line, or perhaps more aptly, as Mark Bowden put it in his book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, a web drawn from “bloody threads.” And Bergen’s book more or less concurs, quoting officials who say that intelligence coming from detainees did fill in and deepen the CIA’s understanding of Al Qaeda’s structure. The clearer picture allowed them to concentrate their efforts on direct leads.
That is the theory of the utility of torture that Bigelow’s film really buys, that in the aggregate it worked. Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent, Maya, builds her initial theory of the identity of the key bin Laden courier by watching countless tapes of other interrogations, some using “extraordinary” measures though some do not. Their collective reluctance to speak about this one particular person fuels Maya’s suspicion that he is the one who will lead her to bin Laden. Her obsessive conviction is the film’s dramatic engine, its only claim to be a story rather than a dry and disconnected litany of facts. This is what results cost, the story tells us, blood on the web and all.
This entire debate’s focus on results is a little off the mark—there are higher moral and legal imperatives here—and yet the film only echoes the confusion of politicians. A Senate committee is debating a report it has been preparing  on the utility of torture. Senator Dianne Feinstein says it proves that torture doesn’t work. I say it’s 6,000 pages, and not all of them will be made public. So inverse is the relationship of politics to truth that the report won’t settle a thing, let alone the issues actually bothering us in this tempest over the fictional version of these events.
What’s really bothering us isn’t whether torture works; it’s that Americans are torturers. Eleven years on, it’s hard to believe that it still bears repeating: On some level the threat of bin Laden was always outmatched by that posed by the shift of political values and self-image that Americans underwent in fear of him. In Manhunt Bergen tries to distinguish the Al Qaeda threat from that of the Nazis by calling only the latter “existential.” Differences of scale certainly exist as to casualties, but emotions aren’t governed or measured by numbers. America learned something about its capabilities in this era that it wishes it hadn’t, and that knowledge sits, still, like a devil on the shoulder of the American conscience.
You can only have an exorcism if you actually call the priest, and vis-à-vis the darker aspects of Bush II—extraordinary rendition, torture, Abu Ghraib, do I really need to go on?—America never has. There have been no trials, no inquiries, not even a hint of truth and reconciliation, all because of fears that it would make Americans feel terribly awkward about who they are. So we resort to debates like this. They leave us cold because even the best-made films—and there is ample reason to believe, particularly in its final, forty-minute re-enactment of that raid in Abottabad, that Zero Dark Thirty is indeed one of them—offer only a terribly ersatz catharsis. In the film’s final minutes, we are given an image that suggests Maya may not be sure she got hers, either. It would cut a lot closer to the bone if the whole film hadn’t been telling us she was right, she was right, all along she was right.
For more on the subject of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, check out Greg Mitchell's assessment .