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The Torture Uproar Surrounding 'Zero Dark Thirty' 

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Dec 20, 2012 | 10:27am EST

Zero Dark Thirty

The most unbearable scene in Zero Dark ThirtyKathryn Bigelow's intense, thrilling, and often difficult account of the extensive manhunt that lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden — isn't actually seen onscreen, but heard. The film opens to utter darkness, but we hear the still-horrifying sounds from 9/11. An airplane crashing, wailing sirens from first responders, and worst of all, a desperate, gut-wrenching phone call made from someone inside one of the burning towers. While Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal have staunchly defended their film as neutral and void of any agenda other than relaying the facts, that godawful real-life phone call plays an unrelenting loop in your mind throughout the nearly three-hour runtime. 

Yet that emotional, borderline manipulative opening sequence isn't the one that has people talking about the moral compass of the Oscar front-runner. It is the torture sequences that take place in the film that are getting the most attention. We've seen the images of 9/11 too many times, more than a person can bear. What we haven't seen, however, is the things that happened in blacked-out documents: the who, what, when, and where that lead to the eventual killing of bin Laden.

The first torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty, which takes place very early on in the film, is not an easy one to watch by any means. Not even with that terrible phone call looping in your mind. Even Maya (Jessica Chastain), the headstrong CIA operative who relentlessly leads the bin Laden hunt, has to look away as a prisoner is — among other things — waterboarded, stripped, and eventually placed in a coffin-sized box by his torturer, fellow CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke, pictured). It is an unflinching sequence that leaves the viewer with uneasy questions to ask themselves. 

It's a sequence that's not sitting well with some critics, and one that's especially not sitting well with some high ranking politicians who have seen the film. Senators John McCain (R), Dianne Feinstein (D), and Carl Levin (R) have expressed their dismay with the depiction of torture and the role it actually played in tracking down bin Laden. McCain, a member of the Bush Administration and a Vietnam veteran who endured torture himself, said the film made him feel "sick." In a letter penned to Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton, the three senators say they felt “deep disappointment” with the movie, and that "the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of [Osama] bin Laden.” They also called the film — which is currently being investigated for leaking classified information — as “factually inaccurate,” and “perpetuating a myth that torture is effective." They urge that the filmmakers and the studio have a "social and moral obligation" to get the facts straight. 

The three continue to say that they worry that "the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence." 

This raises another set of questions entirely. Wouldn't Bigelow and Boal have received far worse criticism if they'd left torture, an undeniably ugly mark on American history, out entirely? Or did the filmmakers take far too many artistic liberties with the role torture played in tracking down bin Laden's courier, the man that would eventually lead them to finding the al Qaeda leader's compound, the very site where Seal Team Six would eventually kill the 9/11 mastermind? After all, this is a film that opens with a title card that it reads, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” 

In the New Yorker's scathing piece on the torture scenes in the film, titled "Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty", Jane Meyer highlights two particular points of contention. The aforementioned torture scene depicted in real life the "F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration." Meyer argues that "Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees." Meyer also points to the report from the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Senator McCain, which stated that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.... “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.” In other words the information about the courier was not, as the film presents, from a tortured detainee. 

While the concerns raised by the film's critics are certainly valid ones, it's a debate that's raged on in Hollywood time and time again. Where does fact and fiction collide in entertainment? Has there ever been an instance when a film based on true events hasn't embellished certain aspects of the story for dramatic value or altered the reality of the situation. (Even 2010's Best Picture winner, the far less button-pushing The King's Speech was criticized for accentuating "a gross falsification of history.") Zero Dark Thirty may play like a documentary at times, but in the end, it is a work of fiction based on facts. 

There's also the overwhelming implication that the average viewer will walk away thinking torture is what lead to the eventual capture of Osama bin Laden. That without torture, no matter how grotesque or inhumane it was, the death of bin Laden would never have happened. Instead, what the film really presents is that the complicated issue of torture was a moving piece in a much larger puzzle. Tapping phone calls and bribing inside sources with fast cars were all morally ambiguous tactics that moved them slowly, but surely, to the ultimate end result. Implying that torture was the major factor in that decade-long manhunt is a disservice to the men and women who worked tirelessly, in so many different facets, that lead to bin Laden's death.

Zero Dark Thirty can be accused of plenty of things, including fabrication or uneasy to watch, but its overall importance about a chapter in American history and its impact on audiences is undeniable. 

[Photo credit: Columbia Pictures] 

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