Zero Dark Thirty and the torture controversy

By Bryan Sih

Delivering on its promise as “the greatest manhunt in history,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty avoids being the type of sloppy action flick made by blockbuster sentimentalists like Spielberg, Cameron or Bay. While most directors would turn the hunt for bin Laden into a cheap “Hoorah!” for citizens still reeling from an unconscionable horror, Bigelow fuels Zero Dark Thirty with her trademark tension and realism, leaving little room for celebration.

9/The film opens with calls of 9/11 victims trapped in the tower with no accompanying image, sending the viewer back to a day perhaps too painful to witness. Bigelow doesn’t sensationalize the infamous day with the cheapness of an image, and instead humanizes it with a cacophony of desperate voices. This explosive opening prepares the rest of the film for a series of aftershocks: torture, misinformation, dead ends, suicide bombings and an indolent bureaucracy — unwelcomed fallout for a nation hell-bent on justice and revenge.

The manifestation of this national bloodlust is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who spends most of the film convincing a male-dominant bureaucracy to act on the accumulated evidence of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The film falters after the midpoint, as Maya attempts to rally her government to attack Osama bin Laden’s stronghold. Writer Mark Boal includes a montage of Maya defiantly scribbling a count of the number of days that have gone by without attack on her superior’s glass pane. This is Boal’s desperate attempt to breathe some life into the mundane intelligence office sequence, but he doesn’t explore the bureaucratic process enough to make it worthwhile.

After this slow section, the audience is shaken awake with the film’s payoff: the raid on Osama’s stronghold. Bigelow exhibits her mastery of the war film in this dark, grungy attack laden with night-vision shots and sweat-inducing silence. The audience becomes complicit in Maya’s mission. The camera acts as her omniscient eye over the event — she is a woman with commanding vision and we live vicariously through her victorious moment, which takes on a greater meaning for all Americans.

While we follow Maya through the story, we get little insight to her background and, perhaps even more disturbingly, her motivation. But the opening of the film is her motivation — it’s the panic, doom, dread and suffering of those trapped in the twin towers that needs to be avenged. As critic Scott Foundas aptly points out, “She’s a fanatic hunting a fanatic.”

Indeed, Maya has her own Jihad or “religious crusade,” which leads one to ask: “on our quest to kill bin Laden, have we become just as fanatical and violent as our enemy?” This impersonal, nationalistic goal leaves our very human protagonist drained and purposeless once achieved. She parallels a suicide bomber, except she lives through her Jihad and finds nothing on the other side.


Zero Dark Thirty is a rare, significant film because it stirs up the socio-political war gauntlet while maintaining the focus on its human characters. Many critics have taken issue with the former aspect, especially in regard to the film’s portrayal of torture. Critics have problematized these scenes with an unimaginative, vehement outcry, with Rethink Review’s critic Jonathan Kim as their lead crusader. Many critics claim torture doesn’t work as a means for extracting useful information and that it didn’t contribute to the hunt for bin Laden — therefore its function in the plot, not its portrayal, is the point of contention.

After all, if we believe for an instant that the critic knows more about torture than we do, then the critic escapes with her contempt and ignorance unquestioned. I offer a new perspective: the torture sequence could arguably be a poetic summation of American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The body of the terrorist takes on the meaning of a larger Middle Eastern population — one America has invaded, bombed, accused and ravaged in its unflinching search for Osama.

Regardless, Kim brings up a considerable point: why does Bigelow claim this film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” if parts of the film digress into fact-twisting and historical digressions?

Kim and many other critics fail to understand that the story subsumes events and acts committed by the military into a general narrative revolving around one character, thus inherently fictionalizing it. If the film didn’t do this, these same critics would be bemoaning an incoherent, scattered narrative unable to string together a causal chain leading to bin Laden’s killing. Furthermore, Bigelow has no obligation to tell her story as it exactly unfolded, even with the opening claim being based on firsthand accounts. Such a film would be inherently dull. Intelligence worked for eight years — enough time to assemble a staggering six million-page document — before finding bin Laden. Who wants to watch these preliminary intel-hunts unfold in three hours?

Critics bemoan Zero Dark Thirty’s use of torture as a means for inaccurately pushing the plot forward. They refer to a report from Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which claims torture did not directly lead to finding bin Laden. However, as CIA director Michael Morell states, “Some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques,” adding that “whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

Film critics, government officials and any moral-do-gooders who found a comment box online have disregarded Morell’s statement (ironically, the person in the best position to see all sides of the issue) under the rhetoric of “discrepancies” and “potentially inconsistent,” desperate to affirm their anti-torture crusade.

When Kim contends that the plot from torture to bin Laden should be taken literally (and thus morally reprehensible), he reveals his severe ignorance to intelligence-gathering techniques. His own evidence laughs back at him: the six million-page intel document. Any effort to retrace causality from one clue to another would be futile.

Zero Dark Thirty uses torture as an expedient plot device with multiple functions: it takes on a wider poetic significance as the larger Middle East reveals Maya’s character and brings an American audience face to face with something ugly that did happen in the war effort. Unfortunately, the plot’s use of torture has become the major hang-up of critics missing the film’s more implicit significance. Perhaps Bigelow would’ve been wiser to muddy up the investigational timeline to dissipate the strong causality between torture and information.


Critics who claim the portrayal of torture in the film is immoral need to rethink the way torture serves the plot without thematizing or condoning it. At the end of the day, the US did torture detainees — whether by Maya’s hand or someone else’s – and the film presents that. Critics instead reveal contempt for the audience, determined to wave a warning flag crying, “it didn’t really happen like this!”

We get it — but it’s a movie and you’re a movie critic, not an intelligence officer. None of us know exactly how it happened and none of us wish to piece together every clue that got us there.

The real contention lies not in the how, but in whether or not Bigelow’s reductionist portrayal of intelligence gathering reveals her own misunderstanding or a conscious artistic decision to tell a complex revenge story. I’ll go with the latter.

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