Is 'Zero Dark Thirty' pro-torture? And if so, is it telling a lie?

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Image Credit: Jonathan Olley

A couple of weeks ago, when the heat over Zero Dark Thirty and the issue of torture was already percolating (it still hasn't come close to full boil -- that will happen when conservative commentators start to defend the movie and the liberal Academy Awards machine starts to have doubts about it), I began to frame a few thoughts about where, exactly, the film stood, and one of the things that occurred to me was the possibility that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and screenwriter, didn't understand their own movie. I figured I probably wouldn't float that theory, since it seemed presumptious and more than a little absurd. But now I don't have to engage in a lot of speculative critical guesswork, since Bigelow and Boal have officially gone on the record. The notion that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture, says Boal, is "preposterous." Adds Bigelow: "The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy. Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture]

was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”

That sounds reasonable enough. It ties in to the way that Zero Dark Thirty tries, in tone, to adopt a hypnotically open-eyed and objective, almost “neutral” journalistic attitude toward the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Torture, there’s no denying, was a part of this story, and the film’s early scenes, set in a greasy concrete bunker, feel unusually bold and frank in showing us what the reality of that torture was. For American audiences who will now, at last, get a chance to see this already much-awarded and talked-about movie (it opens in limited release today), those scenes are sure to prove a ritual of reckoning.

But let’s be clear about something. Zero Dark Thirty is a spectacular procedural thriller that hinges on a chain of evidence, and the torture we see in the film’s first half hour is anything but incidental to how that evidence comes to light. The power of Bigelow’s artistry is that from the start, as she’s making the audience squirm by forcing us to confront what it looked like when a prisoner at an undisclosed CIA “black site” was stripped, starved, beaten, and waterboarded, the drama isn’t merely in the disturbing spectacle of abuse. It’s in the psychology of what’s going on between the torturer, a tall, bearded CIA operative named Dan (Jason Clarke) who has the look and demeanor of a deeply pissed-off political-science professor, and the man he’s trying to break down, a proud and angry Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda operative named Ammar (Reda Kateb). The drama is in their duel of wills, and how that plays out. And here’s what happens:

At first, Ammar won’t cooperate. Even after being waterboarded, he spits out his contempt at Dan, telling him that he’s just a cog in the corporation, and that he — Ammar — will never lower himself to reveal information. After a heap of physical abuse, Dan walks in and offers Ammar some fruit to eat, which the prisoner accepts. This peace offering, make no mistake, isn’t a break from torture; it’s part of the torture — the “nice” part, the manipulative, deceptive, good-cop part, the equivalent of that moment in Marathon Man where Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist offers Dustin Hoffman oil of cloves as a relief from the agony of the drill. It’s the torturer’s way of saying: Give me what I want, and the pain will stop.

Ammar won’t give in — at least, not right away. But the next time he’s held down for abuse, his cries of protest have a different tone. They’re more desperate, more please stop this I can’t handle it. Dan is breaking him down. And then he puts Ammar in the box: a small, rectangular wooden enclosure that’s a claustrophobic hellhole. And Ammar’s cries haunt you with the finality of their desolation. A few scenes later, when he’s given relief again, in the form of an excursion outside, more food, and a civilized conversation with Dan and Maya (Jessica Chastain), the young CIA analyst who has been observing these activities, Ammar’s whole demeanor is different. He is weary, placid, defeated. His outward rage at the Americans has been neutered. And he begins to talk. He offers up several names, including one — Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — who he claims is a courier for bin Laden. In that moment, he gives them the buried treasure that they’re going to spend the rest of the movie hunting for.

After 9/11, liberals, including myself, made a case against the use of torture by the U.S. that had two interlocking dimensions. The first argument, and it’s one that I still cleave to, is that torture is inhumane. Though the Bush administration’s infamous use of the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” made those words sound like the most sinister Imperial American euphemism since the days of Gen. Westmoreland, their insidious point was that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the other “techniques” that went on in Abu Ghraib and various hidden prison sites around the world fell short of the technical definition of “torture.” That’s a point that a lot of us couldn’t accept. Waterboarding, according to the liberal view, was cruel, was inhumane, was a violation of the Geneva Convention. And if America engaged in such activities, we would be abandoning the moral high ground. We would be stooping, it was said, to the level of our enemies.

But there was another argument against torture, and this one, it seemed, was truly a slam-dunk. Torture, according to liberal dogma, did not work. It produced information that was unreliable, and so it didn’t in any way further our efforts to halt the underground march of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Liberals adored this argument, because, of course, if torture is inhumane, and it doesn’t work, how could anyone who is sane possibly defend it? Yet as a liberal who was, and still is, steadfastly against the use of torture, I don’t think that the evidence that torture never works is nearly as definitive as a lot of liberals like to think it is. Such esteemed writers as Stephen L. Carter (The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama) and Mark Bowden (The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden) have certainly argued otherwise. And so — despite the claims of its creators — does Zero Dark Thirty.

Yet it’s a sign of how much spin is going on in relation to this issue that Manohla Dargis, in her review of the movie in The New York Times, could flagrantly misinterpret one key scene out of a politically correct desire to see Kathryn Bigelow land on the noble side of the torture debate. Dargis writes: “The abuse scenes are crucial to Zero Dark Thirty because they serve as a claim — one made cinematically rather than with speeches — that these interrogation methods are unreliable when it comes to producing actionable information.” And how, within the movie, are these methods shown to be unreliable? “It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead.” Dargis makes it sound as if Ammar offers up that lead simply because Dan and Maya decided to be “nice” to him — that when it comes to terrorist prisoners, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Actually, what Dargis leaves out is that when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, telling him (falsely) that he offered up information that led to the defusing of a terrorist attack, the only reason that they’re able to get away with that crucial lie is that he’s been so bamboozled by torture that he can’t remember a goddamn thing.

So where does Zero Dark Thirty leave us as moviegoers? I would say that it’s not a pro-torture movie, but that it’s not anti-torture either. Rather, it says — rightly or wrongly — that the extreme interrogation methods that were put into practice after 9/11 were an integral part (though far from the only part) of what led the CIA to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. And let’s be precise, for a moment, about why we needed to kill him. Some critics have labeled Zero Dark Thirty a “revenge” thriller, but actually it’s not about revenge at all. When a nation goes after those who have brazenly attacked it, it is not revenge; it’s a moral act of survival. Maya becomes obsessed with tracking down the courier who can lead to bin Laden, and the key to her obsession isn’t a desire for payback. It’s her understanding that while bin Laden, in hiding, may not be mapping out the logistics of terror in the way that he once could, his power as a figurehead still dictates the mythology of the conflict between radical Islam and the United States. Killing him was, in fact, so much bigger than revenge. It was a global/media/combat paradigm shift.

But at what cost? If Zero Dark Thirty was a movie that really had demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that torture doesn’t work (and Kathryn Bigelow is now such a virtuoso filmmaker that I have no doubt she could have made that point indelibly if she’d wanted to), it might have been a seamless celebration of true-life spy-game detective know-how. But the picture is rougher, grittier, and more dangerous than that. It shows us how, in the post-9/11 world, even CIA officers operating in their protective bunkers can get blown away by a suicide bomber. And one of the quietly subversive ways that it re-imagines what a contemporary movie heroine can be lies in Maya’s own reaction to witnessing torture. When she first arrives from Washington, she’s dewy and tentative, and we suspect that she’ll be repelled by it. But she’s not. She’s stoically accepting. She combs through grainy videotapes of prisoners who’ve been tortured, searching for clues anywhere she can — and, on several occasions, finding them. To me, that makes Zero Dark Thirty not an apology for torture so much as a powerful acknowledgement that we might never have found and killed Osama bin Laden without the willingness to enter the fog of war.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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