A Look at the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Torture Controversy

Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty
Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As will always be the case with humanity, the search for black and white answers will come before examining something as a whole and realizing there are several vantage points from which something can be observed. It's the reason Siskel and Ebert offered thumbs up or thumbs down and the reason RottenTomatoes.com is more popular than MetaCritic.com. Why give me a number that doesn't say "good" or "bad" when I can look at an arbitrary picture of a ripe tomato or splattered green one? Society wants easy answers to tough questions and when they don't get them, they look for them and do their very best to fit a square peg into a round hole. Such is the case with Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty... and the film hasn't even hit theaters yet.

The ridiculousness hit a tipping point on this site when a reader bombard me with everything he "knew" based on what he'd read and/or heard. He links to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald's article, which he notes has now been updated after Greenwald finally saw the film. Our commenter then links to The New Yorker's Jane Mayer's article, which has been given added weight as Mayer wrote "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals".

Both pieces have been widely read and distributed. Greenwald's argument began before he saw the film. He was upset by what he'd read, later saw the film and after which concluded "the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned." Essentially, it fit into the box he created and then some. Considering this confirmation bias, I can't take him seriously.

Mayer's piece is interesting in that she is undoubtedly an authority on torture, but she seems more upset the film portrays torture in one way and then doesn't fit into the box she wants it to fit in:

[W]hat is so unsettling about Zero Dark Thirty is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.'s "enhanced interrogation techniques" played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that "we first learned about 'the facilitator / courier's nom de guerre' from a detainee not in the C.I.A.'s custody." Panetta wrote that "no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier's full true name or specific whereabouts."

The quotes from Panetta's letter are important to note in the way in which they are worded, and for anyone that has not yet seen the film and doesn't wish to have the central narrative spoiled may want to avoid the rest of this article as plot details will be revealed.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Keeping the quotes above in mind, I will turn to Emily Bazalon from Slate who describes the torture scene from the beginning of the film and the path it takes to revealing a certain piece of information that proves key to the hunt for Osama bin Laden:

In the long first sequence, we see a man named Amar strung up on ropes; soon, a CIA agent is waterboarding him. Another agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on--it seems to be her first "enhanced" interrogation. We see Amar's treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she's witnessing she's also fighting off any feelings of revulsion...

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar's pain--but we also feel Maya's sense of urgency... Soon we witness a bombing in Saudi Arabia--a bombing Maya and her colleagues were trying to prevent through their interrogation of Amar. They've failed. But then Maya has the idea of bluffing. Amar has short-term memory loss due to sleep deprivation (another form of torture) and of course has no access to news. Maya suggests leading him to believe that the Saudi bombing was thwarted because Amar had given up information about the plot. Plying Amar with food and playing on his mental weakness as a result of his torture Maya and her colleague make the subterfuge work. This is the way they get Amar to reveal the name of Bin Laden's courier. [NOTE: Amar reveals a name, not the actual name of bin Laden's courier.]

It's important, I think, that the grim scenes of Amar's torture do not lead directly to any revelation of Bin Laden's whereabouts. Amar's torture leads to a name, a possible connection to the al-Qaida leader. And as we learn in a subsequent scene, the existence of that courier was not new to the CIA agents: We see Maya watching tapes of other interrogations, brutal and not, in which this courier is discussed; though he's called by different names, he's come up before. The movie thus doesn't show a vicious act of torture leading straight to a game-changing piece of intelligence, or even a unique piece. After all, the interrogation of Amar takes place in 2004; Bin Laden remained free for seven more years. And yet it's Amar's information that feels crucial, because it's presented as the root of Maya's obsession with this particular lead. This is the way in which the movie credits torture: It suggests that the tenacious agent who led the hunt wouldn't have been moved to do so without this piece of information given up by a detainee who'd been tortured.

With that knowledge, let's go back to Panetta's letter, which you can read in full right here:

Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002. It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier's role were alerting.

In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

Zero Dark Thirty NEVER diverts from the information above. We never see a CIA detainee reveal "the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts". We do see them present "false or misleading information" and when he writes "we first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody," note how it isn't said that a detainee in CIA never mentions the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre, but simply that they didn't "first learn" the name from a detainee.

However, I don't want to discount Mayer's argument altogether, because there are important factors to take into consideration when dealing with a movie in general and I don't want to suggest this isn't an important subject of conversation or that Mayer is completely off base. Following the Panetta quote Mayer writes:

The Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have undermined the film's version of events further still. "The original lead information had no connection to C.I.A. detainees," they wrote in their own letter, revealed by the Post last year. Feinstein and Levin noted that a third detainee in C.I.A. custody did provide information on the courier, but, importantly, they stressed that "he did so the day before he was interrogated by the C.I.A. using their coercive interrogation techniques." In other words, contrary to the plotline of Zero Dark Thirty, and contrary to self-serving accounts of C.I.A. officers implicated in the interrogation program, senators with access to the record say that torture did not produce the leads that led to finding and killing bin Laden.

Again, the "original lead information had no connection to C.I.A. detainees". Fine, as Bazalon already noted, the reveal from the interrogated detainee was simply what sent Maya on her hunt and was the piece of information she most attached herself to after learning of the name... It doesn't suggest the "lead" actually came from a CIA detainee. This is a situation in which people are simplifying the plot for their own needs, but at the same time bringing up an important issue.

The larger issue is whether or not a general audience member will watch Zero Dark Thirty and not read between the lines and come out believing torture did in fact lead to vital information that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. It's one thing to say a film flat out depicts torture as an effective means of searching for information and another to say it can be interpreted that way. Again, it's the issue of black-and-white versus shades of grey.

What is important to note, however, comes in the second half of what is quoted above where Mayer wrote: "Feinstein and Levin noted that a third detainee in C.I.A. custody did provide information on the courier, but, importantly, they stressed that 'he did so the day before he was interrogated by the C.I.A. using their coercive interrogation techniques.'"

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the torture scene described above and ends with bin Laden's death in 2011. Nine years are covered in a matter of 157 minutes. To this I want to remind you that everything you see is not exactly as it happened. Yet, people are still grabbing onto quotes, taking them out of context to sell a different story.

  • Lenny feder

    Loved this article, Brad. Extremely informative. I'm catching it in New York when it opens Wednesday and all I had read (not as varied as all the sources you listed) had been deriding the film for its depiction of torture. I thought the criticism made the narrative decision seem suspiciously pact, as in I didn't think they would make it that black and white. Thank you for a thoughtful clarification.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    "the conversation will most likely be over before it ever has a chance to begin, but such is the way of the world today."

    - Thank you for acknowledging this.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      "their anger and/or frustration with Zero Dark Thirty stems from the perception the narrative presented could be interpreted as saying torture provided valuable information."

      - Ah, an assumption on your part. No mention was made about the criticism the film has received (like Argo before it) of jingoism (which has nothing to do with the torture debate). Also, nothing is said about the possible conflict of interest between the filmmakers and the CIA and the White House. What does it say about the alleged "apolitical" nature of the film if most of the research and information was provided by government sources?

      • Scott

        Fair, but for a clandestine mission in this part of the world -- where the concept of independent local media is rather absurd -- what would constitute a non-government source? Info from the Pakistani government? The accounts from the Navy SEALs?

        I agree generally with the thoughts of Fox and Gautam below.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          That's fine, just as long as we aren't purporting to be objective and unbiased.

          My question: Can we really refer to ourselves as "journalists" if we're getting all our information from one side?

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

            "Side" is a bad word. I like "source" better.

      • Jarrod

        You have not seen the film.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          Well, if you're going to delete my comment then you have to delete Jarrod's as well; seeing as the only time the man comments on the site is when he attacks me...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fox/ Fox

    "Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be... Our agenda isn't a partisan agenda -- it's an agenda of trying to look behind the scenes at what went down. Hopefully art or cinema can present a point of view that's a little above the political fray, but that doesn't mean the political narrative doesn't try to assert itself and pull you back in."

    ^^This. They say they're not trying to advocate torture. There. Case closed.

    What they're trying to do is make an entertaining movie that will bring in a lot of money. The fact is that these types of movies and shows (24) are popular with mainstream audiences. What that says about society I don't know, but I think we should take a step back and view this as what it's intended to be: entertainment.

    In the end, the people who don't like this kind of film are going to complain and those who do will not. It's fairly simple.

  • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

    I still can't fathom, if the people have issues with torture or the film showing torture to elicit information or both. In either case, I don't think you can blame film-makers or call the film as propaganda. As Bigelow rightly put it "Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was."
    What's hypocritical is people saying that torture didn't lead to Osama bin Laden but does that mean it's okay if torture doesn't elicit information but NOT okay if it does.
    In either case torture did happen. Now whether it's right or not, is completely different debate.

  • Chris138

    All of this hoopla surrounding the film kind of reminds me of what happened with Oliver Stone and his film JFK. He claimed that movie would be a "history lesson" for audiences, which I don't necessarily buy. Does it raise some interesting questions? Sure. But I don't think Oliver Stone has all the answers to something like the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

    Regardless, does any of the possible (and often accused) historical inaccuracies hinder the filmmaking? Not at all. It's a fantastic piece of cinema, with an engaging narrative, strong performances and unbelievable editing. In instances like these, I prefer to look at the film and its artistic qualities first before any message or political allegories that some take issue with. I think most of these messages in movies often reflect more of the viewer and what they bring to it rather than the filmmakers.

    I am withholding any judgement about this film until after I see it, which I am looking forward to.

  • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

    I completely agree with Chris here. To elaborate further, I wrote a piece of Why I love cinema few days back on my blog, here is an excerpt for it which goes perfectly with what I have trying to say.
    "Cinema is not a form of education, rather it's a form of experience. While many believe that cinema can act as guidance to society and subsequently help in influencing the masses, I believe the contrary. Cinema can't educate society rather it can be a mirror to it. So eventually it boils down to individuals. What can they imbibe from cinema ? An individual can take away from cinema what he wants to or rather what he is willing to"

    Full article below in case anyone is interested ..


    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      "Cinema is not a form of education"

      - Exactly. So as long as we aren't pretending to be educating people and saying "this is how it went down," we're all good.

      • http://cinemmaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

        It's not the film or film-makers who are educating, it's people like Greenwald who think they are.
        I have also said above "So eventually it boils down to individuals. What can they imbibe from cinema ? An individual can take away from cinema what he wants to or rather what he is willing to"

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HarryFuertes/ Harry Fuertes

          Exactly my point. Kathryn Bigelow hasn't called this film the end-all be-all Bin Laden raid film. This is just her dramatization of what she and Mark Boal believe is what happened that night or the nine years before it whether it's true or not. It's true in their eyes because Boal and Bigelow have been quoted saying she wanted this film to be as accurate as possible. Not 100% true and reliable, but it doesn't matter. This is just cinema. Unless it's a well made documentary, it is probably not true or jus more cinematic than it appeared in real life. Now, I'm super excited to see this film and I'll probably have more to say on this subject when that time comes, but in my opinion, this "torture" debate has really blown way too high even though like 85% of the people haven't even seen it yet.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

            "Now, I'm super excited to see this film"

            - Why? Has the controversy made you more excited?

            • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HarryFuertes/ Harry Fuertes

              No, that was a mistake on my part. It would have sounded better if I had spoken it out loud instead of behind a screen. This controversy however is just ridiculous in my opinion.

              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS


        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          Whoa, who's said anything about Greenwald?

          "It's not the film or film-makers who are educating"

          - Well, then it was probably a mistake for Bigelow to praise herself for taking a "journalistic" approach to the filmmaking. Sorry friend, I know you hate the connotation that comes with the word "journalistic," but those are her words, not mine.

          Definition of the word "journalism" (via thefreedictionary.com):

          "The style of writing characteristic of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences WITH LITTLE ATTEMPT AT ANALYSIS OR INTERPRETATION." - Emphasis added.

          I suppose you're going to argue that people don't seek out journalism in an effort to be educated...

    • Olaf

      "Cinema is not a form of education, rather it's a form of experience."
      Don't we learn from our experiences, or in other words: isn't every experience educational?
      "Cinema can't educate society..."
      Maybe not directly, but it is naive to assume that there are movies which do not confirm or question an audience's view of life in one way or another and thus educate all of us. All films are political or exponents of a certain ideology. Even Adam Sandler comedies and "The Expendables" send messages that an audience picks up on - whether they are conscious of it or not. In fact, those messages might be most potent if the audience is not aware of them...

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        Yes. This.

      • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

        @ Olaf,

        What you are talking about is learning, and learning can happen in two forms - education and experience. Basically, cinema doesn't instruct or teach. It depends on viewers how they discern it.

        I would suggest read my complete article to understand what I am trying to say.

      • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

        "Even Adam Sandler comedies and "The Expendables" send messages that an audience picks up on - whether they are conscious of it or not. In fact, those messages might be most potent if the audience is not aware of them..."

        Again you are confirming on what I am saying that it boils down to individuals how and what they want to take away from it. If you think cinema can educate society, you are also blaming it for things like gun crimes etc which I don't think it is right. It's the individual who interprets the way he does.
        Same goes with ZD30. You can't blame it to propagate torture to society, just because certain individuals think it does.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          I just don't see how you can say (if I'm understanding you correctly) that cinema doesn't influence the way people think. Just look at the influence Leni Riefenstahl's films had on the German people. Those films only furthered the Nazi cause.

          • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

            I never said cinema doesn't influence people. But what you are citing is one of the instances where cinema influenced every individual the same way. But still I won't call it education. I would rather believe that all the individuals had similar experiences watching Riefenstahl's films.

  • Chris138

    Glenn Kenny wrote something in response to all this controversy about torture. Obviously I have not seen the film yet and can't comment on whether I think he's right or wrong, but he has seen it. Have you seen this article, Brad? Would you agree or disagree with his assessment?


  • The Jackal

    This is a film.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    The outcry about the torture is silly and overblown. Just a ridiculous way to make a bigger storm of something than need be. If anything, it's giving the movie even more publicity. If someone was really against it, they wouldn't be bringing the title into the headlines for more publicity.

    Are there torture scenes Zero Dark Thirty? Sure. Is the overall movie about torture or advocating it? No. Torture is simply an aspect of the story and a part of the plot.

    Next point, it's a freaking movie - for entertainment. If you choose to view it as a means of pushing forward an ideal or moral ground, then I suppose you were someone who criticized Ocean's Eleven because it advocated theft? I suppose you couldn't have enjoyed The Godfather, Casino, Goodfellas, etc. because they glorify the mob and murderers? The answer to these questions is that hopefully people don't view movies in these ways, since that's not what the intent was when making them.

    End rant. Just frustrating when people create controversy unnecessarily. On a side note, I loved the movie.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      The film has received many other criticisms BESIDE it's depiction of torture. So to just dismiss all criticisms on the basis that professional journalists "have nothing better to do and just got together and decided to drum up some controversy for controversy's sake" is extremely shortsighted.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

        Wasn't my intent to try and dismiss all criticisms. I was simply referring to the torture controversy that has erupted.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          I was responding to your inference that journalists are "create[ing] controversy unnecessarily" and blowing things out of proportion.

          Side note: How was Gandolfini?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    Funny you should mention him, because his performance is one of the things that stood out to me. Didn't know he was in this movie going into it (avoided trailers) and was very impressed by his work. Great execution of his supporting role.

    Complete 180 from him in Killing Them Softly for me.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

      In case it's not obvious, I meant to respond to AS's comment with this

  • OYID

    I think some of the people defending the movie may not understand its attackers' issue with the film. Here is some of it, in a nutshell: http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/25/zero-dark-thirty-normalises-torture-unjustifiable

    Basically what Zizek is saying is that to depict torture neutrally is a form of endorsement in and of itself. While I don't necessarily agree with him (I'm with Brad I this issue), I think this is a point that needs to be made, as it enriches the conversation.

  • C.L. Ball

    Taking" Zero Dark Thirty" to be a documentary of the Bin Laden hunt is like taking "The Hurt Locker" to be a documentary of bomb disposal units. As Brad says, it is a procedural and the trick with procedurals is to not lose the procedure in the characters or the characters in the procedures. In some ways, the suspense is inherent in the topic of procedurals (a murder, a manhunt), and the skill is in making the suspenseful, compelling. It is much harder here since we know the outcome.

    But as Brad said, the problem is that the opponents and proponents of torture bring their own agenda to the table. In the film, despite the torture -- the classic justification being the ticking time-bomb -- they fail to avert the Saudi bombing. This would be an example against the effectiveness of torture. The dramatic device of the hero finding an insight in a tangential case is hardly novel. It is meant to show how clever, lucky, or devoted our hero or heroine is.