'Zero Dark Thirty' Is Morally Complex, Ambiguous on Torture

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald started an Internet dust-up yesterday with his article "Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves."

Its inflammatory nature begins but doesn't end with the title of the piece, which, to be fair, could have been written at the prompt of editors and/or for SEO purposes — or simply to stir the muck as much as possible. Greenwald's piece simply parrots the opinions of Frank Bruni at the New York Times and New York's movie reviewer David Edelstein that "Zero Dark Thirty" purports that the brutal torture of detainees yielded useful information in the capture of Osama bin Laden. It bears mentioning Greenwald was writing about a movie he hadn't yet seen and culling together a few sources that supported his theory; although he noted that in his article, that doesn't actually mean it's always a great idea to write about a movie you haven't seen, especially in this case.

The heated debate surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty" speaks to the strength of the film itself. If it weren't fascinating, terrifying and morally complex, we wouldn't be discussing it. To be clear, "ZDT" is one of my favorite movies of the year, and one I have been highly anticipating since its announcement. The scenes that graphically portray the interrogation techniques used by the CIA are hard to watch; they might even cause some film-goers to leave, and I wouldn't necessarily blame them. Whether we like it or not, in some way or another, "ZDT" reflects these aspects of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It's not intended to be a beat-for-beat recreation of the events leading up to bin Laden's capture, and surely whatever information director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal came across in their investigation would have had to be changed up to keep the exact details secret or smoothed over to create a more typical narrative arc. The film and its characters remain morally ambiguous and this uncomfortable limbo is where the movie's strength lies.

I don't think the movie is glorifying torture, though, and it's clear that these terrible techniques don't generally work. I would argue instead that the information gleaned from these interrogations actually muddy the investigation because — guess what? — people being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. Can't blame 'em! I sure would. It would be almost impossible to impart any sort of useful information, even if one had any to give, after days and days of being emotionally, mentally and physically tortured.

Is it necessary for one of the characters to come out and say what the filmmakers think about torture? Would it even be an accurate representation of the CIA culture at that time? One agent grimly blames the Obama administration for hamstringing the investigation insofar as they no longer can rely on those techniques to extract information. Although it's one of many techniques used in the movie — and in real life, as reported in the news and shown in the photos from Guantanamo Bay — it is clearly not the most effective.

To be sure, none of the characters take a stance on torture, not even our protagonist Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. She's obviously revolted by it at the beginning, and it has its effects on Maya and even the agent who leads the interrogations, Dan, played by Jason Clarke. Although Dan jokes that it's bad to be "the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes," one can infer from his face that that isn't the only reason he goes back to Washington, D.C.

Zero Dark ThirtyAs noted by Max Evry on NextMovie.com, national security expert Peter Bergen wrote at length about this controversy. Bergen wrote, "The hunt for bin Laden could not have been accomplished without every form of American intelligence-gathering… 'Zero Dark Thirty' tries to make that point clear with gripping scenes of CIA officers using direction-finding technology to zero in on the courier's cell phone in a crowded Pakistani city. But there is little doubt that the torture scenes in the movie will be the ones that linger with filmgoers." (It should be noted that Bergen's books were valuable resources for Boal and Bieglow.)

But do the torture scenes really linger compared to the stellar performances or the nail-biting, night vision raid on the compound? Is that what captures our interest for 157 minutes? No, I don't think so. They are part of a bigger story, with ugly, all-too-human details and imperfections.