'Zero Dark Thirty' Movie Review: Torture Scenes Aren't Too Extreme


Kathryn Bigelow, the Academy Award-winning director most famous for her film The Hurt Locker (2008), has again decided to tell a story on the big screen about America’s affairs in the Middle East. In her latest film Zero Dark Thirty, she chooses the definitive high point as her subject: the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

The film has already stirred up plenty of controversy. After seeing the film, three U.S. Senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, along with Republican John McCain, wrote a letter condemning the film’s portrayal of torture as it was used to acquire intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden.

"Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative," the letter said.

Likewise, Michael Morrell, acting director of the CIA., issued a statement to his staff, available on the C.I.A.’s website, detailing some of the points where the Zero Dark Thirty departs from reality.

“Some (intelligence that led to finding Bin Laden) came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, 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,” the statement said.

This raises the question: Should Kathryn Bigelow change the torture scenes?

The film is clearly concerned with staying at least somewhat accurate to history. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal consulted Navy Seals and CIA members who were involved in the mission. The New Yorker notes that Bigelow and Boal were well on their way to making a film about how Osama Bin Laden had got away after the 9/11 attacks when President Obama announced that a Navy Seal raid killed him. That’s when she shifted course and decided to make a film about the raid itself.

Obviously, Bigelow is under no obligation to change the torture scenes because Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t market itself as historically factual. “It’s a movie, not a documentary,” said Boal. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program.” Bigelow herself claims that “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” If viewers construe the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” as instrumental to locating Bin Laden in reality, that is ultimately their responsibility.

Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that the average, less-informed viewer will consciously or unconsciously make that connection and let it shape his or her perception of the raid. In defense of the Senators, movies by their very nature communicate ideas and cause-and-effect relationships even if the filmmaker makes no claims or attempts at an agenda. Zero Dark Thirty must have at least seemed to condone torture enough that the Senators felt the need to make a public statement about it. Because of our proximity to the event, their concerns are understandable. The agents and government leaders portrayed in the film are still working today, for the most part. Unlike films based on older historical accounts, people alive today have a stake in how the story of the Bin Laden manhunt is perceived.

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote the definitive piece that argues why Bigelow shouldn’t have portrayed torture as she did. Mayer rightly notes that the debate over torture deserves a prominent place in our cultural consciousness, just as it was a point of contention in the Bush administration. I haven’t seen the film yet, but Zero Dark Thirty may very well have missed an opportunity to add another layer of drama in the form of its own self-doubt about the use of torture to acquire intelligence.

Based on what I’ve read, however, I still side with Bigelow for one simple reason. One fundamental saying among screenwriters is that “story is king.” People can tell if a film has an overt moral or political agenda. The Hurt Locker made no such pretenses, and based on the reviews so far, it seems the same is true of Zero Dark Thirty. It has already been crowned the best movie of 2012 by the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, Boston Society of Film Critics, and even the Huffington Post. Oscar mentions abound. That kind of response doesn’t happen unless a film is chiefly concerned about telling an awfully good story. Like it or not, torture adds drama (case in point: 24).

We don’t go to the movies for factual accounts and reality — that’s what the news is for (at least it should be!). We go to the movies because we love a good story — a compelling “myth” so to speak, that tells us about who we are as a people and resonates with our beliefs, ideals, and experiences. Much has been said about the Bin Laden raid and much is yet to be revealed. This generation will never know with certainty all of the details behind the raid. The military would be crazy to tell us everything. They never have and they never will. Someone telling a story like this on the big screen should have plenty of artistic leeway to fill in some of the unknown gaps and adjust the story to maximize drama and entertainment value.

One of the roles of today’s filmmaker is to create the cultural “myths” that capture the spirit of our generation. The Bin Laden raid, as the pinnacle of the War on Terror era, is such a story. If Bigelow spins the tale in such a way that people enjoy it and can get behind the broader sentiment that justice has finally been served, no one should be able to say otherwise. Let’s just make sure we keep movies like Zero Dark Thirty in the proper perspective.