Zero Dark Thirty: is the controversy justified?

Even before its release, Zero Dark Thirty drew heated debates and after it opened in theaters, it skyrocketed to one of the most controversial political films in history. The plotline follows a dedicated, headstrong CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) as she spends close to ten years tracking down Osama bin Laden.

Photo courtesy of boingboing.net

The information for this film was gathered from interviews with CIA officials and other sources as well as with the cooperation of the director of the CIA.

Part of the controversy comes from its immediacy. As Jon Stewart said on a recent Daily Show, this film feels like something we should be watching 30 years from now. The subject matter seems at once too revealing and at other time’s like key information is missing.

The main controversy, however, comes from director Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture. Within the first five minutes of the film, the reason for the debates becomes clear. The film opens with a black screen and sound recordings of panicked phone calls made from the World Trade Center during the 2001 attacks.

The screen then fills with the scene of a CIA interrogator (Jason Clarke) torturing a man in an attempt to find out where bin Laden is hiding. The film goes on to track the gradual gathering of the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture, almost all of which is depicted as coming from torture. Some have said that this opening and subsequent scenes imply that torture, while hard to stomach, was entirely necessary. One critic even went on to say that this film is a billboard for the effectiveness of torture.

After watching this film, I did agree that the depictions of torture were flawed. The problem, for me, came from the film’s implication that information gained by torture is reliable. In Zero Dark Thirty, the interrogators knew when the person they were torturing was lying.  It has been widely published that one of the biggest flaws with using torture, aside from moral opposition, is that it has been shown that it does not produce reliable information, but this is not addressed in the film.

This flawed depiction, however, seemed, to me, less an advertisement for the effectiveness of torture and more a result of too much information crammed into too short a time. This plotline should have been expanded into a miniseries. The events seemed rushed and the characters seemed unrealistic because they are composites of a few different real people.

This is not to say that Zero Dark Thirty does not have its merits or that it is not worth watching. Technically, the film is very well-done. The editing moves the story along quickly and the filming is beautiful. Zero Dark Thirty is both well-directed and well-acted. Despite the fact that the characters’ actions felt unrealistic (in reality, several people did what one character in the film did), the characters were interesting and nuanced.

Overall, I would say this film is important to see because it creates a dialogue, but it is long and contains several intense scenes of torture. If currents events interest you, go see it while it’s out in theaters, but if not, it might be better left as something to watch on video.

  • http://www S.M. Stirling

    All information from hostile subjects is unreliable, whatever the interrogation technique. It’s a battle of wits.

  • comment

    you cite studios with no reference regarding waterboarding. you are not even a reognized authority on the subject. fail.

  • Quincy

    I think you nailed this movie on the head. You’re summation that it would be better as a mini series because there wasn’t enough time to show how much of the torture was futile. I felt at the time like they weren’t trying to say all the torture garnered useful information, just try to show how they got from point A to point B.

    I found this movie incredible. One of the best made movies I’ve ever seen. Not one that you would say you “liked” or “enjoyed”, because you shouldn’t like watching this. But a movie that really makes you think. That’s what I came away with at least.

    I’m a middle aged, rural living, life long Republican and a strong support of President Bush. I was a responder to the World Trade Center and lived in New York for several months. I saw Ground Zero. I saw the bodies. I interviewed families. I have a lot of anger at those responsible for what I’ve seen, that as a Christian I am trying to sort out. But watching the torture scenes in this movie was disturbing to me. I felt like we shouldn’t be doing something like that. We’re Americans, were better than this. I was trying to explain the movie to a like minded co-worker who hadn’t seen the movie. He said he didn’t care what we did to those involved in terrorism if it helped our cause. I told him that’s easy to say from a distance, but when you actually watch it, even in a movie, when you see another human being pleading for mercy and receiving none, it’s different. Even watching the killing of Bin Laden was moving. You can here the media say that a SEAL team stormed a strong house and killed him and 3 others, but that is so sterile and clinical. It is something else to watch them break in, like a home invasion robbery and see the fear in the children’s eyes. Sure I’m glad they did, but it made it seem a lot more real. And sad that this is the world we live in now.

    I hope none of this sounds like I am critical of the SEALs or the CIA or even the government. They did what we asked of them. We all knew this was going on and accepted it. But it’s like a person that loves a good steak but won’t go hunting and actually kill an animal or go to a slaughter house and see how it’s done. It’s a whole lot easier to accept when you bury your head to the realities of what was involved.

    I am thankful this movie was made. It made me re-think my opinions. They haven’t changed much, but I have a lot more doubts and a lot less chest thumping “go get ‘em at all costs” attitude. And wasn’t that the whole point of this movie.

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