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.