ReThink Review: Zero Dark Thirty - Yes, It Endorses Torture

This undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Jessica Chastain, as Maya, a member of the
This undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Jessica Chastain, as Maya, a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives stationed in a covert base overseas, who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' new thriller, "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Chastain received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her portrayal of the young, obsessed CIA operative driving the search. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jonathan Olley)

I was dreading the announcement of the 2013 Oscars nominees, in large part because it felt like Kathryn Bigelow's film about the manhunt to find Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, was peaking at the right time and had emerged as the frontrunner in a fairly unsettled Oscar race. The source of my dread was what ZD30 says about torture (more on that below), and it both saddened and infuriated me that a film that attempts to rewrite history and validate one of the darkest sins of America's recent history might be given the world's highest storytelling honors.

ZD30 ended up nabbing five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture -- a major achievement by any measure. However, I was delighted to learn that Bigelow had not been nominated for best director. Normally, I wouldn't take pleasure in something like that, especially since I greatly admired Bigelow's Oscar-winning bomb-defuser film The Hurt Locker, but I was very glad that the Academy members who voted for Best Director were informed enough to realize that Bigelow was ultimately responsible for the three enormous, destructive lies ZD30 asserts: that torture is an effective way to gather information, that it was instrumental in locating Osama bin Laden, and that America should have never stopped doing it. Watch my ReThink Review of Zero Dark Thirty below (transcript following).


The makers of Zero Dark Thirty clearly want it to be the definitive film about the ten-year manhunt to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, claiming the film is "faithful to the facts," "truthful," "journalistic," and "living history." But if that's their claim, how come the first 30 to 40 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty are about how torture was instrumental in locating the courier who eventually led the CIA to bin Laden, despite the fact that the acting director of the CIA and the chairmen of both the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committees have publicly stated the opposite? And should the film's seeming endorsement of torture disqualify it from awards consideration?

The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a hard-charging young CIA agent who has devoted her professional life to finding bin Laden. It's Maya who believes that the path to finding bin Laden is through the courier who helps deliver his messages to Al Qaeda leaders and the media, since bin Laden would be too wary of surveillance to use phones or the internet. Maya and her colleagues attempt to locate this courier, an eight-year odyssey that involves surveillance, battles for resources, frustrating delays, life-threatening risks, and old-fashioned detective work. When the courier is finally located and leads to a suspicious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Maya is convinced that this must be bin Laden's hideout.

Based on a real person, Maya is a fascinating character that Chastain handles wonderfully, both because of and in spite of the fact that we know so little about her, she isn't the most likable person, and her single-minded dedication to her mission increasingly borders on obsession. The supporting cast -- including Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, and Harold Perrineau -- are all good and reflect the hundreds of people and the multiple organizations involved in finding and killing bin Laden. The film's natural lighting, verité shooting style, and attention to detail successfully builds tension while also showing the often unglamorous nature of intelligence work. And when the Navy SEAL raid to get bin Laden finally occurs, it happens in almost real-time over 40 gripping minutes in a carefully reconstructed replica of the actual Abbottabad compound.

But it's this attention to detail that makes the torture aspect of Zero Dark Thirty so baffling, infuriating, and unforgivable. It's been accepted for decades within the intelligence and interrogation communities that torture simply doesn't work and mostly leads to false confessions; strained relations with allies; prisoners made belligerent, insane, or useless; and victims' families, friends, and sympathizers turned into sworn enemies. At one point, Maya says that getting bin Laden would protect the homeland. But after Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, and the photos from Abu Ghraib, no one needed an order from bin Laden to justify attacking Americans or our allies.

Some critics have claimed that the torture scenes in the film reflect the "moral ambiguity" of the torture debate. But since the torture in Zero Dark Thirty is shown to be so effective, with one prisoner actually saying "I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it," and we're shown none of the many downsides to torture, the "moral ambiguity" amounts to "torture is ugly... but it works." For way too many people, that's not morally ambiguous at all, and is instead seen as the dirty but necessary work of war.

But it's a claim as factually wrong and repulsive as saying, "Rape is horrible...but some girls are asking for it." In reality, there is no debate and no "moral ambiguity" about torture. Not only is it illegal, immoral, and counterproductive, IT DOES NOT WORK. But Zero Dark Thirty, like the TV series 24, claims that torture does work, or at the very least, revives the myth that the jury is still out on torture, just as oil companies and republicans want you to think the science of global warming is inconclusive. Zero Dark Thirty works as a crime procedural, but its irresponsible, destructive, dishonest stance on torture absolutely ruined it for me, and I feel Zero Dark Thirty should not be on any best-of-the-year lists, nor is it deserving of Oscar consideration.

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