‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the narrative of torture



Approximately a week and a half before last weekend’s release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and blogger for the Guardian newspaper, wrote this piece about the film’s approach to torture. Greenwald freely admitted that he was writing that piece of criticism which film critics hate most: social commentary from a person who had not yet seen the film (Greenwald later wrote this piece after seeing the film). He was later joined by director Alex Gibney, whose film Taxi to the Dark Side was about an innocent man who was tortured and killed at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, and a trio of U.S. Senators including John McCain, who was himself tortured by the Viet Cong as a prisoner of war.

If the positions of all of those letters and blog posts could be summed up in one word, it would be Greenwald’s “propaganda.” The Obama administration offered unprecedented access to Bigelow and writer Mark Boal behind the scenes, allowing access to materials that had been heretofore classified. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to ask if the film, in addition to whatever goals it might have as entertainment, is also trying to defend some practices that the government has approved of  – for example, the fact that the Guantanamo Bay facility is still open despite Obama’s campaign promise to close it. Most of all, these pieces accuse the film of promoting the idea that torture was used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and that it provided useful information.

This is not my review of Zero Dark Thirty. My review would highly recommend the film, and it will almost surely find its way into my year-end top-ten list, but that is not what I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about is America’s narrative of torture, and how this movie – and others before it – have found themselves shaped by the narrative instead of shaping it themselves.

What Really Happened

This Washington Post article doubles as an obituary for Osama bin Laden and a detailed account of the Navy SEAL mission that took his life. It’s an impressive piece of reporting, considering that it was printed less than 24 hours after the mission took place. At least one of its claims about the mission itself – that bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield before being shot – proved to be untrue. But its description of how the CIA discovered bin Laden’s whereabouts has been confirmed by multiple sources, including Zero Dark Thirty. It will serve as my primary source for the actual course of the manhunt.

The key person in the manhunt was a special courier of bin Laden’s, who in the film is known by the pseudonym he uses with other al-Qaeda members, Abu Ahmed. The CIA was aware of his existence since very early in the war in Afghanistan, but because of his proximity to bin Laden, his actual identity was a mystery. Early in the Obama administration – almost seven years after he became known to the CIA – Abu Ahmed’s cell phone was intercepted and he was connected with a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

There was not enough certainty of bin Laden’s presence in the compound to justify a remote bombing, and after such a bombing it would be impossible to prove that the right man had been killed. After extensive electronic surveillance of the building, President Obama authorized the raid by Navy SEAL Team Six which is dramatized at the end of Zero Dark Thirty.

You’ll note that the word “torture” has not yet appeared anywhere in this section. Once Abu Ahmed’s real name was discovered, it was entirely surveillance tradecraft that led from him to the death of bin Laden, and no one disputes that. In the narrative spread by Greenwald and others, this has turned into the unequivocal statement that “torture was not involved” in the hunt for bin Laden. That statement is not a lie … but neither do we know the entire truth.


Unknown Unknowns

Once Abu Ahmed was identified, torture was not needed to find bin Laden. That is a “known known” – a thing that we know and are sure that we know. But, how was the courier identified? That is more difficult ground to tread upon.

The United States was accused of violating the Geneva Convention with many techniques that it used after the September 11 attacks. The most infamous technique that the CIA used was “waterboarding,” in which drowning is simulated by pouring water onto a cloth covering the subject’s face and nose. Other techniques that human rights organizations objected to were forcing subjects into uncomfortable “stress positions” for hours at a time, deprivation of sleep and solid food, and sexual harassment of the subject.

The Post account notes that the existence of the courier was provided by “[d]etainees,” meaning people who were held at Guantanamo Bay and other CIA “black sites” around the globe. Is it possible that torture was used on these men to obtain knowledge about the existence of the courier? Of course it is. Torture happened at those locations all of the time, both to people with information and innocent victims.

But it’s also possible that torture was not used. Senator Dianne Feinstein has even better access to classified material than was provided to Bigelow and Boal, and she says that torture was not used to find Abu Ahmed. Even if we were to discount Feinstein’s claim as politically biased, we must acknowledge that the most important arguments against torture were made by former CIA agents who had conducted successful interrogations without using torture. The existence of the courier could have come from like-minded agents for all we know. As often happens with narratives involving classified materials, there are a lot of unknown unknowns.


The Torture Narrative of Zero Dark Thirty

The film opens with 911 phone calls made during the September 11 attacks over a black screen, and then cuts immediately to the interrogation of a detainee at an unspecified black site. That detainee is held in a stress position (his arms tied to ropes hanging from the ceiling, and left there), he has clearly been beaten, and he will be waterboarded over the course of the scene. In later scenes his pants will be removed, he will be walked around on his hands and knees like a dog, he’ll be stuffed into an impossibly small box for hours at a time, and his sleep will be deprived by deafening music played for hours at a time. Later, the movie’s hero Maya (Jessica Chastain) will personally oversee the waterboarding of a different prisoner. In short, Bigelow and Boal are dramatizing those unknown unknowns, and asserting that they were filled with torture.

To say that Zero Dark Thirty is objectively pro-torture is simply not correct. The torture scenes are meant to make the audience uncomfortable. The process makes Maya uncomfortable, and it grinds down the resolve of officer who performs the torture (played by Jason Clarke) until he has to take a desk position in Washington. The film illustrates a common flaw in torture, which is that it provides unreliable information: subjects will say anything to make the pain stop. Plus, it doesn’t seem that the torture produces actionable results: Maya’s group knows about a possible attack in London, which is why they are interrogating the man in the beginning of the film, and the attack goes off unimpeded.

I highly doubt that any average citizen would walk away from Zero Dark Thirty believing that the torture methods used after September 11 were a good thing, or that they led to positive results such as the death of Osama bin Laden. However, that’s not to say that people like Gibney and Greenwald are wrong in their criticism. The narrative of the film does not put torture in a good light, but it does fit the film’s scenes torture into many higher narratives, most of which are delivered away from the movie theater, in which torture is taken for granted as a thing which must be done.


The Hollywood Torture Narrative

If I were Gibney, the scene of Zero Dark Thirty that I might object to the most is one in which Maya and other CIA employees are in a cafeteria, watching an appearance by Barack Obama on 60 Minutes that he made during the 2008 campaign. Obama signals that he will be cracking down on the practices that we’ve seen Maya and her team using earlier in the film. Maya and her team are glum, as though Obama’s declaration that “we don’t torture” is a death blow to the productiveness of their program.

This is perhaps the most common torture narrative that Hollywood gives us: it’s a thing which, however repellent, is often necessary to get results. It’s a tool in the spy’s toolbox, and we are often told by our fictional media that it is foolish to take it away. The archetypical case is the television show 24, in which Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer takes no joy in hurting people, but sees it as the only way he can obtain information under time pressure. Many torture defenders in Congress and the blogosphere would often turn around and paint 24-esque scenarios in the speeches and writing, envisioning a ticking time bomb whose detonation was imminent, with only one detainee having knowledge of its location. “Would you keep us from using every method at our disposal to find out?” they would ask, and the reason that torture was allowed for so long is that many politicians could not disagree.

An even more specific example from film is David Mamet’s Spartan, in which a Special Operations soldier played by Val Kilmer travels from Boston to Dubai in pursuit of a kidnapped daughter of the President. It is a ticking time-bomb scenario – the daughter is kidnapped on a Friday night, and when the media hears about it on Monday, the kidnappers’ only recourse will be to kill her. So the film has no compunctions about having Kilmer injure whoever is necessary to get him a clue that will move him into the next scene.”Take [the prisoner’s] eye out,” he tells a subordinate in one scene, and when he hesitates, Kilmer follows up with “You bet your life.” One can almost see Mamet, who converted to political conservatism after the 9/11 attacks and was a staunch defender of torture, asking, Would you keep this guy from using every method at his disposal? 

A second part of the torture narrative is that torture always works. We can best see this in another Mamet script, Ronin, which he wrote under a pseudonym prior to his political conversion:

 Spence (Sean Bean): Methods to withstand interrogation […] We were taught: “hold out indefinitely.”

Sam (Robert de Niro): Nobody can hold out indefinitely.

Spence: Is that so?

Sam: Yeah. Everybody has a limit. I spent some time in interrogation, once.

Larry (Skip Sudduth): They make it hard on you?

Sam: They don’t make it easy. Yeah, it was unpleasant. I held out as long as I could. But all the stuff they tried … you just can’t hold out forever. Impossible.

Larry: How’d they finally get to you?

Sam: They gave me a grasshopper.

Larry: What’s a grasshopper?

Sam: Let’s see, it’s two parts gin, two parts brandy, one part creme de menthe…

The end of that scene is important because it demonstrates what most often works in the real world. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, among others, has noted that the best intelligence is often received by taking a subject who is expecting to be tortured, and offering him a kindness instead. Zero Dark Thirty does address this – the best information is given to Maya when subjects who are anticipating waterboarding are given food and cigarettes – but those subjects have already been tortured before. That’s not how the kindness method works: you offer the kindness instead of torture, not as part of a good cop/bad cop routine.

Even staunchly anti-torture films like Edward Zwick’s The Siege (a flawed film which nonetheless seems prescient when you watch it in the post-9/11 era) attack the practice from a moral position, that the U.S. shouldn’t torture because it’s not what free societies do. Even then it’s assumed that the torture will get some kind of information that the torturer can use. It’s the rare film that actually takes the position which Quentin Tarantino articulated in Reservoir Dogs: “You beat this guy long enough and he’ll tell you that he started the Great Chicago Fire, but that doesn’t necessarily make it f—–g so!”


The Importance of Narrative

In general I think that Greenwald is wrong: Zero Dark Thirty is not a pro-torture film in the way that I might describe 24 as a pro-torture TV show. As Criticwire’s Matt Singer said to me during a prolonged Twitter argument about Greenwald’s piece, the reason torture is in the movie is because the United States tortured people. This is a dramatization of certain people’s lives during a certain part of history, and during that part of history – no matter how shameful someone like myself might find it – we were torturing people. You can’t just shove that under the rug if you’re trying to make an honest film that carries the “based on a true story” tag.

But, for the sort of film buffs who are likely to be reading this piece, Gibney’s piece is the much better read, and he makes an equally important point: even in a well-made film that operates in a moral or political gray area, having torture as part of the narrative has certain implications. The defenders of torture – and not just former Bush Administration members, but also the people in the media and blogopshere who supported them – want torture to be in the narrative in any capacity, because then they can draw a line directly from that torture to any later triumphs in the war on terror. Even if step A is “warming up” a prisoner with torture, step B is the offering of kindnesses to that prisoner instead, and a later step Z is the death of Osama bin Laden, that is still a triumph for torture in some people’s eyes. And because step A was those people once having the ear of a President, a later Step Z was the death of the subject of Taxi to the Dark Side, an innocent man.

A child who was born on September 12, 2001 is now eleven years old. They may have already had history lessons on the attacks in school; more importantly for readers of this website, they’ve already wanted to get into PG-13 movies which would have aired the Zero Dark Thirty trailer. Torture may have been involved in the real narrative, even if tangentially, and I will never say that Zero Dark Thirty should ignore that fact. But there are no narratives which try to tell us that torture might not have been involved, which is a story that the child’s eyes also deserve to see.

–Mark Young

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