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'Zero Dark Thirty': Interrogating Reality

The "problem" with "Zero Dark Thirty"'s portrayal of torture isn't the portrayal itself, but what it represents. Even though waterboarding is now prohibited, that hasn't diminished its value for some in government. To assume torture is a thing of the...

What more can be said about the controversy over the kill-Osama film Zero Dark Thirty? Not much it seems, but maybe something can be sung about it.

The discussion centers around a harsh set of scenes at the start of the movie, all desert-bright and painted-goggles dark, set at one of the secret prisons where CIA employees tortured presumed terrorists. When we enter an impromptu dungeon at one point, the music blasting from a PA system is loud and significant: "Pavlov's Dogs" by the seminal New Jersey hardcore band Rorschach. Like the spy lingo that fills up much of this detective story ("Oh dark thirty" means 12:30 am in military speak), like the "war on terror" itself, the lyrics are hard to decipher. But as evidence of the movie's controversial treatment of torture, they deserve to be part of the official record:


Open wounds

Never heal


I sense no pain


Over and over again


The bell has rung

What have I said

What have I done


To the act

Not realizing until

After the fact

Everything evil

Becomes serene

Drilled in my head

What does it mean

Scoring your torture scene with a song about behaviorial conditioning by a band named after the father of projective psychology (you can listen here) speaks volumes about the filmmakers' attention to detail, and their interest in making a point without making it directly. But unless you know the song (I hadn't ever heard it--Motherboard video editor Chris O'Coin tipped me off), its message of unconcious evil gets buried inside the scene. Otherwise, it's just very loud noise, just another part of the torture process, another part of the war and the debate that never seems to end.

The music fades, and you see the sweaty interrogator's patience wax and wane as he stares down the bad guy in this anonymous room, and points at the little box he promises to stuff him into ("When you lie to me, I hurt you," he says), and you think about the lengths that the U.S. government went to also, in far-flung places with thousands and thousands of people working in secret, at costs that will never fully be calculated, in order to protect Americans from more terrorism. You see the frustrated search crash up against bureaucracy and dead leads and suicide bombers. And the CIA heavies in ski masks move in to hold the detainee down and make him think he's drowning.


"We tried to capture the history the best we could in the context of the drama," screenwriter Mark Boal said recently. "But hopefully [also] capture this moment in American life and make something, because it's such a heavy topic in a way and hopefully stands up to the test of time. So, five or 10 years from now they could look back on this and say, 'Hey, they more or less got this right.'"

It might take that long. Critics have embraced Zero Dark Thirty even as they've attacked it for its depiction of waterboarding and other CIA-practiced torture techniques. Alex Gibney, who made Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about a taxi driver who was tortured to death at a US Army base in Afghanistan, called it a "cinematic masterwork," but added that "what Boal/Bigelow fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results." Others have called the movie "grossly inaccurate," "middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day" and "a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda." David Edelstein described it as "borderline fascistic." Jane Mayer accused director Kathryn Bigelow of "milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked." Glen Greenwald compared her to Leni Riefenstahl.

Diane Feinstein, one of the senators behind a still-classified report on torture, wrote to Sony Pictures demanding they acknowledge the film's inaccuracies, namely its "suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden." She added, "The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse for these reasons alone, but more importantly, because it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because it is an affront to America’s national honor, and because it is wrong… We cannot afford to go back to these dark times…"


But there is a difference between showing that torture happened and arguing that it was a good, important thing to do. The movie only does the former, and even if its verite style (there are echoes of The Battle of Algiers) makes it tempting to conflate the actions of the characters on screen with decisions that were made in real life, following that temptation is like shooting the messenger. Just as the movie offers no sentimentality for the victorious bin Laden manhunt, there's nothing fetishistic or indulgent about the movie's torture scenes either. They're simply terrible to watch.

“Without the honesty and the integrity of that sequence, you’re not gonna feel the weight of the end,” said Jeremy Clarke, the actor who plays the film's CIA torturer, during a recent Q&A. “I know for myself and Reda [Kateb] who shot the scene, we were grateful. Reda’s a French-Moroccan actor and he was grateful to get in there and explore that part, and then show this story as we know the facts demonstrate.”

The "problem" with Zero Dark Thirty's portrayal of torture isn't the portrayal itself, but what it represents. Even though waterboarding is now prohibited, that hasn't diminished its value for some in government. To assume torture is a thing of the past—or to criticize Zero Dark Thirty for not "banishing" it from serious public discourse—seems to be counterproductive to stopping it, if that's even what we want to do.

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