torture protest sign

The Morality Of Zero Dark Thirty

Do filmmakers have any obligation to portray historic events, or those with acute political sensitivity, in either an entirely accurate or morally responsible manner?


torture protest sign


The Academy Awards rarely pass without some form of controversy, often involving the threat of unilateral prank action by Sacha Baron Cohen. Yet not since Michael Moore’s blustering anti-Bush rant in 2003 has the controversy been so overtly political in nature. Katherine Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, an intelligence-centred thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been attacked by both sides of the American political spectrum. Its release date was postponed until after the US general election due to accusations that it effectively served as pro-Obama propaganda. But such claims were tepid compared with the ongoing furore surrounding the film’s depiction of torture.

In a letter to the head of the film’s production house, Sony Pictures, a trio of US senators called upon the producers to ‘consider correcting the impression’ that torture helped find bin Laden. The senators included the chairs of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein respectively, along with former presidential candidate John McCain, himself a victim of torture. These people have a greater knowledge of the efficacy of torture than most, partly owing to their recent involvement in an investigation into the US programme of ‘enhanced interrogation’ which occurred under George W. Bush. But are their criticisms warranted? Does the film actually suggest that torture led to bin Laden’s door? And if so, do its makers have any real obligation to portray things differently?

As a fan of director Bigelow’s work, particularly ‘The Hurt Locker’ which earned her the first ever Oscar for a female director, I was very keen to see how she would portray the bin Laden hunt. However, having spent several months last year researching the utility of torture as an intelligence gathering tool for my Masters dissertation, I was especially sensitive to the accusations made against the film. During my research, I found that judging the utility of the US enhanced interrogation techniques is essentially impossible: With little documentary evidence available for such a recent programme, judgements on utility are necessarily based on the weighing of claim versus counterclaim, claims which possess an almost entirely partisan colouring. Indeed, there is little consensus even among those with direct experience of the programme. Senators Feinstein and Levin have claimed that no vital information was gleaned through the interrogation programme, but notably, Republicans have refused to contribute to their investigation, and have dismissed its findings as partial and prejudiced. Therefore, no matter the judgement taken in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, it was always likely to face a measure of political opposition.

My interpretation of the portrayal made by the movie is that it shows enhanced interrogation techniques as part of the wider operation to track down the world’s most wanted man. At no point does it conclusively state that torture produced vital information, yet it certainly does imply that it helped soften up detainees so that more cooperative approaches became effective. It should be pointed out that the plot is somewhat convoluted, perhaps reflecting the actual process by which the Abbottabad compound was located, so tracking the actual path of causation between ‘Intelligence Gathering Tool A’ and ‘Vital Information B’ is far from straightforward. Nevertheless, the impression I was left with was that torture did play some sort of role. The trio of senators, in their letter to the studio and elsewhere, have insisted that torture played absolutely no role whatsoever in identifying the courier who eventually led to bin Laden. Clearly, they may well have been privy to information which conclusively shows torture to have been fruitless. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, meanwhile, claims that its portrayal is based upon accounts of those involved in the actual events depicted. The danger highlighted in the senators’ letter is that any indication that torture produced useful intelligence could be taken by audiences as an endorsement, and therefore could lead to a softening of attitudes towards torture in the US.

I sympathise with this view, but I believe that any such effect would likely be mitigated by the severity of the measures depicted in the film, which clearly falls short of anything resembling endorsement. It is for this reason that my sympathy for the senators’ concerns does not extend to those of Naomi Wolf, who recently likened Katherine Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, the pioneering German filmmaker who acted as a propagandist for the Nazi party. At worst, Bigelow’s approach was insensitive to the risk that anything short of utter condemnation could be taken as endorsement. She is not, as Wolf insists, an apologist for torture.

Of course, all of this begs the question of whether filmmakers have any obligation to portray historic events, or those with acute political sensitivity, in either an entirely accurate or morally responsible manner. I have already acknowledged the risk that certain scenes in the film could be taken as suggesting that torture helped lead toward vital intelligence, although the film does not contain an outright assertion that torture produced information. But the fact is that filmmakers are not responsible for calibrating the moral compasses of their audiences. Caution is certainly advisable when relating politically sensitive events, and the accusation that Bigelow has exercised insufficient caution in her portrayal of torture has been widespread. But to suggest that she has the duty to utterly condemn any role of torture is mistaken. Based on my research, I believe that torture, even when it produces useful information, will always prove to be strategically counterproductive, due to the seemingly inevitable escalation of its use, the inflaming of the terrorist target, and the loss of support among constituents and allies. Nothing shown in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ contradicts this view. But even if it did, it is up to audiences to draw their own conclusions on the moral issues raised. Even the ending of the film, despite its familiarity, raises questions which cast any moral certainty surrounding the killing of bin Laden into harsh relief.


Photo Credit: Fibonacci blue

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