I saw “Zero Dark Thirty” over the weekend, and came out with decidedly mixed reactions.
Yes, it’s well done. Fine writing, acting, direction and all that. But if Kathryn Bigelow was going to bring torture into the capture-of-bin-Laden narrative, she should have been more truthful. Because following the narrative of partial facts and dead-end leads is difficult, most viewers, I fear, will come out of the movie assuming torture played a role in nailing Osama. They won’t know from the movie that the heads of the joint Intelligence Committees in Congress say torture had nothing to do with it. Because the actors playing CIA torturers say nothing out loud about whether the methods they are using are smart or dumb, legal or illegal, moral or not — in one scene they are shown watching an interview with the new president in which Obama declares torture must not be used, their expressionless faces revealing nothing — viewers don’t know that CIA torture was fiercely opposed by the FBI, the military and by strong voices inside and outside the Bush administration.
Bigelow says she took no position on torture. It was part of the story of the hunt for bin Laden, so it had to be in the movie.
Jane Mayer, who wrote the book on the CIA’s torture tactics, writes:
The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government. The debate echoed the moral seriousness of the political dilemma once posed by slavery, a subject that is brilliantly evoked in Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln”; by contrast, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a good movie, but it’s mytho-history, and mytho-history is especially dangerous when it shapes public views on contemporary topics not yet settled for much of the electorate, like the question of whether torture is a good tool for keeping the country safe from terrorists.
As for those who might say responsible public officials won’t let popular cinema fare infect their professional judgements, I remember being stunned by one revelation in “The Dark Side”: The handful of people in the room when Dick Cheney decided to use torture in the War on Terror included no one with experience interrogating criminals. But several in the White House were big fans of “24,” the TV series in which the protagonist hero regularly saved the world by torturing bad guys into revealing where the bombs were buried. That’s how mytho-history makes real history.