‘Zero Dark Thirty’ torture debate obscures bigger issues

With Academy Award nominations just days away, the Oscar-winning team that includes director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal continue to endure harsh ignominy for their portrayal of torture in the Oscar-hopeful movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Over the past year and a half, they have been accused of various improprieties by the press, the left, and the right, including but not limited to: obtaining classified information from acting CIA operatives, using their extensive access to make a film that might boost Obama’s re-election campaign, and then, when the film’s release date was pushed from October 2012 to December 2012 (effectively cloistering it in the dark during the November election), the revelation of its content brought forth angry charges that the film promotes torture’s efficacy. Adding insult to injury, the film’s unflinching and uncritical presentation of torture prompted yet more accusations of moral equivalency and even moral bankruptcy.

Who said pursuing an Oscar was easy?

The conversation reached fever pitch over the last month with the film’s release and subsequently, the commencement of online voting for this year’s Oscar nominations. But although the film has captured national attention, it has been a Pyrrhic victory. 

In Washington, lawmakers are incensed at the film’s alleged intimation that coercive interrogation aided in the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. As if the use of torture wasn’t bad enough, the suggestion that it might work prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to call for an investigation into the communications between the filmmakers and their C.I.A. contacts.

At the behest of its chairwoman, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the bi-partisan committee, which also includes Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contends that the C.I.A.’s cooperation with the filmmakers was “inappropriate” and “misleading.” In their view, the filmmakers were granted information that they should not have been granted and came to conclusions they should not have come to.

In a Dec.19 letter to Michael Morell, acting director of the C.I.A., the committee unequivocally states that the revelation of bin Laden's hideout was not at all an outcome of employing torture:

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently-adopted Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program concluded that the CIA did not first learn about the existence of the bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and that the CIA detainee who provided the most accurate information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.

The film has struck both political and moral nerves. But its turn from being seen as campaign season agitprop (Obama got bin Laden!) to inspiring political shame and moral outrage (torture is evil and pointless!) has more to do with political preening and posturing than the film itself. 

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer provides the worst indictment, eloquently accusing the film of having “zero conscience” and Bigelow of “milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked.

“In her hands,” Mayer writes, “the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context.”

Mayer writes:

In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. 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.

Mayer’s beef is: How dare the filmmakers show lurid scenes of bodily abuse and human degradation without showing the concomitant agony involved in inflicting it.

The filmmakers have defended themselves by insisting their only goal was to make a realistic film without an agenda. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge,” Bigelow told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. But according to the film’s production notes, distributed to the press at a recent screening, the filmmakers were very much aware of the moral sensitivities surrounding their subject matter:

The film encompasses sweeping events spanning nearly a decade, journeying across multiple countries and involving a precisely chosen cast of hundreds…whose objective was to capture the on-the-ground reality of this mission as truthfully as possible. To that end, it pulls no punches in documenting the moral lines — including torture — that were crossed. The intention was to create a cinematic work with the sweep and human emotion of a historical novel.

The difference it seems, might be one of semantics. What do they mean by “crossed”? Judging by the film, crossed might just mean “happened.” But according to Mayer, “crossed” should mean crossing a boundary.

The filmmakers have also been accused of boundary-pushing when it comes to the truth. Mayer also unloads on them for “distort[ing] history,” in particular, the film’s alleged claim that torture helped obtain intelligence that led to the courier that led to Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout. This reasoning seems to cohere with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s view that not only is torture inhumane and immoral (and embarrassing), it is ineffective.     

But in other circles, torture’s usefulness is still a matter of debate. When C.I.A. acting director Michael Morell responded to the Senate Intelligence inquiry, he wrote: “Some [intelligence related to bin Laden’s location] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.” Furthermore, according to the New York Daily News, Morell has also said: “Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

As Mayer points out, whether or not torture “worked” is not the most important issue in this debate (she also subtly suggests that any defense of torture likely comes from “self-serving accounts of C.I.A. officers implicated in the interrogation program”). But what no one — including Mayer — seems to want to say is that all this rage at the filmmakers is sorely displaced. Regardless of agenda or implication, the filmmakers included torture in their movie because America has included torture in its war on terrorism.

Is all this outrage really about Hollywood’s misunderstanding of American wartime conduct — and/or its refusal to denounce it? Or is it sadness and shame at America’s failure to enforce its own values in a bind?

To truly discern the country’s post 9/11 values in action, one need not focus on movie scenes of torture — that may or may not have helped find Osama bin Laden — but on the actual sequence of events that occurred during Operation Neptune Spear, just around Zero Dark Thirty, the night Osama bin Laden was killed.

Read Part II