Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture Problem

The CIA had a banner year at the movies with feel-good Argo winning best picture.

But despite tremendous hype, Zero Dark Thirty won only a shared award for sound editing.  Now that the red carpets have been rolled up, pundits are debating whether it deserved the criticism it received or was “swift boated,” as Ann Hornaday charged on the front page of the Washington Post.

I am a huge fan of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning movie about the Iraq war, and was prepared to find Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) more nuanced than its critics alleged.

I wish it was. 

Bigelow is, of course, right to argue that “to depict events is not the same as endorsing them.”  But movies have a point of view.  And Bigelow, a brilliant director, either doesn't know what she’s doing or she intended for ZDT to lionize the CIA. 

Let's set aside the most hotly debated issue about ZDT—whether it tried to show that torture "worked" (I think it does)—and focus instead on how it portrayed the decision to torture and the people who made those decisions. Rendition, a 2007 movie about extraordinary rendition and torture, worked hard at getting you to sympathize with the torture victim.  Who are you supposed to sympathize with in ZDT?

We don't have to guess. Bigelow has said that the film is “a portrait of dedication and personal sacrifice" by CIA officers, "some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.” It is a paen to “the incredible men and women in the intelligence community who’ve dedicated their lives for our safety,” a story about those who "gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation."

This is the key to understanding both the film and why Bigelow seemed so stunned by the backlash.  She did not set out to make a pro-torture movie.  She set out to make a pro-CIA movie. She doesn't want you to like torture. She does want you to like and deeply appreciate the CIA and its officers who tortured.

In interviews, Bigelow has denounced torture as "reprehensible." But the worst things I can find her saying about the CIA torturers is that they "sometimes crossed moral lines" and were “very human."

ZDT is essentially Hurt Locker, Part II, moved from the streets of Baghdad to the CIA’s interrogation rooms in Afghanistan and the “black sites,” and its McLean, Viginia, campus. Bigelow clearly admired the brave bomb squad members in Hurt Locker despite their many flaws. She made a powerful and visceral movie about their courage, dedication, and the price they paid for it: Death, guilt, alcoholism, and broken families. She wanted you to see that sacrifice, and appreciate it. 

She did the same thing in ZDT. She made a powerful, visceral movie designed to show you the bravery and dedication of the “incredible men and women” of the CIA. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal want you to admire and appreciate the CIA officers, Dan and Maya, who tortured. They want you to understand that they tortured to keep you safe. And they want you to appreciate the risks they took, the price they paid, their friends who died. 

Bigelow and Boal are especially brilliant in presenting the bitter, deeply held narrative within the CIA that its agents do the dirty work to keep America safe and then are left to twist in the wind by politicians. “Don’t be the last person left holding the dog collar,” Dan warns Maya. The “political winds have changed,” says a senior CIA official. “I’ve got Senators crawling up my butt and they are going to want somebody’s head.” And the noble Dan offers himself up as the blood sacrifice.

There are no shades of gray here. There are white hats and black hats, and the “politicians” did everything but shoot the hero’s dog. Are we supposed to think Bigelow and Boal don't know exactly how audiences will feel about Maya and Dan or those senators?  Do they know their craft, or don’t they? I think they do. I think a former CIA agent has it exactly right when she said that in ZDT Maya is Clint Eastwood, "re-imagined as a twenty-something woman.  She gathers up a posse, heads out, and kills the bad guy.” 

The fact is that ZDT doesn't take the CIA’s side on torture. It takes its side on everything.  And that is how Kathryn Bigelow ended up making a pro-torture movie even if she didn't mean to.

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