Zero Dark Thirty or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Torture

During the era of George Bush and the increasingly widespread use of torture by the CIA and their associates, often at secretive blacksites located on the soil of repressive regimes, the debate as to the effectiveness of torture raged throughout the media. As much as the supporters of the Bush administration and others – predominantly on the right – remained staunch advocates of torture (or “enhanced interrogation” as it became euphemistically known), the reality remained clear: torture doesn’t work.

Not that this fact was problemmatic for the supporters of the use of torture working in America’s entertainment industry – Jack Bauer tortured his way through episode after episode of 24 and found it to be hugely effective. Now, hot off her Oscar-winning success with US military recruitment video The Hurt Locker, Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty manages to serve up yet another ringing Hollywood endorsement for torture in a film that claims to be “faithful to the facts”, “truthful”, “journalistic”, and “living history” even as it wilfully distorts the facts.

There has already been a great deal of debate over Zero Dark Thirty‘s endorsement of torture, more specifically how the film depicts torture as being instrumental in locating the courier who then leads them to Usama bin Laden. If not torture itself, then the mere threat of torture elicits pertinent information from detainees – any claims that Bigelow’s film doesn’t suggest torture works are thoroughly dispelled within the first hour. Despite the fact that the acting director of the CIA and the chairmen of both the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committees have publicly stated that torture played no role, Zero Dark Thirty leaves the audience believing the exact opposite – as a work of unashamed propaganda it is virtually unrivalled.

Propaganda aside (and there’s plenty more that can be said about the official narrative over the alleged killing of bin Laden, which I discussed at the time in the appropriately titled article Osama bin Laden: The Movie), Zero Dark Thirty is an unexceptional piece of filmmaking – an often langorously-paced procedural thriller, lacking in tension (not least because we’ve all seen the narrative played out on the mainstream news) and shot in the handheld vérité style which has become a cliché of the genre. All of the characters are one-dimensional: the CIA agents are professional, intelligent and committed to the task at hand, while the Arabs are almost uniformly amoral villains hell-bent on attacking Americans. We learn little from the movie about their motives – only a television showing an interview with Mayor Bloomberg after the alleged attempted Times Square bombing offers viewers a hint: “They hate us for our freedoms.” When the CIA’s Pakistani branch station chief’s name is made public following a lawsuit related to a Predator drone killing children, and an angry mob gathers outside the building, Zero Dark Thirty places its sympathy with the CIA – the context of dead innocent civilians isn’t worthy of consideration.

None of which is at all surprising when you consider the close cooperation between the CIA and the filmmakers during the production of Zero Dark Thirty. An uncritical portrayal of the world from the perspective of the CIA is to be expected when the intelligence agency played a key role in the narrative, corresponding frequently with producer/writer Mark Boal and welcoming the director at the headquarters at Langley. Just as Top Gun represented Hollywood at its most jingoistic (and saw recruitment go into overdrive), so too is Zero Dark Thirty a blatant product of the American military industrial complex, painting a black and white image of the world of “us” and “them”, “good” and “bad” even as it cheerleads for human rights abuses and extrajudicial murder.

Since the furor over the depiction of torture has been doing the rounds in the media, writer Mark Boal has responded to the criticisms with the following statement: “It’s a movie. I’ve been saying from the beginning it’s a movie. That shouldn’t be too confusing. It’s in cinemas, and if it’s not totally obvious, a CIA agent wasn’t really an Australian that was on a lot of TV shows, and Jessica Chastain isn’t really a CIA agent; she’s a very talented actress. But I think most American audiences understand that.” Aside from the fact that prior to the release of Zero Dark Thirty the makers were touting it as a work of “journalism” based on “facts” (as Glen Greenwald noted in his excellent article in The Guardian, “You can’t claim you’re doing journalism and then scream “art” to justify radical inaccuracies.”), Boal misses the fundamental point about how movies such as this do have a considerable impact on how Americans view the actions of their nation on the global arena – particularly when the film presents itself as an accurate reenactment of real events. Given that Zero Dark Thirty has received largely glowing reviews across the board and is up for a string of awards, it seems much fairer to assume that American audiences will largely lap it up uncritically, the perception of “American values” viewed through the prism of the entertainment industry reinforced rather than challenged.


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