Known Knowns, and Known Unknowns: On Torture in “Zero Dark Thirty”

Note: Some spoilers will follow, but as the film is based on a true story, you may already know them....

David Braga

Contributor

Note: Some spoilers will follow, but as the film is based on a true story, you may already know them.

The United States of America tortures people. It employs a variety of ways of doing this. Blasting heavy metal music at ungodly volumes to deprive detainees of sleep. Waterboarding. Physical beatings. Forced physical and sexual degradation. Dogs. These are all methods used to break the mind and will of a prisoner in order to extract valuable information. It is, depending on who you are, a deserved punishment, a necessary evil, or a distressing truth; maybe all of three at once.  But it is a truth nonetheless.

The United States also killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and man responsible for September 11th terrorist attacks, along with other terrorist attacks that claimed the lived of thousands of innocent civilians throughout the world. His death was the product of years of dedicated research and intelligence gathering, topped off by a secret raid carried out by Navy SEALs in May 2011.

Whether or not these two things overlap is at the heart of a controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for Bin Laden, from its early days after 9/11 up to the raid that killed him. The film, sure to at least make the final nomination list for a slew of hardware at the Academy Awards, has been the subject of fierce debate over how it presents and interprets the effectiveness of torture in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Early on in the film, CIA operatives are seen using some extremely enhanced interrogation methods to question a prisoner about his involvement in the Saudi Group and any intel he may have regarding the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. This prisoner is waterboarded, stripped naked from the waist down in humiliating fashion, and locked inside of a small wooden box, among other things. Eventually, this prisoner mentions the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier for Bin Laden that was eventually tracked to the Abbottabad compound where Osama himself was located. It should be noted that the actual naming of Abu Ahmed occurs at a rather civilized lunch between the prisoner and his interrogators, but this lunch only occurs after the prisoner has been systematically broken down by long periods of torture and isolation, allowing the interrogators to play certain games with his memory and sense of time and place.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t pull any punches with its depictions of the unsavoury methods used to try to extract this information. They’re brutal and hard to watch, and can hardly be viewed as feel good, pro-America moments. But where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (potentially) get into trouble is by seemingly implying that the use of torture was not only important, but actually essential, to finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. The problem with this assertion being that while Zero Dark Thirty claims to be a film based on concrete facts and first hand accounts, there is serious disagreement over whether or not torture (specifically waterboarding) actually played a part in the discovery of Bin Laden’s courier, and eventually, the Abbottabad compound.

Several US Senators, including former Presidential candidate John McCain (himself a torture victim during the Vietnam War), have blasted the film for misleading viewers by asserting that torture was integral to the discovery of Bin Laden’s compound.  McCain, along with two other Senators, (including Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee), released a statement sent to the Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, where they labelled the film “grossly inaccurate and misleading,” citing their review of CIA records that show that torture was not an effective technique in the hunt for Bin Laden.

But according to statements from other members of the intelligence community, an argument can be made that torture, in fact, may have played an important role in the discovery of Bin Laden after all. There are statements made by several high ranking members of the intelligence community that contradict McCain and Feinstein’s assertions, many of which date back to the immediate aftermath of the raid. On May 3rd, 2011, the day after Bin Laden was killed, CIA chief Leon Panetta confirmed in an interview with NBC that “enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission’s success.” The same day, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld echoed the same idea in an interview with FoxNews’ Sean Hannity.

But then, only a few days later, a letter from Panetta was released which seemed to undercut his earlier statement that torture played a vital role in the mission. The letter did not say that torture provided no useful information, but downplayed its role and emphasized the massive size and scope of the intelligence gathering operation that led to the mission’s success. This, of course, only makes the truth murkier.

In terms of how this affects the authenticity and ethics of Zero Dark Thirty, there are basically two issues at play. The first is whether or not torture did, in fact, play a role in providing information that was vital to locating and killing Bin Laden. The second issue is whether it’s right for Bigelow and Boal to assert that it did while the truth remains so cloudy, and if making such a tenuous assertion is somehow wrong or unethical in a film that goes out of its way to state its credibility.

Regarding the first issue, there’s only so much that we can know. The intelligence community, former operatives, administrators, Senators, and the filmmakers all have a narrative that they’re pushing, each with their own sources and research to back them up. The current dominant narrative seems to be that torture was not, as had earlier been suggested, effective in providing the information that led to Bin Laden’s death. But this is only the most recent narrative, and there have been many others over the years that have been challenged and changed as new information is made public. Who can be sure how long this is will be the accepted version of the story?

It’s also important to remember that there are serious political, and potentially even criminal, implications to these enhanced interrogation methods. Torture is a direct violation of the several international human rights agreements, including the Geneva Conventions. How the tenuous legality of these enhanced interrogation practices shapes the amount and validity of about them may never be known. The possibility of protecting the image of a country, along with its citizens operating overseas, must be taken into account. The point being that while we know certain things about torture, its applications, and its effectiveness, it’s difficult to imagine that we may ever know the entire story. There will always be unknowns.

The second issue, at least in my mind, comes down to a matter of personal opinion. Typically, I support a filmmaker’s (or screenwriter’s) right to create a presentation of events as they understand them in order to communicate a certain vision or meaning to the audience. The Social Network, for example, takes certain liberties with the relationships and characterizations of the individuals responsible for creating Facebook, but it does so in order to create a bigger picture how the Internet has shaped our lives, how traditional strength and masculinity (the Winkelvoss twins) has been replaced by online prowess and intelligence (Zuckerberg, Parker and Co.), and so on. The Social Network was based on a book (The Accidental Billionaires) that very clearly only presented part of the story, without participation of both sides. This is relatively well known information. With Zero Dark Thirty, however, things are complicated by the fact that the film asserts itself as a fact-based picture, and feels more like a documentary-style recreation than a traditional narrative. This is cinema as journalism, and because of that, the unobstructed truth is much more important than it would be in an intentionally dramatized retelling.

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To some degree, I am glad that the film at least showed how ugly torture can be. Torture is an unfortunate legacy of the War on Terror, and it shouldn’t be something that we simply forget or brush away. We did it, now we have to own up to it. The film does well not to apologize for it or condone it; rather, it is simply left as a part of the story. Zero Dark Thirty’s heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is initially disgusted by it, but eventually complicit in using it to get information. Almost everyone is dirtied by it. It can’t be brushed away or forgotten about. In this regard, Zero Dark Thirty handles the subject well.

But I have uneasy feelings about the way these events are presented in the film in connection with its outcome. Because of the way the film is arranged, I came away from it feeling that torture was essential to the success of the manhunt. If that isn’t the truth, if in fact torture did not produce valuable information in finding Bin Laden, then the film isn’t just incorrect, it’s potentially also dangerous. Because then we have a film that seems to vindicate the effectiveness of torture for those that support it, when that may not have really been the case. And right now, at least in my mind, there’s just too much uncertainty around whether or not torture was helpful in finding Bin Laden for me to feel right about how the film draws connections and conclusions between the torture of prisoners and the success of the operation.

How you feel about the depiction and meaning of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is, of course, a matter of personal opinion. And if nothing else, it’s good that a film has stirred up a real debate about such a controversial method of intelligence gathering and whether its usefulness outweighs its cruelty. If you’ve seen the film and want to weigh in on how you felt about its depiction of torture, the ethics of presenting questionable facts in a supposedly true to life film, or how you felt about the picture as a whole, comments and discussion are encouraged.