As Zero Dark Thirty has rolled out to theaters over the past month, the controversy over the film’s torture scenes has played out not only in editorial and television roundtables, but also in Congress, where it’s been condemned and subject to an official investigation on how the filmmakers got their information from the CIA. For her part, director Kathryn Bigelow has twice drawn comparison to the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl by Guardian columnists Glenn Greenwald (who opined about the film before seeing it) and Naomi Wolf, the latter of whom referred to Bigelow as “torture’s handmaiden.” Of course, that’s not to say that all the criticism directed at Zero Dark Thirty is hyperbolic or unfair: There are legitimate questions about the use of torture in the film that are worth asking, particularly on the grounds of efficacy. If Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, are saying that torture was crucial in the decade-long hunt to find Osama bin Laden—specifically in yielding the name of the courier that eventually led to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—then critics have cause for concern. A mass-market entertainment like Zero Dark Thirty, even if it’s more “journalistic” than journalism and grounded in movie fiction, has the power to set the historical narrative. And those who abhor torture are naturally inclined to reject a movie they feel favors it.
In today’s Los Angeles Times, Bigelow has written an op-ed that addresses her critics, though it already hasn’t satisfied them. She states emphatically that, “as a lifelong pacifist,” she “[supports] all protests against the use of torture, and quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.” She also suggests that those protests be “more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.” And she repeats her assertion that “depiction is not endorsement.” But here’s the money graf:
Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.
For those of us who support the film, the statement above speaks to its overall tone: The film is not only about the moral and mortal sacrifices that were necessary to get bin Laden, but questions whether those sacrifices were worth it. But what Bigelow fails to address in the op-ed are the specific scenes that suggest to some that torture was necessary in getting the job done. In other words, the film’s critics are not objecting to the depiction of torture—to show none of it would be an unconscionable whitewashing—but where torture did (or did not) lead.
Nevertheless, it’s more fuel for an ongoing discussion and can be read in full here, provided that Shockwave doesn’t torture your browser to death.