Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John McCain joins the "Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture" debate

Illustration for article titled John McCain joins the "Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture" debate

In case you haven't checked out any of the reviews or listened to political pundits or read the Internet or harkened to the shriller-than-usual warbling of the whippoorwills in the past week, Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up plenty of debate over whether its portrayal of torture (or "enhanced interrogation") amounts to irresponsible revisionism at best or glorification at its worst. Naturally, some critics see the fact that the film can provoke such a range of extreme reactions as its strength, if not its purpose. But there are many more who can't get past the film's opening scene, which they believe implicitly suggests that America's torturing of terrorists ultimately led to the information that helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden. Those people now have the backing of three senators who have jointly condemned the film as "grossly inaccurate and misleading" in a letter to Sony, urging the studio to add a disclaimer that "the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative"—presumably right after the current opening text declaring that the film is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events."


Senators Dianne Fienstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain penned their appeal following screenings of the film that McCain—who was himself tortured while being held by the North Vietnamese—said left him "sickened." They accuse Zero Dark Thirty of "perpetuating the myth that torture is effective," citing a letter from former CIA director Leon Panetta that confirms "no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts" and that "this information was discovered through other intelligence means." Of course, despite the assertions of many detractors (many of whom hadn't even seen the movie when they began their detracting), Zero Dark Thirty actually does portray those other intelligence means— most notably, revealing that the crucial information arrives not over torture, but over lunch. Still, some believe the film implies that the crucial informant only capitulates in that casual setting because he's already been broken down by his earlier torment, which those critics see as the film thereby suggesting that torture is a crucial tool in intelligence gathering.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have already responded to many of those accusations in recent days—saying the film has been "misread" and that calling it "pro-torture" is "preposterous"—and now they've also answered the senators directly, saying, "We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes." They further urge everyone to "see the film before characterizing it"—though the senators believe this could be dangerous, believing that it viewing it as-is, without their suggested disclaimer, "has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner." (Never mind that so much of that public opinion already seems to have been shaped before anyone's actually watched the thing.)

Anyway, this debate only promises to get even louder and more contentious as Zero Dark Thirty continues to rake in the end-of-year accolades and continue its apparent Oscars trajectory. And while the debate seems unlikely to ever be settled—and definitely not with some sort of tacked-on disclaimer—provoking this very argument seems to be exactly what the filmmakers intended. Like the depiction of torture in the movie, it's just a grim part of a long process that hopefully will lead us somewhere. Or it's despicable and unnecessary and should stop right now, depending on your sensibilities.

(On a more frivolous note, at least we can thank the film for prompting McCain et al. to write in the letter, "We are fans of many of your movies"—an aside that allows us to stop thinking about torture for a second and imagine that John McCain is really, really into Point Break. "Less waterboarding, more surfboarding!" he probably wanted to write but was talked out of it.)