To me, this should be "Case closed!" on the whole controversy. In the film's "set piece" moment of so-called enhanced interrogation, the brutal techniques are shown to fail. Furthermore, later on they do get good intelligence from the tortured man by switching tactics. Assuming that, as a captive, he can't possibly have known that his allies' attack was successful, Maya and the agents invite him out into the sunlight, offer him his first actual meal in ages and attempt to tease information out of him by claiming that - in his battered stupor - he had given up "the date," that they'd thwarted the attack and that he no longer had anyone or anything to protect. This technique works, and hands Maya a few more scraps of data to continue her quest. I can't imagine a more thorough rebuke of enhanced interrogation short of the characters turning toward the audience and gravely intoning, "This. Is. Wrong!"
Which seems to be what much of the outraged Pundit Class wants it to have done - nevermind that to do so would violate the strenuously detached motif of the film, to say nothing of the rules of good drama.
Either way, now that more and more of the people angry/worried about the film's position (or lack thereof) on torture have actually seen it (apparently, journalists outside the arena of film reviewing aren't keen on the idea that you should watch a movie before opining on its content) and, presumably, noted the same key elements I just did, the talking point has been shifted from "Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture" to "Zero Dark Thirty implies that torture played a role in catching bin Laden, but it actually didn't." This new critique is shared by The CIA itself - The CIA, of course, being an organization that would only ever speak with 100% truth and clarity about itself and its activities, right?
Snark aside, this feels a bit more like an understandable (though not necessarily agreeable to me) concern, given the source of the discontent. Almost to a man (or woman) the hand-wringing about Zero Dark Thirty's presentation of torture has come from pundits hailing from the left wing of the American political spectrum, many of whom have been part of a long-fought effort to expose as an unmitigated disaster the near-entirety of the Bush-era "neo-conservative" anti-terrorism effort of which enhanced interrogation was most definitely a part.
Many such folks, being denizens of the professional media, are more than likely themselves fully capable of discerning that Zero Dark Thirty presenting torture as having taken place as part of the vast post-9/11 intel-gathering mission that included the hunt for bin Laden (which is true) is not the same thing as saying that there was a direct or meaningful connection between this or that instance of torture and the actual capture of bin Laden. However, one could be forgiven for assuming that a great deal of the U.S. movie-going public does not possess the same capacity for nuance and might indeed come away from this very dense, very complex film having (incorrectly) interpreted its story and/or message as "Oh, we beat those guys up and that's how we found Osama!" Which would be unfortunate for any number of reasons including the possible follow-up conclusion of "I guess those Bush guys were right, after all!"
In other words, I think it's fair and reasonable to ask if those attacking Zero Dark Thirty for supposedly endorsing torture are having that reaction through honestly feeling that it does or if, even on some subconscious level, they're more specifically worried that said endorsement might be inferred by audiences and potentially undermine a narrative about the Bush-era "War on Terror" that they've put considerable effort into advancing. It would be a familiar cycle wherein the discussion of films by personalities more concerned with politics than artistry is concerned. Ironically enough, prior to the film's release it was attacked by "the other side" on the basis that a big movie about the foreign policy triumph of his administration might help President Obama secure a re-election victory (although it turns out he didn't need the help).
Concerns about audiences inadvertently taking the wrong lesson away from a film that refuses to make things "easy" for them are perfectly valid (to be clear, all of the various pundits' concerns are perfectly valid- as concerns). But for me it comes down to this: It's wrong to punish a movie for something an audience member might wrongly infer from it, and it's also wrong to accuse a movie of promoting something when it does exactly the opposite right there on screen.
There are a lot of smart, intense discussions that Zero Dark Thirty can start. Whether or not the film endorses torture, however intense, is not in my estimation one of the particularly smart ones.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.