WARNING: Contains spoilers for the film Zero Dark Thirty
When I reviewed Zero Dark Thirty two weeks ago, the film had only been released to markets in and around New York and Los Angeles, a common rollout strategy for a film not scheduled to fully open until early January but aiming to qualify for Academy Award nominations. As such, I made only passing mention of the "this film endorses torture" controversy because at the time I was writing and editing the episode, said controversy looked like it was going to be a small one, limited to the immediate fallout from incendiary political columns like those by Frank Bruni and Glenn Greenwald.
My sense that the controversy wouldn't likely grow much beyond there was because, having seen the film, I was unable to discern how a great number of reasonable people - particularly those whose careers weren't premised on finding the political angle in anything - could see Zero Dark Thirty and then conclude that a film so resolutely ambiguous about its subject matter could be seen as an "endorsement" of anything (other than Jessica Chastain's lead character being tough as nails). It even avoids being cathartic about the climactic termination of Osama bin Laden. When the SEAL who fires the fatal shot is asked by a comrade, "Do you realize what you just did?" he doesn't even register a glance. A few seconds later, when he informs the others that "I shot the third floor guy," they pause for less than a moment before telling him to get back on cleanup duty.
But, as usual, I've underestimated the sheer level of distracting white noise indignation that can be generated when journalists from other disciplines try their hands at being movie critics. A man has to know his limitations, which is why I'm going to try and avoid getting too deep into any actual geopolitical implications concerning the film except where absolutely necessary (besides, there's another guy on the site who's better at that sort of thing than I am). But the controversy has only gotten bigger, so now I guess it's incumbent upon me to weigh in.
These are the facts: Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a dramatization of the CIA and U.S. Military Intelligence efforts to track down and kill 9/11 mastermind and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The entire affair lasted ten years and culminated with a raid by SEAL Team 6 on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where the world's most-wanted terrorist was killed. Because the details of such operations (and intelligence ops in general) are largely classified, the film and filmmakers have stated that names and certain details have been altered or made vague - though they insist that it hews as closely to known/knowable facts as a film aiming to function as drama can reasonably be.
Here is the controversy, in a nutshell: The film effectively begins (after an audio-only opening featuring an "sound collage" of 9/11 related sound clips played over a black screen) with its main character, Maya (Chastain) observing the interrogation of a captured terrorist. During the interrogation, the agents - primarily one played by Jason Clarke - try to extract information from their prisoner using sleep deprivation, waterboarding, sexual humiliation (specifically, they take away his pants while Maya is present) and, finally, folding him into a box roughly the size of your average family camping-cooler for an undisclosed period of time. Among other questions, during the waterboarding, he is repeatedly and loudly asked "When was the last time you saw bin Laden?" The audio (but not the video) of that moment became the rhythmic background noise of the film's first trailer.
It's a tough scene. Hard to watch, impossible to be "happy" about even when you already know (as we do here) that the guy is a terrorist. In fact, in cinematic terms he's unnervingly close to sympathetic. While being boxed up, he's given one last chance to give them "the date" ... and instead rattles off every day of the week in a moment of "you can't break me!" defiance not all that dissimilar to displays of the same by good guys in other movies.
Except, as it turns out, the information he was withholding was the date and location of The Khobar Massacre in Saudi Arabia. "When was the last time you saw bin Laden?" was an extra bit thrown into the mix by the interrogator, but preventing this imminent attack was the primary goal - which they don't accomplish and which goes off according to plan, resulting in horrific murders. For those of you playing at home: the torture didn't work.