Zero Dark Thirty, the new feature film based on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, appears to be something of a reverse Rorschach test. Virtually everyone sees in it something they would rather not see, but no one can agree on what's wrong. Some see it as justifying torture by suggesting that information gleaned during illegal interrogations may have helped the CIA find bin Laden. Thus, Jane Mayer in the New Yorker charged the director, Kathryn Bigelow, with having "zero conscience"; the New York Times' Frank Bruni declared that "Dick Cheney would have loved this movie"; and in the Guardian, Naomi Wolf called Bigelow "torture's handmaiden," likening her to Leni Riefenstahl, the film director who propagandized for the Nazis.
Others deemed the film unfair to the CIA. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA agent who personally oversaw the CIA's "black site" interrogation program, complained in the Washington Post that the film's depiction of CIA tactics is exaggerated and that the actual tactics were much more humane. (Of course, had Rodriguez not illegally destroyed the tapes of the actual interrogations, we might have evidence, but Rodriguez doesn't mention that.) Only Ken Sofer of the liberal Center for American Progress saw what he liked, praising Bigelow for showing that "torture was useless in finding Bin Laden."
Did all these people see the same movie?
My own view is that the film is decidedly and intentionally ambiguous, as is much of the best art addressing controversial social and political issues. The film itself doesn't take a position, as such, on torture. It is, to its credit, a movie, not a polemic. It's not that Bigelow has "zero conscience," as Mayer contends, but that she wants to prompt the viewer to confront his or her own reactions. The wide divergence in audience responses says more about the still raw and unresolved character of the debate over the legacy of the CIA's interrogation program than it does about Bigelow or her film.
Zero Dark Thirty does not actually take a firm position on the question most commenters seem interested in -- whether the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques were critical to finding bin Laden. It depicts waterboarding, physical hitting, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and forced confinement in a small box -- all tactics approved by the Justice Department -- and does so without flinching from the ugly, brutal, and inhuman reality of such treatment. The interrogation scenes are deeply disturbing, and meant to be so. The chief perpetrator of the tactics, played by Jason Clarke, is not sympathetic or heroic. He ultimately goes home wasted, having seen "one too many naked men." This is no glorification of torture -- it's far more realistic and haunting than the anodyne depictions presented in most mass culture, whether James Bond or 24.
On the other hand, one detainee subjected to torture eventually gives up the name of a man who, years later, another CIA agent, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, concludes is Osama bin Laden's courier. And it is through tracking that courier that Maya ultimately locates bin Laden's hideout. The detainee gives the name, however, not in response to torture -- he never "breaks" in the torture scenes -- but when the interrogators shift tactics and sit down with him to a nice meal, attempting to build rapport. And even then, he doesn't say Abu Ahmed is a courier, but only names him as one of several al Qaeda associates. The significance of the courier's role is not realized until many years and many other leads and investigations later -- and then it turns out that the CIA had a file on the courier long before this particular detainee (and many others) named him. Moreover, one of the most important leads in the film comes not from anyone being coerced into telling the truth, but instead from an inference Maya draws from another detainee's insistence on lying about the courier. Thus, it is far from clear the film justifies, much less glorifies, torture.
Nor does the film exaggerate the CIA's cruel tactics, as Rodriguez claims. According to the CIA's own inspector general, detainees were threatened with guns and an electric drill and waterboarded over 100 times (not once or twice, as in the film). Rodriguez's complaint that the CIA didn't lead detainees around in dog collars, the military investigators at Abu Ghraib did, seems to split hairs altogether too finely, given what is conceded they did do under Rodriguez's command.
Nor does Zero Dark Thirty show that torture did not work, as Sofer would like to believe. It leaves the issue, as most issues in wartime (and good art) actually are: unresolved. Bigelow seems most interested, in fact, in precisely that: depicting war as it actually is: gritty, ugly, and quotidian -- a messy reality that defies any neat or simple storyline. It is as far from Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg as one can get in Hollywood -- neither excoriating nor celebrating the United States, but emphasizing instead the grim, dark reality of war. In many other directors' hands, a film about the manhunt for bin Laden might have been a a triumphant action thriller, a victor's depiction of frontier justice, echoing the dominant public reaction to and media portrayal of the Navy SEALs' operation in May 2011. But in Bigelow's film, the killing of bin Laden is anything but heroic.