The film Zero Dark Thirty stirred up a great deal of media debate after its release. The debate was not just about the killing of Osama bin Laden, but involved foreign-policy, political and national-security journalists and the use of torture. After 9/11, America lived under the constant threat of another such attack. In recent times there have been a string of documentaries and dramatic films that focus on the subject of government secrecy and counterterrorism. There are tough questions about how far the US should be willing to go in the battle against terrorism.
There have been a number of reviews written in favor of and against the film. The main debate surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is the amount of secrecy used by the CIA  as they worked in secret the director to capture every sordid detail. A great deal of attention has been given to the manner in which the film portrays the use of torture and how it is depicted as being invaluable to information gathering. The point of this essay is to look deeper into how the media has constructed the debate concerning Zero Dark Thirty and how the prime issues have been displayed.

Starting out with the favorable reviews, it is important to note that some of the most supportive still have the sound of criticism.  The difficulty of finding a positive note within such a movie is no doubt a byproduct of having to sit through a very controversial technique that is rooted in reality.  What is important is that any reviews remain objective enough to represent both pros and cons of the film.  Despite the viewpoint of the critics, it is important to remember the main them of the movie.

Many reviewers tend to think that Zero Dark Thirty accurately portrays torture as a less

than effective method for gaining intelligence. Spencer Ackerman is one such reviewer. As Ackerman points out in his article “Two Cheers for Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture Scenes,” he argues that, “There is little interrogation presented in Zero Dark Thirty”. (Ackerman, 2012). The twisted road to Bin Laden’s capture is a continuous mix of truth and drama. What makes it one of the most important American fiction movies is that it relates to September 11 and revolves around the moral costs of revenge. With that in mind it is important to note that Zero Dark Thirty is more about punishment than any true interrogation.

Manohla Dargis, critic for the New York Times, tends to believe in the portrayal of torture in much the same way that Ackerman does.  Like Ackerman she believes that the torturous scenes are as unreliable in generating intelligence and play a very minor role in determining the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. She also points out that “It is also a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs, which makes it the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11” (Dargis, 2012). The first 45 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty bombard the mind and soul with the torture scenes based on ignorance and brutality. The disturbing scenes of the humiliated man that is continually tortured using various techniques and questionable methods is a haunting scene of human degradation.  Added to this is the scene during which he is confined to a tiny box that is too small to stand up in and too cramped to sit only adds to the indignity.

Patrice Taddonio, a writer for Public Radio International, takes a slightly different tact but still remains on point with Ackerman and Dargis in describing the efficacy of the torture techniques used in the film. Unlike other movies, Zero Dark Thirty presents torture as the necessary, if reprehensible means to combat terrorism. In the film, as in real life, the CIA’s torture programs discard the notion that it was torture that led to bin Laden. Taddonio goes on to describe how “the CIA secretly worked with the filmmakers, and the movie portrayed the agency’s controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques” — widely described as torture — as a key to uncovering information that led to the finding and killing of bin Laden.” (Taddonio, 2016). The whole case is not based on one abused detainee, who could not possibly have all the information demanded by CIA.  This however brings about the most disturbing realization of all,

that for all that is done to the captives it yielded little if any useful information, and was thus highly unnecessary.

On a more negative note the following reviews are less flattering and more critical of the film. There is no doubt that the graphic scenes in Zero Dark Thirty can be deeply unsettling for

the audience. At the same time though the film presents a meticulous re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Maya, whose youth and sangfroid are valuable assets in the information age, manages to use her strategy of equivalent exchange to navigate her way through the treacherous puzzles of suicide bombers and confusing code names. She is desperate for a link to bin Laden and knows when she confronts an outdated Cold War logic that her task will only become harder. There is a long sequence in the deadly raid of hunting bin Laden that shows the brave, courageous soldiers and how they manage to create a classic, thrilling climax upon finally acquiring their target.

Peter Maass, a writer with The Atlantic, tends to disagree and states that “U.S. senators and other experts agree that torture did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden”, they fail to see a far more important and troubling spot in the film, and that is the embedded journalism (Maass, 2012)). Unlike other movies, Zero Dark Thirty is a recent event. Nearly every part of the film can be scrutinized for its base in fact or fiction, though some subjects have been subjected to heavier criticisms. Maass is adamant about his views concerning the uselessness of torture.

One very important fact that should be remembered is that this is not a documentary, nor a true to life reenactment of history, but a dramatic movie. One of the more basic problems is that the government is able to offer privileged access to produce a potentially great story in return. It is deeply troubling to know that not every journalist or filmmaker is able to rate such special invitations. More often than not the government does its absolute best to keep journalists away from revealing and often unflattering stories that are just waiting to be told by resentful officials. The emergence of stories such as Zero Dark Thirty speak of an attempt by the government to push forth their own agenda through a cunning use of fiction that is attempting to mirror reality. As stated by Maass, ” The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return.” (Maass, 2012). “When you lie to me,” he says, “I hurt you.” (Zero Dark Thirty 2013). This hurtful and very dire promise is repeated not unlike a mantra to add to the torture and misery of the captive within the story. This sends the message that the agent in charge of the interrogation is not a complete sadist, as a dedicated sadist will never offer an explicit answer as to why they are committing such acts.

In his article, “Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America.” Matt Taibbi writes that “Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling thriller based on real-life subject matter and one of the greatest action-movie plots of all time. Still, some questions can create continual debate concerning the content and the direction of the movie.” As an example, the use of “enhanced interrogation” that dominates the beginning of the film is more than enough to offer a prime example of how the CIA obtains their information. Taibbi manages to point out that “the main character, Maya, looks on in shocked disgust but takes in the torture with a stony silence” (Taibbi, 2013).

Taibbi says that according to Bigelow, despite the unprovable effectiveness of the interrogations, omitting them from Zero Dark Thirty would have only meant a moral cowardice (Taibbi, 2013).  Still, it is equally immoral to leave out how generally ineffective the torture was and how it has enraged the entire Arab world. One cannot shut one’s eyes to the torture displayed in Zero Dark Thirty and how it helped to catch Osama bin Laden in real life. No matter how justified the act of torture may be, it rarely if ever receives absolute approval from a public that is often set firmly against such heinous practices. The only whiff of morality one sees in the film is when Maya looks a little troubled by follow the CIA agent Dan’s methods, but minutes later she is out on the streets in a hijab, ready to throw fists at suspects. In truth morality within Zero Dark Thirty is conditional and used only when necessary or convenient.

Taibbi also states that the majority of the film is spent between the “collusion between the CIA, the screenwriter, and the director of the film and their peddling of their version of the of the distasteful “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” program” (Taibbi, 2013). On the other hand, it is still likely that bin Laden wouldn’t have been found without the enhanced interrogation techniques.  Whether or not the interrogations were useful is a small part of the debate and not the meat of the issue.  What does matter is the morality that was so casually abandoned in order to gain needed information that ultimately was not all that helpful.

Owen Glieberman, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, likes to point out there is a “great deal of reality in the plot of Zero Dark Thirty, technically speaking” (Glieberman, 2013). Still, the manner in how the torture is depicted shows a decided lack of perspective that is borderline irresponsible in filmmaking. The movie seems to celebrate how such brutal tactics were successfully used, and how the enhanced interrogation techniques were a necessary evil.  The film is being nominated for Oscars thanks to its use of realism, though it still bears mentioning that its casual lack of morality is disturbing as well as enlightening.

Jane Mayer, writer for The New Yorker, echoes the sentiments of Glieberman and Taibbi when she states that “it is ironic to see Zero Dark Thirty heading towards Oscar nominations and raising questions about whether torture can be used for a morally neutral entertainment” (Mayer, 2012). One can accuse Zero Dark Thirty of presenting false publicity for waterboarding as well as endorsing torture.  The scenes of torture seem to go on and on, while other scenes showing other ways of receiving info, such as enticing sources with expensive race cars, last only a few minutes. It is obvious to Mayer that the filmmakers are storytellers, and “one cannot expect them to convey the history accurately because they need to consider the sales of the movie and won’t add other unnecessary things affect the quality of the movie.” (Mayer, 2012). What appeals to the viewer becomes the basis of how the movie is constructed, while thereby sacrificing the otherwise dubious integrity of the movie itself.

Zero Dark Thirty sparked a political and ethical debate regarding its use of torture program for drama. The debate echoes the moral significance of the political dilemma and how the hunt for bin Laden is devoid of moral context. Mayer goes on to say that the director of the film, Kathryn Bigelow, “defends her work by stating that it has not been made to take sides or judge.” (Mayer, 2012). When interviewed she agrees that the scenes were unsentimental and graphic. She also goes on to state that the film does not focus solely on torture and showcases the act as just one more way to gather information and needed intelligence.

Despite those views and comments, it is true that Zero Dark Thirty does not stop the intricacy of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. More importantly, there is not a single scene in the film that questions the brutality and torture. The only baseline of moral awareness one sees is the delicate wincing of Maya (Mayer, 2012).  While the feeling of unease is shown to affect those in the film, it is still a very present and widely used method.  The continual application of torture and morally corrupt behavior is a necessary presence within the movie, though it has become a driving force behind the debate over the use of torture in interrogation.

The film seems to insist that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a major role in finding bin Laden.  Still, there are contrary accounts of C.I.A. officers and senators with access to classified information stating that it was not the torture that led to finding bin Laden. Republicans have criticized the movie’s plot and disagree that the torture can lead to any reliable information in just about any case (Mayer, 2012). It is also true that there is very little access to public information concerning the C.I.A.’s operations and associated processes. There have been documented cases where inmates have been tortured to death without revealing any information and cases in which they have fabricated disinformation to ease their own suffering. Maass writes, “The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return” (Maass, 2012). It is true that everyone want filmmakers to use the information they are given to provide a good and convincing story despite any governmental influence.

The truth is that Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece, but it is also an attempt by the US government to further its own agenda by displaying a very emotional and disturbing story.  Both the director and the writers of this film have more than once insisted that the film is in no way a serious, meaningful documentary. It is a work of fiction based upon a very real event, and as such carries far more realism that many people seem to prefer. Sometimes we must take a long, hard look at humanity to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Spencer. “Two Cheers for Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture Scenes.” Wired. 10 December 2012. Web. 16 June 2016.

Zero Dark Thirty. Dir. Bigelow, Kathryn Perf. Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt. United States: Alliance Films, 2013.

Dargis, Manohla. “By Any Means Necessary.” New York Times. 2012. Web. 16 June 2016.

Gleiberman, Owen. “Zero Dark Thirty.” Entertainment Weekly. 2013. Web. 16 June 2016.

Maass, Peter. “Don’t Trust ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.” The Atlantic. 2012. Web. 16 June 2016.

Mayer, Jane. “Zero Conscience In ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.” The New Yorker. 2012. Web. 16 June 2016.

Taddonio, Patrice. “How the CIA helped make ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — and shape the torture debate.” Public Radio International. 2015. Web. 16 June 2016.

Taibbi, Matt. “Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America.” Rolling Stone. 2013. Web. 16 June 2016.




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.