Does Zero Dark Thirty Advocate Torture?

How to understand the film’s controversial stand on waterboarding and the hunt for Bin Laden.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Photo by Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty LLC.

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

I just left an advanced screening of Zero Dark Thirty, and my pulse is still racing. Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is the taut thriller everyone is already saying it is. If you watch Homeland, or liked Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, or really any spy movie that’s grittier than James Bond, you’ll want to see this one.

But though the movie won’t arrive in theaters until next week, it’s already kicked off a controversy. People who have seen it—and some who haven’t—are wondering aloud about whether the filmmakers overstate the value of torture by dishonestly portraying the role it played in the hunt for Bin Laden. In the New York Times on Sunday, Frank Bruni bet that Dick Cheney will love Bigelow’s movie, as it vindicates his position on torture. New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein named Zero Dark Thirty the best film of 2012 but says it “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible” by making “a case for the efficacy of torture.” Glenn Greenwald, who admits that he hasn’t seen the film, says director Kathryn Bigelow presents “lies as fact … all while patting herself on the back for her ‘journalistic approach.’ ” Greenwald also thinks the movie is winning praise and awards because it glorifies torture, not in spite of that stance.

I disagree. I think the movie has earned its acclaim because film critics aren’t fact checkers. And when you do check the facts, you find that while the movie is putting a thumb on the scale for torture, the film doesn’t get the role it played in the Bin Laden chase condemnably wrong. I do think the movie reads as pro-torture, and as someone who opposes the practice, I wish that it didn’t. But it’s a problem of emphasis and degree, not absolute falsity. And in dissecting the movie, it’s only fair to keep in mind a valid point about torture that makes liberals uncomfortable: We can’t prove it never produces useful intelligence, or, probably, that it had no impact at all on the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty opens by proclaiming that it’s based on firsthand accounts, and in interviews, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made much of taking “almost a journalistic approach” to the movie, while also cautioning that it isn’t a documentary. OK, so how much fictional license did they give themselves?

In the long first sequence, we see a man named Amar strung up on ropes; soon, a CIA agent is waterboarding him. Another agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on—it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Soon we witness a bombing in Saudi Arabia—a bombing Maya and her colleagues were trying to prevent through their interrogation of Amar. They’ve failed. But then Maya has the idea of bluffing. Amar has short-term memory loss due to sleep deprivation (another form of torture) and of course has no access to news. Maya suggests leading him to believe that the Saudi bombing was thwarted because Amar had given up information about the plot. Plying Amar with food and playing on his mental weakness as a result of his torture Maya and her colleague make the subterfuge work. This is the way they get Amar to reveal the name of Bin Laden’s courier.

It’s important, I think, that the grim scenes of Amar’s torture do not lead directly to any revelation of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Amar’s torture leads to a name, a possible connection to the al-Qaida leader. And as we learn in a subsequent scene, the existence of that courier was not new to the CIA agents: We see Maya watching tapes of other interrogations, brutal and not, in which this courier is discussed; though he’s called by different names, he’s come up before. The movie thus doesn’t show a vicious act of torture leading straight to a game-changing piece of intelligence, or even a unique piece. After all, the interrogation of Amar takes place in 2004; Bin Laden remained free for seven more years. And yet it’s Amar’s information that feels crucial, because it’s presented as the root of Maya’s obsession with this particular lead. This is the way in which the movie credits torture: It suggests that the tenacious agent who led the hunt wouldn’t have been moved to do so without this piece of information given up by a detainee who’d been tortured.

Is this actually what happened? It’s hard to say for sure. In May 2011, Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey claimed that torture did play a role in Bin Laden’s capture, beginning with the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which Mukasey said produced the name of the courier. But a counter-narrative quickly emerged as well. In response to Mukasey, John McCain wrote an op-ed saying:

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden—as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured.

As Mukasey and McCain faced off over KSM’s role in finding Bin Laden, New York Times reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane were piecing together the most authoritative reporting on the trail that led to Bin Laden. They asked “Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” Their answer: “a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out. One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations.”

In the Savage-Shane account, that detainee was not KSM, but an al-Qaida operative named Hassan Ghul. They write, “Mr. Ghul told interrogators that Mr. Kuwaiti was a trusted courier who was close to Bin Laden, as well as to Mr. Mohammed and to Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who had become the operational chief of Al Qaeda after Mr. Mohammed’s capture.” And they tell us:

The details of Mr. Ghul’s treatment are unclear, though the C.I.A. says he was not waterboarded. The C.I.A. asked the Justice Department to authorize other harsh methods for use on him, but it is unclear which were used. One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was “quite cooperative,” saying that rough treatment, if any, would have been brief.

Ghul must be the man Zero Dark Thirty calls Amar. And in that case, Bigelow and Boal “strayed from real life,” as Dexter Filkins put it in his New Yorker piece about the filmmakers, by including waterboarding among the techniques used on Amar. But unless I’m missing something, that’s all I can fault Bigelow and Boal for with real certainty. The rest of the “rough treatment” they showed could well have happened based on what’s publically known. (It does not seem that the Amar/Ghul figure is the person McCain refers to as the not-tortured original source of Kuwaiti’s role: In other news stories, that initial tip comes from another source entirely and is buried for years in the CIA’s files. This is the movie’s version, too: A young agent who idolizes Maya turns up this lost fact and brings it to her attention later in the movie.)

Why did Bigelow and Boal make the fraught decision to suggest that waterboarding was crucial to the capture of Bin Laden? Asked about the role torture plays in the movie, they have been somewhat disingenuous. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program,” Boal told Filkins. Bigelow said “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” I think she’s fooling herself. Dick Cheney probably will like this movie, not because it completely vindicates his version of events—that torture was essential to the war on terror and President Obama was a naive fool to shut it down—but because you emerge from the movie feeling that torture did factor into Maya’s hunch that the courier would lead to Bin Laden.

My own theory is that with perhaps more access to the real-life CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden than any journalist has had, Boal and Bigelow adopted their sources’ interpretation, in which the “small role” played by torture looms larger than it does in the journalistic accounts. The filmmakers didn’t set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists. But they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they’re in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them. (Surely it didn’t hurt that the scenes with Amar are as riveting—as pure cinema—as they are disturbing.)

All of this means that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the movie the left wanted made about the death of Bin Laden. But as the debate about the movie unfolds, we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture—and even the cost-benefit case that it’s not worth the trade-off in reputation, political capital, and honor—without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything. In his op-ed, John McCain also said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear.” That’s the unfortunate, uncomfortable truth. But we can make room for a little gray and still come to a conclusion—the United States should not torture—that is resolute.