Two of Zero Dark Thirty's actors address the controversy:
Millman reframes the conversation:
Why do I have to depict torture either as an obstacle to the quest, or as contributing to the success of the quest, or as an inevitable side-effect of the quest? Why can’t it just be a terrible thing that we did, with no particular implications for the quest? Because, I answer, if it’s not in the story for a reason, then why is it in the story you are telling? There has to be an answer for that question – the audience will look for one if you don’t provide one. And if your point is to say “this has nothing to do with the story” then I’m afraid that point is going to become your story, and will eclipse the story of the quest. So long as you are telling a story fundamentally about the quest, everything else is going to be understood in relation to that story.
I saw the movie last night at a screening. It is, before anything else, a brilliant piece of film-making. The direction, acting, and cinematography make it as good as The Hurt Locker. The attention to detail is stunning, and the raw, granular honesty of its dialogue manages to avoid the tired tropes of action movies. It's entirely believable. Having studied this subject for years, I saw nothing obviously wrong.
The first thing I'd say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of "enhanced interrogation." No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that's what we became in our treatment of prisoners.
In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.
And so the anodyne phrase "stress positions" is actualized in front of our eyes. We see a suspect in a black site, held up by chains on his arms attached to the ceiling. He has been beaten to a pulp, his eyes barely visible behind the swollen sockets, his dignity completely stripped away. We see him strung up, and tormented. He cannot sit or stand for days on end. We see him stripped in front of a woman. We see him walked around on a dog leash. The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed – correctly – as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior's own orders.
So why include the torture at all? It played no role in finding any clues as to the whereabouts of bin Laden in the movie and in reality. The breakthroughs in the movie come from traditional interrogation and intelligence. In only one instance is torture even remotely connected to a real clue. That's when a previously tortured suspect – driven to near insanity and oblivion by sleep deprivation – is tricked into believing he had already revealed something when he hadn't. That's classic good interrogation: bluffing. Yes, the suspect was more easily coaxed because the premise of the bluff is that he cannot remember what he may or may not have said because of torture. But the trick could have worked in other circumstances. And he gives up information while being outside the torture rooms, and offered food and drink in a restaurant.
The critical clue comes from traditional intelligence – a data point friendly countries gave to the CIA in the wake of 9/11 and then took a few years to percolate up to the analyst who saw its salience. Another critical break comes from old-fashioned bribery. Then we see the grueling, long, tedious, legal intelligence work that finds a needle out of a Peshawar haystack; and the interminable attempt to find out if bin Laden really was the inhabitant of that Abbottabad fortress. Even as those helicopters took off for the raid, the CIA analysts could only conclude that there was at best a 60 percent chance of the mass-murdering theocrat actually being there.
The movie also depicts waterboarding in a way that destroys the pathetic defense that this wasn't torture, because the tortured were not asked direct questions during it. They were, of course. Torture was followed by interrogation which was followed by more grisly torture. There is no doubt here that what the US did was almost a text-book definition of war crimes.
The controversial opening – actual audio of the victims of 9/11 calling 911 as they were consumed in flames cutting to the torture program – could be interpreted in many ways. It shows the horror of terrorism and then the horror of the torture that Cheney illegally used to respond to it. I suppose those who see no moral problems with torture – the neocon chorus – may cheer or see justice in this equation. They will love the fact that at one point, a tortured detainee is threatened with being sent to Israel as an even worse fate than Bagram.
But the simple juxtaposition of terror with torture in the film does not force an obvious conclusion. In some ways, like Spencer, I think it reveals the core truth behind Cheney's armchair warrior mindset. The torture was not for intelligence (and it provided nothing reliable as well as countless leads that were dead ends). It was for revenge. It was an emotional lashing out at often random Muslim suspects (and some genuine terrorists) for killing so many Americans. There was no reason behind it and no law. There was pure rage fueled no doubt by Cheney's guilt at being in charge when the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor happened. Cheney subsequently acted out – and yes, it was acting out, it wasn't a rational strategy – as a lawless third world dictator for a couple of years. But by 2008, we see the long-term consequences of this war criminal's rampage. We hear the CIA officer in charge of trying to get the culprits of 9/11 say: "We are failing."
What the movie also shows – importantly – is the evil of Jihadism, and its fanatical religious roots. It shows the terrorism as well as the torture. The easy view that all of this torture was based on hallucinatory threats is rebutted. We see the 7/7 London bombings in horrific detail; we see the heroine's car suddenly peppered with bullets as she leaves the Pakistani embassy; we see her in a hotel blasted to smithereens; we see a key CIA analyst tricked and blown to bits by a suicide bomber. The evil of the enemy is as clear as the evil of Cheney. That matters. Evil begets evil.
And the heroine of the movie is at first appalled by what she sees in the torture rooms. Then she is made complicit, then numb, then desperate. But her strength comes from a passion to get bin Laden and a persistent insistence on tracing every tiny piece of evidence to its source, which means, in the end, on-the-ground human intelligence in Pakistan at great risk. In so many ways, this movie echoes what we are told the Senate Intelligence Committee report concludes. We got bin Laden when we stuck to Western values. When we acted like the Nazis or the Communists, we failed.
A word about the acting. Chastain is completely believable. Given the extremes to which this character is exposed, that is an acting feat of stupendous proportions. And the movie ends in deep sadness, not triumph. It may be that many people watching this movie will actually believe the torture was integral to the end-result. But that will be because they want to see that or because they are as dumb as Owen Gleiberman. It isn't there. And if they want to see that, they will also be forced, at least, to own the barbarism depicted on screen in a way that euphemisms like "sleep deprivation", "stress positions" and "enhanced interrogation" were designed to obscure. Maybe there are enough people in this country to be comfortable with that. But my view is that Americans were shielded by their government and, disgracefully, their press, into living with barbarism – because Orwellian language was used and propagated to disguise the true evil that was at the heart of the Cheney mindset.
No euphemism can obscure the truth here. And the truth is that this country was run by war criminals who have yet to be brought to justice in the way their underlings have been. That breach must be healed – not by prosecuting those at the bottom of the line of command (like the Abu Ghraib grunts), but by prosecuting those at the very top, Bush, Cheney, Addington, Rumsfeld, and their enablers. Without them, we could have found and killed bin Laden without becoming like him in our tactics. Cheney was too weak to stand up for American values in our hour of need. Bush was even weaker. But America came through in the end, despite them.
So when are we going to be able to read the entire Senate Report on the war crimes committed? It was approved yesterday. It would be immensely helpful to release it before the movie, so that we can all see what this movie reveals: torture was not just at Abu Ghraib. It was everywhere; and it was mandated from the very, very top. We brought bin Laden to justice. We have not yet done the same for Cheney.