Jane Mayer has a very different response than I did. Here is where I think she hits on something important:
Despite Boal’s contentions, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not capture the complexity of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.
The movie is careful not to take a stand on torture. Can you imagine that in any other context?
One has to wonder whether any morally serious director would have chosen a morally-neutral approach to torture if she were portraying torture practiced by, say, the Iranian terror state, or by Nazis or Communists? The techniques are exactly the same. Is not taking a stand as you present such evil itself an endorsement? My sense is that Bigelow and Boal talked to some of those war criminals who did the torture and since torturers have to find some way to justify their acts, and because they are modern Americans fighting terror, the director simply did not have the courage to confront them with the fact that they belong in jail and hell for what they did.
To connect finding the name of the courier in any way with torture is, as Jane insists, factually untrue:
As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”
At one point, the film’s chief C.I.A. interrogator claims, without being challenged, that “everyone breaks in the end,” adding, “it’s biology.” Maybe that’s what they think in Hollywood, but experts on the history of torture disagree. Indeed, many prisoners have been tortured to death without ever revealing secrets, while many others—including some of those who were brutalized during the Bush years—have fabricated disinformation while being tortured. Some of the disinformation provided under duress during those years, in fact, helped to lead the U.S. into the war in Iraq under false premises.
Yes, but a chief CIA torturer would defend his crimes in such a fashion, wouldn’t he? The pro-torture claims are not authorial commentary, but embedded in characters.
I would have preferred an anti-torture movie, with characters in the government protesting, as so many did, against our descent into barbarism. Bigelow couldn’t summon the moral courage to show that – and it was integral to the full picture. But a director has such artistic license. And what she did do – which, to my mind, rescues the film - is simply expose the lie at the heart of the Bush administration: Abu Ghraib was “not America.” Under Bush and Cheney, it was – and far worse.
You simply cannot watch that movie and pretend that torture didn’t occur – no euphemisms, lies, or denial can take that away. Maybe a democracy needs simply to confront the fact of what it has done before it can being to process it. Bigelow doesn’t process it; she doesn’t move the ball forward. She simply lays it out in public. It’s an act of cowardice expertly delivered. But it is our own cowardice as a nation that has been worse.
And it is not, as I have written, in my mind, a pro-torture film.