The Zero Dark Debate

Glenn Greenwald argues that Zero Dark Thirty "absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden":

[T]o depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That's why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step – the first, indispensable step – in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America's most hated public enemy.

The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don't support it because they don't realize it's brutal. They know it's brutal – that's precisely why they think it works – and they believe it's justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.

As if to prove Greenwald's point, Kyle Smith claims that the film "is a clear vindication for the Bush administration’s view of the War on Terror":

Does "ZD30" glorify torture? No, because no one is tortured in it. The worst procedure shown is waterboarding, and while this is an extremely unpleasant process (it’s not even easy to watch a movie simulation of it), it isn’t torture. Any reasonable definition of torture must exclude procedures that sane people would undergo on a lark. Journalists such as Kaj Larsen and Christopher Hitchens have volunteered to be waterboarded in exchange for nothing more than a cocktail-party anecdote and some copy.

And both did so knowing they could stop it at any point and subsequently had no hesitation in calling it exactly what it is: torture. I may be naive. But I do not think anyone but a sadist or a fascist could watch the torture scenes and be able to say they were not torture. Which is to say that Smith is either a sadist or a fascist, who has contempt for the rule of law and Western civilization. A man is beaten to a pulp, effectively crucified by stress positions, and then waterboarded. If that were done to an American by an Iranian intelligence agent, the same people now exonerating it would be the first to condemn it as evil. And the way in which the laws against torture are written, everything depicted in the movie is illegal, was illegal and in any democracy will always be illegal. It makes the case for prosecution of war crimes very vividly to me, especially when contrasted with the heroine's determined and effective intelligence work of the most traditional and ethical kind.

Glenn sees a crucial scene differently than I did:

Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: "I can always go eat with some other guy – and hang you back up to the ceiling." That's when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden's courier – after he's threatened with more torture – and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden.

A couple of things. You can see the interaction at that meal as evidence that traditional intelligence – simple bluffing – can work. I only saw the movie once and took notes throughout, but no one gives up the truth while being unambiguously tortured in the movie, which is how most people understand torture. And Glenn does not note that after all the torture, in 2008, we discover that there has been nothing but failure – according to the CIA itself – in tracking down bin Laden, or in preventing future terror attacks. It was only in the post-torture period that old-fashioned guess-work, fresh data analysis, painstaking investigation and extreme caution gave us bin Laden's whereabouts and that rightly celebrated raid.

I'm shaken by Glenn's and Jane's much more horrified analysis of the film. They may be right in assessing how many will read its lessons. The torturing agents are not monsters – but what they do is monstrous. Perhaps I am letting my own sense of fairness to the detail – I don't believe, after seeing the film, that it says torture got us bin Laden – get in the way of the broader emotional impact on less informed viewers. I may have been affected by the undeniable power of the film.

But perhaps I also have a slightly brighter view of the American movie public than Glenn or Jane. I think any decent human being will be repulsed by graphic evidence of Nazi-like torture by men with American accents in American bases and sites. I think what Glenn and Jane may be missing is the visceral achievement of those scenes. Maybe for some, like the depraved Kyle Smith, it will lead them to embrace torture in all its horror. But if that is what the public comes to accept, it is ultimately their responsibility and not Bigelow's. She did not pretty up the evil. She laid it out in front of us.

My first take after seeing the movie here. Jane Mayer's here.