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MOVIES: Torture and Zero Dark Thirty


Hollywood has always thrived on
partnerships: John Wayne and John Ford.
Hepburn and Tracy. Fred and Ginger. And now
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are emerging
as the moviemaking team giving us the most
acclaimed—and provocative—films about
contemporary war. The Hurt Locker took a piece
that Boal had originally written for Playboy and
turned it into an Oscar-winning portrait of an
adrenaline-addicted soldier in a bomb-disposal
unit; Paul Haggis used another article of Boal’s
as the basis for his script of In the Valley of Elah.
But Boal and Bigelow’s current release, Zero
Dark Thirty, has surpassed those two films (and
anything else in theaters now) in generating a
maelstrom of praise and criticism, including
five Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe for
lead actress Jessica Chastain, and a formal
denunciation from Senators Dianne Feinstein,
Carl Levin, and John McCain.
At issue is the film’s depiction of torture,
specifically the waterboarding and other harsh
treatment of detainees suspected of having
information that could lead to the capture of
Osama bin Laden. Many watched the film and
concluded that torture is portrayed as a key
step in that capture. Frank Bruni thought so,
as he wrote in The New York Times; so did Glenn
Greewald in The Guardian and Jane Mayer in The
New Yorker, along with many others. Senators
Feinstein, Levin, and McCain thought so too,
and judged the film “grossly inaccurate.” They
don’t deny that torture happened, but they
object to the causality they see in the film, and
voice the concern that this will “shape American
public opinion in a disturbing and misleading
Boal responded to the criticism, saying that
“it’s just misreading the film to say that it shows
torture leading to the information about bin
Laden.” He notes that a detainee early in the
story only reveals crucial information when he
thinks the operation he was involved with has
been foiled. Over lunch on a breezy terrace,
he names names—and one name, the one
they’re looking for, they later discover in an
overlooked file. According to Boal, the torture
was unsuccessful. What worked was a bit of
obfuscation, some decent food, and a lot of
tedious research.
The Senators and others are wrong to object
that the film shows torture as a successful
tactic. This is a smart film for a smart audience,
and if you can follow the complex storyline
and blistering CIA-speak, you can probably
discern that the big clues aren’t coming out of
the interrogation scenes. (Likewise, The Hurt
Locker wasn’t a celebration of its protagonist’s
recklessness, although it may have seemed that
way to some—like the Economist, who called
him “the new John Wayne.”) But the torture is
troubling for other reasons, and in ways that
seem to be intentionally subtle. Maya is visibly
unsettled by the first interrogation session that
she visits, but she quickly steels herself for more,
eager to uncover a new lead. Her colleague Dan,
apparently the lead man in waterboarding and
other cruel tactics, can shift from being the worst
kind of bad news for black-site prisoners to an
easy amiability in other settings. He eventually
gives it up—“I’ve seen too many guys naked,”
he jokes flippantly—and heads to Washington
to pursue politics by other, more traditional
means. He warns Maya to be careful: “Politics
are changing, and you don’t want to be the last
one holding the dog collar when the oversight
committee comes.”
Dan isn’t a monster, which might be the most
monstrous thing about him. He’s a guy with a
Ph.D. and a sense of humor who’s doing his job,
and the audience isn’t cued to hate him by any
mustache-twirling or ominous music. We simply
have to judge his actions. Dan isn’t, in other
words, Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained,
a gleefully evil Southern baron with blood on his
hands and bad teeth in his mouth. DiCaprio’s
character Calvin Candie sanctions and facilitates
torture of his slaves in some of the grisliest
ways possible, and we know we’re supposed
to root for his and his plantation’s spectacular
annihilation. It’s satisfying destruction at the
hands of Django, the rare African-American
movie cowboy who rides to the rescue.
But where’s the satisfaction in Zero Dark
Thirty? Yes, the clues and research and Maya’s
decade-long tenacity finally all pan out and
result in the raid on bin Laden’s compound. It’s
exciting, especially when the top-secret stealth
helicopters close in over the dark terrain, but it
becomes less so when women in the compound
are shot and children are crying. After the
soldiers return to base, one soldier indulges in
a whooping cheer, but he’s the only one. The
others are quiet, just like the packed theater
where I saw the movie. It’s no celebration, not
even for Maya, who boards a military airplane
and ends the film with tears, not knowing,
quite literally, where to go. Does she feel relief?
Exhaustion? Recognition of all she’s given up to
reach this goal? It’s hard to tell.
For all the significance this film allots to
“getting in”—to the minds of detainees, to
terrorist networks, to bin Laden’s compound—
we never really get in the head of our
protagonist, who remains something of a
cipher. What did 9/11 mean to her, or the
waterboarding, or the death of the only other
person she could have called a friend?
A film doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or
unambiguous when it deals with troubling
subject matter. Maya’s motivation and
psychology may be ambiguous, in fact, because
of the particular story that she’s a part of. It’s a
tangle of questionable methods, tedium, petty
politics, danger, and a messy but final success.
How does it all add up? Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t
tell us outright, and instead invites us to read
it on Maya’s face in the final scene. That’s not
advocating torture—it’s asking us to consider
a complicated story that’s about as far from a
triumphant slam-dunk as you can get.

Stacey Peebles is the Director of Film Studies at Centre College and author of the book Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Cornell UP, 2011).

This review also appears on page 11 of the January 24, 2013 print edition of Ace.