Two Cheers for Zero Dark Thirty's Torture Scenes: [A] bloodied, disoriented and humiliated man… strapped to a wall with his pants around his ankles… having liquid forcibly poured down his throat… shoved into a box that could barely hold your stereo…. It’s enough to make you wretch. It’s arguably the best and most important part of the movie.
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden begins with an unsparing, nauseating and frighteningly realistic look at how the CIA tortured many people and reaped very little intelligence…. The torture on display in the film occurs at the intersection of ignorance and brutality, while the vast, vast majority of the intelligence work that actually does lead to bin Laden’s downfall occurs after the torture has ended…. Bigelow is being presented as a torture apologist, and it’s a bum rap…. Bigelow instead presents a graphic presentation of what declassified CIA documents indicate the torture program really was….
The film goes on like this for about 45 brutal minutes. “Uncooperative” detainees are held down by large men and doused through a towel with water until they spew it up. (There’s no “boarding” in this “waterboarding.) Helpless detainees are shown… desperate for the torture to stop, while their captors promise them nourishment and keep their promises by forcing Ensure down their throats through a funnel. Amar al-Baluchi, mocked for defecating on himself, is stripped and forced to wear a dog collar while Dan rides him, to alert the detainee to his helplessness….
There is little interrogation presented in Zero Dark Thirty. There is a shouted question, followed by brutality. At one point, “Maya,” a stand-in for the dedicated CIA agents who actually succeeded at hunting bin Laden, points out that one abused detainee couldn’t possibly have the information the agents are demanding of him. The closest the movie comes to presenting a case for the utility of torture is by presenting the name of a key bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as resulting from an interrogation not shown on screen. But — spoiler alert — the CIA ultimately comes to learn that it misunderstood the context of who that courier was and what he actually looked like….
Meanwhile, the real intelligence work begins when a CIA agent bribes a Kuwaiti with a yellow Lamborghini… through extensive surveillance, like a police procedural, the manhunt rolls to its climax. If this is the case for the utility of torture, it’s a weak case — nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.
Nor does Bigelow let the CIA off the hook for the torture…. Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet….
[F]ormer Bush administration aide Philip Zelikow, who termed the torture a “war crime” in a recent Danger Room interview, will probably find the movie more amenable than Cheney will. What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.