5 Ways Zero Dark Thirty Criticizes Torture

zerodarkthirty 5 Ways Zero Dark Thirty Criticizes Torture

It’s been frustrating to witness the discussion surrounding the complexities and ambiguities within Zero Dark Thirty devolve into people shouting back and forth whether the film shows torture as either awesome or the worst. Whether you have ignorant fools such as Sean Hannity and Liz Cheney saying it’s awesome for showing how effective “enhanced interrogation” is or the liberal stalwarts like Glenn Greenwald blasting the movie for not focusing entirely on characters decrying the use of torture, the conversation is being dominated by people primarily looking to voice their own views on torture and using the movie as a topical means by which to do so. I’m all for discussing torture in this way—and in the interest of full disclosure, stand fairly firmly on the side of the Greenwald camp—but if you’re going to reference the movie, you need to know what you’re talking about.

These people don’t know what they’re talking about. The film critic community has pointed out a lot of errors that have been made by political columnists analysing the film, but there’s still been an overwhelming impression by the casual moviegoing public that this movie is a pro-torture, hurrah hurrah we got Bin Laden type movie. It’s neither of these, but what I want to focus on for the moment is the torture stuff, because that’s the easiest to refute. It’s also somewhat central to the point of the movie, but not in the way these commentators think it is or want it to be. More on that later. First, let’s detail the ways the movie complicates the popular narratives on torture and interrogation and ultimately criticizes the entire program the US government was responsible for. FYI, it’s probably best to go through this after having seen the movie or it will make little sense/give away some important details that are better to experience on screen.

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1: Torturing Ammar Produces No Results

zerodarkthirty2 5 Ways Zero Dark Thirty Criticizes Torture

So the first scenes of the movie consist of these controversial interrogations of a well-connected detainee named Ammar. The film is a little unclear about how long a period these sessions took place over, but it seems like a significant amount of time. It is, however, perfectly clear that he was treated brutally in this time: waterboarded, sleep-deprived, beaten, stripped of clothes in front of Maya to humiliate him, and stuffed in a box. It’s horrible to witness, and intentionally so. Anyone who says we’re supposed to identify with the torturers and not sympathize with this man being brutalized is simply incapable of relating to the empathetic environment movies operate in. Because let’s be real, Dan, the character played by Jason Clarke, is pretty hideous in these scenes, even moreso because he acts so familiarly with the prisoner, constantly referring to him as his “bro,” acting like he’s his friend while all the while abusing him. It’s disturbing stuff.

If you weren’t disturbed, so be it. You don’t have a soul, but whatevs. It’s not necessarily the thing people are most up in arms about regarding torture in this movie. They make the claim that torture led to information that led to Bin Laden, and this is just false, at least when formulated in such a clear cut way. And these early scenes demonstrated just how fallacious that claim is. Look at what happens when they’re torturing Ammar. He either refuses to say anything, or when he gets properly delirious he simply starts shouting days of the week in response to them asking when the Saudi attack is going to be. He gives them no useful information under duress, and they don’t prevent the attack. It happens, people are killed, and these interrogators tortured this dude for no justifiable reason. If they had tried other methods, could they have prevented the Saudi attack? This type of question becomes relevant later. What we know is that torture was the thing used here, and it was ineffective, period. It was only horrendously inhumane.

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2: Not Torturing Ammar Produces Results

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When they finally do get useful information out of Ammar, it’s more complicated. What’s indisputable is that it happens over hummus and tabouli, not while a bucket of water is being held over his face. They devise this rather clever plan of bluffing Ammar, convincing him that he’s been suffering from short-term memory loss and merely forgets giving them information that prevented an attack, which is a complete lie. Of course, this isn’t torture. It’s strategy. And it works; he gives them the name of three men, last of which is Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s courier. He does this with a mouthful of food they’ve provided him. Granted, Dan makes one mention of sending Ammar back to his cell to be tortured further, but he’s already been coaxed into giving information at this point.

This is also a very tiny detail relative to the entire manhunt. Yes, it gets the ball rolling, but the fact that this Ammar fellow is the one who sets things in motion is almost arbitrary. We learn later that they’ve had Abu Ahmed in their files since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan and he was simply overlooked. So if people had done their jobs well in the first place, torture would not have been necessary at all. Since torture was carried out on Ammar, it makes his later testimony, which comes not specifically as a result of torture but does come after he’s been tortured, complicated. If they were able to eventually trick him into giving them the information they needed, was torture necessary at all? If they had tried these methods in the first place, instead of torture, would they have been more effective as well as more morally justifiable? The truth is that we don’t know, and will never know because the United States decided to go the torture route. This is a point of truth the movie demonstrates beautifully and it deserves credit for this, not to be treated as if it condones torture or proclaims its effectiveness. It does neither.

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3: Dan Ends Up Finding Torture Abhorrent

jason clarke zero dark thirty 5 Ways Zero Dark Thirty Criticizes Torture

Another point of contention people have for Zero Dark Thirty as an “infomercial for torture” is that no one stands up and gives an Aaron Sorkin-style speech about how wrong torture is. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a strength, not a weakness. And it’s not because I don’t believe this is a statement to be made at all; in fact, the movie makes this exact statement in ways apparently too subtle for a lot of viewers to detect. One of the ways is through the character of Dan, who is the lead interrogator on the Ammar file, and carries out a lot of the torture we witness in the movie.

Dan is introduced to us as this brutal guy who tortures his prisoners physically and psychologically. He messes with their heads while hurting their bodies. He strips them down and ridicules them for their hygiene. He beats them and insists to them that it’s their fault and not his. But we see more complicated aspects of him as the movie goes on, and this doesn’t get acknowledged nearly enough. By the end of the film, Dan has left the interrogation program. We see in a scene where he’s talking to Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, he says he’s lost interest in torturing people. He says it’s because he’s seen too many dudes naked, but this is just a macho cover-up of an undoubtedly more complicated reason. He’s lost a taste for it. Maybe it’s too inhumane.

This is, after all, a guy with a heart soft enough to take care of animals and be outraged when they’re taken away from him. Not only that, but he’s lost all faith in the reliability of information gained from torture. He betrays Maya in the room with the CIA Director at the end, saying he’s the least certain about Bin Laden’s whereabouts, and says it’s because of his experience as an interrogator. He’s saying this information can’t be trusted based on his experience. That’s a big point. That’s a character who is standing up and saying, as clearly as a person can in a work environment like that, torture doesn’t work you guys.

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4: Obama is the Moral Leader

zero dark thirty 5 5 Ways Zero Dark Thirty Criticizes Torture

It’s a more subtle and minor point in the movie, but I found the one instance in which President Obama is featured to be revealing. It’s taken from a 60 Minutes interview after he was elected, and the line that gets captured, which stops the room of intelligence agents in their tracks, is when he says the United States does not torture people. This is ironic because it runs contrary to what we’ve already witness, so it’s saying on one level this statement by the President is a lie. But at the same time, it’s the President, who was just popularly elected, saying that what has been going on within the country’s intelligence department is wrong. That’s a player in this drama standing up and saying torture is wrong, full stop.

Naturally there are CIA folks who complain about this, how it ties their hands when trying to attain vital information, and so on. To say that such complaints could not have existed within the CIA is ridiculous. Even if only on the level that the officers had to be more creative, the way Maya and Dan were with Ammar, which requires more work. Torture is, in a sense, easier. But this moment is an acknowledgement that its moral credibility is gone and its reliability highly questionable. The filmmakers deserve credit for this subtle but strong point.

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5: Maya is Too Complicated To Be Called Hero or Anti-Hero

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Finally, the central character in Zero Dark Thirty, Maya, is an embodiment of the entire country’s complacency when it comes to torture. She can’t bear to watch the abuse take place in the opening scenes, and yet when she’s ordered to assist, she complies. She ends up responsible for abusive methods that take place. She isn’t meant to be heroic when she’s doing this. She is shown to be obsessive, combative, and detached from any emotion or sympathy. We see her demonstrate some emotion when the closest thing she has to a friend is killed in an explosion, but the interactions we see between them are awkward and while she shows she’s affected by the tragic event, she doesn’t shed tears.

This sets up a contrast with when they finally capture and kill Bin Laden. She sees the SEALs return having completed their mission, and is shocked but relatively unmoved. She looks at the body of UBL and is shaken but composed. It’s when she boards the aircraft and asked where she wants to go that she breaks down in tears. It’s a moment when everything that has led up to the completion of her mission that she is able to reflect on everything she’s done and been responsible for. People have rightly interpreted this as her asking “was it all worth it” but there’s much more going on in her face. It’s uncertain exactly everything she is thinking, but it’s quite clear that her thoughts do not consist of “American, f*ck yeah!” The movie doesn’t frame her as a heroic figure but a tragic one.

The movie is one that deserves to be discussed but is unfairly dismissed as one thing or another. It’s not one thing. It’s many things, and entails many differing views and perspectives and thoughts on what’s right and wrong. It tries to depict what actually happened as accurately as it’s able. It tries to do so in a way that’s true to the people involved. But it isn’t a propaganda film meant to rally people together in favour of or against torture. If you want that kind of movie, see something else, or make one yourself. This is a story about the complexity of certainty, of knowing and not knowing, and of the cost of moral compromises.

If you think Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture, you’re simply watching it wrong.

Agree? Disagree? Have your say in the comments section below.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.prust.96 Chris Prust

    Great article and great movie! I agree 100%.

  • Daniela

    You’re inaccurately describing the opening interrogation scenes with Ammar, specificially the ruse or trick that was used to help get the confession that was central to the movie’s narrative.

    At a CIA black site, Dan and Maya are interrogating Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man and nephew of the September 11th mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Despite attempts at coercion, Dan fails to elicit information regarding the Saudi Group that could have possibly prevented the Khobar attack in 2004. So in this respect, the interrogators fail. However, soon thereafter, Maya devises a ruse: because Ammar had been brutalized by prolonged sleep deprivation, she believes Ammar can be bluffed and manipulated. “Short-term memory loss,” Dan later tells us, is a consequence of sleep deprivation. So Maya and Dan inform Ammar that he had coughed up information after he was kept awake for 96 hours, helping to prevent the Khobar attack. As a result, Ammar feels comfortable talking over a meal because he is under the false impression that he has already spilled operational secrets to his interrogators and that his interrogators are happy with him. During this lunch, when Ammar balks at naming Al Qaeda colleagues who were with him in Afghanistan, Dan tells Ammar the following: “I could always go and eat with some other dude and hang you back up to the ceiling.” Right after Dan says this, Ammar gives up some war names, including that of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, the Bin Laden courier who would eventually lead the CIA to the now-famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

    Per the scene, the ruse and eventual confession is contingent on the past use of 96 hours of sleep deprivation, Ammar’s extrajudicial detention at a black site without any contact to the outside world, and the threat of more torture. You cannot separate previous torture and the possibility of more torture from the key piece of information that was obtained since it was all part of the process, per the movie’s dialogue.

    Also, you intentionally leave out various other scenes that explicitly or subtely show the utility of torture. For example, when Maya threatens a detainee with Israeli torture, the detainee responds: “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it.” This detainee goes on to tell Maya that Abu Ahmed is Bin Laden’s “most trusted courier.”

  • Aquila89

    So, Maya isn’t supposed to be a hero. Too bad nobody told this to Jessica Chastain. In an interview with Time magazine, she said this about the woman who is the basis for Maya: “I wanted to scream
    it from the rooftops that there was a woman that really should be
    acknowledged and celebrated.” Chastain also said Maya is very similar to
    Bigelow, and she means that as a compliment. She made similar comments
    in her Golden Globe speech. Based on her statements, she sees Maya as an unambiguous hero and a feminist role model.

  • Alisa

    I just can not believe…. ….read it here http://2.gp/qmuE

  • mike

    Torture works! Anybody here would pull the fingernails out if you knew that doing it would save your kids! I don’t think Zero had any opinion! At times the chick was upset and others she used it! Hard core terrorist don’t just give up the plan for a coke!

  • mike

    Why would anyone be disturbed about some towel head that wants to blow your child’s school up getting fucked up! Lets see those muslim dicks cut heads off with knives! Actually in a sawing motion that lasts minutes! So they get some water! Let me tell you anyone who has gone through Basic training has been tortured

  • mike

    The threat of torture makes ammar give shit up! You have to love a movie geek thinking he knows military and intelligence tactics! In 2003 AllenWest shot a gun by the head of an Iraqi who gave up an Ambush!