Spoiler alert: There are images of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. The new film by Oscar-winner Katherine Bigelow about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden apparently features at least a few scenes of the CIA performing “enhanced interrogation techniques” on an Al Qaeda prisoner and, what’s more, eventually that prisoner gives up information that ultimately leads to the location of Bin Laden. Is there a direct correlation between the two events as portrayed in the movie? Is the movie claiming that what many decry as torture is actually a necessary evil in the war against Al Qaeda and other terror networks? Is Katherine Bigelow trying to tell us that it’s okay to torture people? Is she pushing an obvious political agenda that’s almost impossible to deny? I honestly can’t answer any of these questions because I haven’t seen the movie yet. And neither have most of the people on the left currently beating their chests and gnashing their teeth in a show of righteous indignation against the film and Bigelow.
Yes, idiots like Joe Scarborough are championing Zero Dark Thirty based on the assumption that, since the film is largely non-fictional and it features scenes of torture followed by the death of Bin Laden, it must prove definitively that torture works. But they’re doing this because they’re idiots. Scarborough hasn’t seen the fucking movie either; he’s going strictly by a Frank Bruni op-ed that appeared in The New York Times that suggested that people like him would probably find much to embrace in the movie, as it presents a morally ambiguous view of the tactics the CIA used on Al Qaeda prisoners during the Bush years. If the film actually suggests that torture was directly responsible for the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, that’s one thing, but it’s the moral ambiguity that will likely make Zero Dark Thirty a powerful and at times unsettling experience; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a film that forces us to confront what was done in our name and asks us to grapple with whether it was worth it.
Both Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal have stated unequivocally that they don’t have an agenda and that they’re certainly not advocating torture; they simply wanted to show an example of the kinds of techniques the CIA has used in prosecuting the so-called war on terror and present them without prejudice or judgment. If you’re expecting something different from them then you obviously didn’t see The Hurt Locker, which Bigelow also directed and Boal also wrote. That film took an admirably apolitical stance in its examination of the war in Iraq.
Not every movie needs to beat you over the head with a message just to ensure that it’s never perceived the wrong way by the incredibly dense or by those looking to have their biases confirmed. Bigelow doesn’t need to censor her work for the sake of placating the fearful nor does she need to put up some kind of disclaimer to let the world know that she doesn’t approve of torture. She’s not Michael Jackson pleading with everyone not to get the wrong idea about the Thriller video. She’s an adult who’s trusting an audience of other adults to be smart enough to reach its own conclusions.
But then again, that’s my assumption because I haven’t seen the movie yet myself, although I will. And I’ll make my own decision about it and what its message is, if there’s any at all. Until then, I’ll be reserving my judgment and outrage.