Zero Dark Thirty

This post originally appeared on the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ website as part of their “Ethics on Film” series. You can find the original post, as well as a number of resources on torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” on the Carnegie Council’s website.

Feature Film 2012, Academy Award Winner, Best Achievement in Sound Editing, Four Nominations, 157 minutes


A fictional adaptation of the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, the blockbuster film Zero Dark Thirty presents us with a number of important ethical questions. Along with a renewed debate surrounding torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the movie has also sparked a discussion over the ethical responsibilities of filmmakers.

As the movie begins, our protagonist, Maya, is entering a CIA “Black Site” (a secret detention center) to witness her first interrogation. When the interrogated detainee fails to give Maya’s mentor Dan the information he wants, Dan ties the captive down, covers his face with a cloth, and starts pouring water onto it. This practice, known as “waterboarding,” is one of the most heatedly debated aspects of the Bush-era “War on Terror” and is known to be a particularly harrowing interrogation technique. Despite this treatment, the prisoner remains insistent that he has no new information.

When Dan leaves to smoke a cigarette, Maya is left alone in the interrogation cell with the tied-up detainee and a guard. As the prisoner looks up at her, pleading for help, one can almost see a trace of pity in the fresh operative’s eyes. Maya’s expression hardens quickly, however. “You can help yourself by being truthful.” From this defining moment on, we follow Maya in her relentless pursuit of bin Laden—her triumphs, her defeats, and her encounters with bureaucracy. By weaving real news footage into the otherwise scripted film, Bigelow introduces twists to the story, and ties her fictional characters into a number of historical events, such as the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad.

The plot culminates in the 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound in which Osama bin Laden was assassinated. Notwithstanding the success of her mission, the film’s ending is bittersweet for our protagonist. After identifying bin Laden’s body, Maya departs for the United States—victorious, but having lost the only purpose she has known for the last decade.

On “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”

The debate surrounding “enhanced interrogation techniques” touches on three fundamental questions:

  • Should techniques such as waterboarding be classified as torture, which is illegal under U.S. and international law?
  • Are such techniques both necessary and effective, or are there other and more reliable ways to obtain information?
  • And, legal or not, are we betraying our moral values by using such techniques, whatever we decide to call them?

So should waterboarding be classified as torture? Citing experts involved with treatment of detainees who have been subjected to waterboarding, those who oppose the practice point out that these prisoners exhibit clear signs of severe psychological trauma. In response, some proponents argue that it is not really torture, since it leaves no physical scars. Yet lack of physical scars did not stop the United States government from charging a Japanese officer with committing a war crime after waterboarding a U.S. citizen during the Second World War. The officer was found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

There is no doubt that waterboarding puts victims under unbearable duress. Most subjects last only a few seconds before giving in and talking. While that might seem like compelling evidence for the technique’s effectiveness, this conclusion presumes that prisoners have accurate and recent information. It also presumes that they are capable of relaying that information accurately while experiencing extreme stress, and that they do not resort to simply guessing at what the interrogator wants to hear. Factors such as these make the legitimacy of confessions extracted by waterboarding questionable. According to a 2009 article in TIME magazine, Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and one of the most successful U.S. interrogators of al-Qaeda operatives, believes that the use of harsh techniques was unnecessary and often counterproductive. “Detainees, [Soufan] says, provided vital intelligence under non-violent questioning, before they were put through ‘walling’ and waterboarding.”

Putting semantics and (questionable) usefulness aside, many would argue that cruel treatment of prisoners, whether physical or psychological, is morally wrong under all circumstances. What’s more, it harms U.S. interests, as Americans are seen as betraying the values they claim to believe in.

Historical Accuracy in Works of Fiction

As framers of public opinion and debate, do directors and screenwriters have an obligation not to misinform their audiences about historical events? Upon reading director Kathryn Bigelow’s own reflections on Zero Dark Thirty, one could easily be led to believe that the film constitutes an accurate historical reenactment of the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, when she appeared on the Colbert Report, she referred to the film as a “first draft of history.”

“I felt we had a responsibility to be faithful to the material,” she stated in an interview withThe New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins, published two days prior to the film’s U.S. release. However, several government officials have emphatically disputed the film’s version of events and what the film implies.

Soon after Zero Dark Thirty’s release, CIA’s acting director Michael Morell issued a statement regarding the film’s accuracy: “[The] film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ), along with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote an open letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton outlining factual inaccuracies contained within the film, and requesting that he “[correct] the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama bin Laden.”

Needless to say, it would be unreasonable to expect a two-and-a-half hour feature film to cover the 10-year span from September 11, 2001 until Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011 without some lapses. However, Zero Dark Thirty‘s list of omissions is not limited to minor historical details—some would say its single-sided portrayal of the debate on torture borders on absurdity. While the film’s protagonist, Maya, seems at first reluctant to partake in the harsh interrogation techniques established by her predecessors, it does not take her long to change her mind. In fact, the only voice of opposition to the CIA’s interrogation regime comes in the form of a televised broadcast of President Barack Obama denouncing torture. In Zero Dark Thirty, this broadcast marks the start of an era where all the clues seem to dry up, and frustrated agents cannot seem to get any closer to locating bin Laden.

There is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty has brought the debate over torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” back to prominence, and this may be a good thing. As for Bigelow herself, here is how she answers her critics:

“Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.”

However, the question remains: Is this really the impression that the viewer gets from the film, or does Zero Dark Thirty seemingly endorse torture?

Carnegie Council, 2013.

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