Skip to content Skip to footer

Tolerating Torture: Rebuttal of “Zero Dark Thirty” Director Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow might believe in her right to depict torture on film, but she is less open to discuss the responsibility her film

Don’t let the forces of regression dominate the media in 2013 – click here to support brave, independent reporting today by making a contribution to Truthout.

“Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow was invited by the Los Angeles Times to compose a statement defending her film against accusations that it promotes the tolerance of torture and actually endorses torture in certain situations. The following is what Bigelow presented, with some opposing commentary. She begins with some description of the difficulties she and screenwriter Mark Boal had to overcome to bring “ZD30” to the screen.

Then came the controversy. Now that “Zero Dark Thirty” has appeared in cinemas nationwide, many people have asked me if I was surprised by the brouhaha that surrounded the film, while it was still in limited release, when many thoughtful people were characterizing it in wildly contradictory ways.

The label “brouhaha” doesn’t seem to fit the gravity of the accusation of mendacity in this film. It doesn’t seem to fit the gravity of the perception, shared by many, that “Zero” serves to encourage the tolerance of torture. “Brouhaha” suggests something noisy and trivial about the protests against the film’s condoning of a crime which is also a moral abomination. “Brouhaha,” like “squabble,” or “tempest in a teapot,” tells the reader that the controversy isn’t worthy of attention.

When Bigelow says “people were characterizing [the movie] in wildly contradictory ways,” does she mean that most movie reviewers were raving about the film, while human rights activists found the picture’s attitude toward torture troubling?

The Times asked me to elaborate on recent statements I’ve made in response to these issues. I’m not sure I have anything new to add, but I can try to be concise and clear.

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment.

Human rights advocates support every American’s 1st Amendment rights as well, even as they find fault with ZD30’s relaxed attitude toward torture. I haven’t heard anyone in the anti-torture struggle call for “government interference or harassment.” One strategy for defending oneself against accusations of wrongdoing is to mis-characterize those accusations and then to proclaim one’s innocence of charges no one is actually making. I’m afraid that Bigelow has mis-characterized the allegations of sincere and serious human rights activists more than once.

No one I know of, including Senator John McCain, wants to deprive Ms Bigelow of her 1st Amendment rights. The real issue is the human rights of the people who fall under the suspicion of Bigelow’s CIA interrogators, who include Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her mentor, Dan.

As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

I believe she supports all protests, but she undermines the protestors by showing the CIA heroes of her film using torture, getting results, and never, ever, being held to account for their gross violations of human rights and common decency. In “The Greatest Manhunt in History (ZD30),” anything goes; the end justifies the means, where the means include cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Unfortunately, Ms Bigelow’s film lets “those who instituted and ordered” torture get off without even a passing mention. Writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni began his commentary, “I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty.”

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

Bigelow has said, on more than one occasion, “Depiction is not endorsement.” This seems to be another mis-characterization of the accusations from anti-torture activists. Ms Bigelow’s depictions of torture are not the problem. Her tacit approval of a relaxed attitude toward torture is the problem. Chastain’s Maya and her mentor Dan both engage in appalling brutality toward their prisoners, and yet Bigelow presents them as likable, admirable people, just doing their job, serving their country. When you show “good” people committing immoral, criminal acts, and when you continue to portray them as good people, who are never called to account for their crimes, then you are tacitly condoning those crimes. “Depiction isn’t endorsement.” It’s Bigelow and Boal’s comfortable attitude toward what they depict that constitutes the endorsement, I think.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

But Bigelow and Boal don’t “shine a light on dark deeds.” In watching the film, my strong impression is that they simply depict dark deeds and move on, as if those deeds were nothing to be reckoned with, morally or legally.

Indeed, I’m very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat.

The last sentence seems to be another mis-characterization of her critics’ objections. No one in the anti-torture movement has said that any director should ever have “shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat.”

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.

Another mis-characterization, I feel, of the objections of human rights supporters. Anyone who has paid attention to the events of the last dozen years is too well aware of “the role [torture] played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.” They have no desire to “ignore or deny” that role.

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.

Torture wasn’t THE key. But Bigelow clearly shows her ingenious detectives torturing their prisoners, and it’s clear that the first torture victim we see, Ammar, gives Chastain and Dan the nom de guerre of Bin Laden’s trusted courier. And she and Boal show us that the name, Abu Ahmed, is an important clue, in a chain of clues, which Chastain follows until she finds Bin Laden’s hideout. Bigelow and Boal make it interesting to observe how Chastain’s Maya and her mentor Dan extract this clue from Ammar.

Ammar, is tortured for many months. Finally, after 96 hours of sleep-deprivation, he is taken out of his cell, hooded and chained, and led to a shaded area outside. The hood is removed, one of his legs is chained to a table and Dan and Maya offer him food. They try to employ trickery to get Ammar to give them the identities of the fighters he was travelling with before he was captured. When Maya asks, “Who’s the ‘we’ in that sentence,” Ammar answers, “Me, and some other guys, who were hanging around at that time.” That sarcastic non-answer is Ammar’s last act of resistance, because in the next instant, Dan says, calmly, casually, “Y’know I can always go an’ eat with some other dude — hang ya back up to the ceiling.” Ammar pauses for three seconds and then gives Maya and Dan the names of three of his companions. Trickery by itself — a “non-coercive” technique — fails. The effects of severe torture, AND the unambiguous threat of even more torture, shatter Ammar’s resistance, and he gives up the critical information.

It means [torture] 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.

But that’s exactly what she and Boal do. There are no moral consequences in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The immoral, criminal acts of Dan and Chastain’s Maya never carry any moral consequences. And their crimes have no legal consequences.

Next, Bigelow seems to move on to the refuge of patriotism:

In that vein, we should never discount and never forget the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks. We should never forget the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation’s safety and security.

The anti-torture movement is unlikely to discount or forget the appalling tragedy of 9/11.

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as theysometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

“[S]ometimes crossed moral lines” is a chilling euphemism for “sometimes committed criminal acts of extreme cruelty.”

The ordinary Americans cited by Bigelow may have thought they were giving all of themselves in defense of this nation. But many of us who work to end all abuses of human rights sense that the world is a more dangerous place now, because of the behavior of the real-life models for Jessica Chastain’s character and her CIA colleagues.