Through a Glass Darkly

The bin Laden film has something for everyone -- but not what we need most.

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Zero Dark Thirty, the new feature film based on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, appears to be something of a reverse Rorschach test. Virtually everyone sees in it something they would rather not see, but no one can agree on what’s wrong. Some see it as justifying torture by suggesting that information gleaned during illegal interrogations may have helped the CIA find bin Laden. Thus, Jane Mayer in the New Yorker charged the director, Kathryn Bigelow, with having "zero conscience"; the New York Times‘ Frank Bruni declared that "Dick Cheney would have loved this movie"; and in the Guardian, Naomi Wolf called Bigelow "torture’s handmaiden," likening her to Leni Riefenstahl, the film director who propagandized for the Nazis.

Others deemed the film unfair to the CIA. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA agent who personally oversaw the CIA’s "black site" interrogation program, complained in the Washington Post that the film’s depiction of CIA tactics is exaggerated and that the actual tactics were much more humane. (Of course, had Rodriguez not illegally destroyed the tapes of the actual interrogations, we might have evidence, but Rodriguez doesn’t mention that.) Only Ken Sofer of the liberal Center for American Progress saw what he liked, praising Bigelow for showing that "torture was useless in finding Bin Laden."

Did all these people see the same movie?

My own view is that the film is decidedly and intentionally ambiguous, as is much of the best art addressing controversial social and political issues. The film itself doesn’t take a position, as such, on torture. It is, to its credit, a movie, not a polemic. It’s not that Bigelow has "zero conscience," as Mayer contends, but that she wants to prompt the viewer to confront his or her own reactions. The wide divergence in audience responses says more about the still raw and unresolved character of the debate over the legacy of the CIA’s interrogation program than it does about Bigelow or her film.

Zero Dark Thirty does not actually take a firm position on the question most commenters seem interested in — whether the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were critical to finding bin Laden. It depicts waterboarding, physical hitting, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and forced confinement in a small box — all tactics approved by the Justice Department — and does so without flinching from the ugly, brutal, and inhuman reality of such treatment. The interrogation scenes are deeply disturbing, and meant to be so. The chief perpetrator of the tactics, played by Jason Clarke, is not sympathetic or heroic. He ultimately goes home wasted, having seen "one too many naked men." This is no glorification of torture — it’s far more realistic and haunting than the anodyne depictions presented in most mass culture, whether James Bond or 24.

On the other hand, one detainee subjected to torture eventually gives up the name of a man who, years later, another CIA agent, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, concludes is Osama bin Laden’s courier. And it is through tracking that courier that Maya ultimately locates bin Laden’s hideout. The detainee gives the name, however, not in response to torture — he never "breaks" in the torture scenes — but when the interrogators shift tactics and sit down with him to a nice meal, attempting to build rapport. And even then, he doesn’t say Abu Ahmed is a courier, but only names him as one of several al Qaeda associates. The significance of the courier’s role is not realized until many years and many other leads and investigations later — and then it turns out that the CIA had a file on the courier long before this particular detainee (and many others) named him. Moreover, one of the most important leads in the film comes not from anyone being coerced into telling the truth, but instead from an inference Maya draws from another detainee’s insistence on lying about the courier. Thus, it is far from clear the film justifies, much less glorifies, torture.

Nor does the film exaggerate the CIA’s cruel tactics, as Rodriguez claims. According to the CIA’s own inspector general, detainees were threatened with guns and an electric drill and waterboarded over 100 times (not once or twice, as in the film). Rodriguez’s complaint that the CIA didn’t lead detainees around in dog collars, the military investigators at Abu Ghraib did, seems to split hairs altogether too finely, given what is conceded they did do under Rodriguez’s command.

Nor does Zero Dark Thirty show that torture did not work, as Sofer would like to believe. It leaves the issue, as most issues in wartime (and good art) actually are: unresolved. Bigelow seems most interested, in fact, in precisely that: depicting war as it actually is: gritty, ugly, and quotidian — a messy reality that defies any neat or simple storyline. It is as far from Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg as one can get in Hollywood — neither excoriating nor celebrating the United States, but emphasizing instead the grim, dark reality of war. In many other directors’ hands, a film about the manhunt for bin Laden might have been a a triumphant action thriller, a victor’s depiction of frontier justice, echoing the dominant public reaction to and media portrayal of the Navy SEALs’ operation in May 2011. But in Bigelow’s film, the killing of bin Laden is anything but heroic.

The SEALs, fully equipped with all the latest technology, wearing infrared vision helmets that make them look like invaders from another planet, carrying high caliber assault weapons, descend on a sleeping compound and proceed, deliberately and ingloriously, to kill all the male inhabitants in their pajamas, with no resistance, while terrorized children and wives cry out in fear. It’s more home invasion than battlefield showdown. And the film closes with the CIA agent who located bin Laden flying home alone, shedding a single tear of relief. No victory lap here, no rousing John Williams score. Just war, in all its common brutality.

Many have complained that because the film claims to be based on "first-hand accounts of actual events," it should be held to account for any divergence from the truth — or more accurately, from the critic’s own version of "the truth." But of course the truth itself is highly disputed on these matters, and the movie does not claim that its account is true, just based on first-hand accounts (many of which almost certainly disagreed with each other on many particulars). It is, after all, a movie, not a documentary, still less a criminal trial. I think Americans can tell the difference. It takes a ten-year manhunt and reduces it to just over two hours. Just as every movie adaptation of a novel must take liberties with the text, so must a film based on actual events. The question is not whether it is accurate in every detail, but whether it captures something of the essence of the complicated, twisted, and desperate search for the man who directed some of the world’s most horrific terrorist attacks.

The impassioned controversy over Zero Dark Thirty says more about the nation’s unresolved and conflicted attitude towards torture than it does about the filmmakers’ stance on the subject. As a nation, we have looked forward, not backward, and therefore have not come to terms with our past wrongs. In the throes of fear, our nation’s highest leaders deliberately adopted measures that we and the rest of the world have long condemned and prosecuted as war crimes, and they deployed a team of lawyers, doctors, and psychologists to rationalize what should have been unthinkable. President Bush and Vice President Cheney both candidly (and proudly) admitted that they authorized waterboarding. Yet to date, there has been no reckoning, no accountability, no justice. There has been no official condemnation of conduct that violated the nation’s and the world’s most fundamental commitments to decency and the rule of law. As long as that is the case, it is inevitable that the debate and the passion will be reignited whenever, as Zero Dark Thirty so effectively does, we are reminded of our past.

But it is never too late for accountability. The Senate Select Intelligence Committee recently completed, and adopted by a bipartisan vote, a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s interrogation program. It is said to be by far the most extensive examination of the program thus far, and rumors are that it finds the facts were even more disturbing than is publically known, and reaches very damning conclusions about the program’s efficacy. The report is now with the White House for its comments. It remains to be seen, however, how much, if any, of the report the committee will release to the public, as the investigation was conducted behind closed doors and virtually all of its subject matter is classified. But accountability must of course be public if it is to serve its purposes.

John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA may also provide an opportunity for accountability. Brennan is, by most accounts, a talented, principled man, a voice of reason in the administration, highly sensitive to the demands of the rule of law — in short, exactly the kind of man we should want to lead the CIA. But Brennan was George Tenet’s right-hand man at the agency when the black-site interrogation program was in place, and as Obama’s top White House adviser on terrorism, he has coordinated the administration’s controversial "targeted killing" program. Both programs remain shrouded in unacceptable secrecy — and therefore fundamentally unaccountable.

Brennan himself has acknowledged that the level of secrecy governing the drone program is a problem. He told the Washington Post: "I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that." The same should hold true when we take action overseas that results in torture. But responsibility has not been taken. The Senate should demand a public accounting from Brennan of his role in both the drone and torture programs.

At bottom, the fault does not lie in Zero Dark Thirty. It lies in our own ambivalence about acknowledging that in a time of crisis, our leaders not only failed to live up to the nation’s best ideals, but violated one of the most fundamental principles the world recognizes — the absolute ban on torture, founded upon the basic sanctity and dignity of all human beings. When we as citizens fail to hold our leaders to account for the crimes they committed in our name, we, too, are implicated. And thus, it is hardly surprising that this issue generates tremendous passion. But our energy and zeal should be directed at demanding official accountability, not taking filmmakers to task for making a film rather than holding a show trial.

<p> David Cole teaches constitutional law and national security at Georgetown University Law Center.  </p>