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Not Telling the Whole Story: ZDT and Torture

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

We’re against torture. Eric C and I happen to believe that nations or religions which allow their soldiers, intelligence agents, clergy or police forces to torture violate a core human right. Holding that position, we couldn’t watch Zero Dark Thirty without commenting on its portrayal of torture, because it matters. (And the issue of torture is not “morally ambiguous”; it’s unambiguously immoral.)

As Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have explained, hunting down Osama bin Laden took ten years, involved hundreds of people and required thousands of manhours of work. Some scenes, people and facts had to be left out. Yet their decisions on what to leave out and what to put in created a specific narrative. The filmmakers can't defend themselves by saying they left stuff out because of time; they have to defend why the choices they made tell the most accurate story, especially if they want to say that it’s “based on a true story”.

I pointed out a number of mistakes yesterday in Zero Dark Thirty not related to torture. Today, I lay out the misrepresentations of their representation of torture. Bigelow and Boal really missed the mark.

Myth 1: There are only a handful of torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Before I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I read a lot of the coverage about its portrayal of torture. Based on this, I thought that torture played a small but controversial part in the film, maybe appearing in one or two scenes. I didn't expect the entire first hour to feature repeated torture sessions or interrogations of detainees immediately post-torture. This portrayal alone makes torture look like the primary method U.S. intelligence used to find Osama bin Laden, which isn’t true. (By the way, the movie picked up after the first hour when it became a spy thriller.)

Myth 2: America only tortures bad people. Again, this is a decision Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow made. They only showed the CIA agents torturing known, 100% guilty terrorists. We’ll never know how many innocent people the CIA renditioned to black sites. Considering how many innocent people were taken to Guantanamo, I have a feeling that a fair amount of misidentified or innocent people made it to our black sites as well. Torturing an innocent Pakistani farmer would tell a much different story to the audience, wouldn't it?

Myth 3: "Everyone breaks; it's human nature." I understand why an interrogator torturing a suspect would tell that suspect, “Everyone breaks; it’s human nature”, as one operative did in Zero Dark Thirty. In Army interrogation manual terms, it’s called "pride and ego down". Crush their hopes, make the situation seem dire, then give the tortured man a way out by talking. Still, the actual statement--”everyone breaks”--isn’t true and most of the audience won’t understand that.

To be perfectly clear, torture does not always work. Same with waterboarding. Often, suspects who "break" mislead, lie or deceive their interrogators...especially if they don't know anything. As Matt Taibbi writes:

“The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.”

Myth 4: Torture provided good intelligence. As Steve Coll points out, we just don’t know, because everything is secret:

“The first problem in assessing Zero Dark Thirty’s fealty to the facts about torture is that most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret, including the formally sanctioned use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques between roughly 2002 and 2006. So does the full record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden after September 11. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as well as work by investigative journalists such as Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Mark Danner in this journal, and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, have brought forward some details about the CIA’s interrogation program. Yet the record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions...

...The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.”

But torture does work in Zero Dark Thirty. They choose, intentionally, to show torture working, instead of showing it misleading or delaying the mission.

Myth 5: The U.S. government punished Americans who tortured inmates. President Obama appears exactly once in Zero Dark Thirty, and in that scene he condemns the use of torture in an interview on 60 Minutes. In another scene, one operative tells the main character to be careful, because someone will be left “holding the bag” on torture. It turns out--thanks to one man's willful destruction of evidence--that no one will be held accountable.

Myth 6: All the intel agencies supported torture. They didn’t. The FBI in particular (and parts of the U.S. military) had deep misgivings about the ethics and legality of “enhanced interrogation”. Some people briefed on the in-depth intelligence have even reported that most of the best intelligence had actually been gleaned before the CIA started waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty didn’t include any of this doubt or skepticism. They chose to leave it out. Bigelow in particular has defended her narrative as hewing to the truth. In her words, leaving out torture out of Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t have told the full story. True, but we think Matt Taibbi perfectly rebuts this point:

“Here's my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was "honest," but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was "honest" about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else."

If a film, in search of a better narrative, doesn't tell the most accurate story, then the filmmakers can’t say it is "based on a true story", especially when it comes to a morally complicated issue like torture. They especially shouldn’t refer to it as reportage, and critics shouldn’t praise it for its “honesty” or “accuracy” if it is--as Boal and Bigelow have defended themselves--fictional. In those cases, the film isn’t “based on a true story” but simply a fictional story using real people.

four comments

Good writing. Question. Did you even read my response to your previous article? The phrase “based on a true story” can mean anything. The literal rebuttal to that phrase gives bloggers and movie critics something to write about, I guess.


5150-We did, but already had this post queued up. My opinion is that I hate the phrase “based on a true story” because most viewers assume it means “true like a documentary”. I think Hollywood should, but they have no incentive to, completely stop using this phrase. Period.

In the mean time, we should call these stories realistic (as in they don’t have science fiction in them), but completely fictionalized. That’s my opinion.


Do you guys think the sympathy shown for torture and torturers by some members of the political and cultural elites, as evidenced by Cheney and shows like ZDT and 24, might be explained as suits trying to make up for being suits by glomming on to people they think are tough guys? Sort of “I’m really a tough guy too. See, other people tying people down and doing things to them doesn’t bother me bit. Hard things need to be done by hard men like me. No Sir! I am more than a suit.”. I always figured there was a lot of that behind all this.


It’s far worse than “a fictional story using real people.” The worst kind of propaganda supports unethical behavior, normalizes it, and pretends it is successful. If I am being kind, I would say the whole notion of American torture existed to simply frighten the enemy. If I am not being kind, I would say our government stupidly ignores all evidence, throws ethics out the window, and plays a strange kind of dumb that is then believed by the American people. To outsiders, to those innocents, we can sometimes appear psychotic.