Globe-nominated Zero Dark Thirty sparks torture debate

Dec 14, 2012

Kathryn Bigelow's acclaimed film about the killing of Bin Laden is accused of legitimising torture

KATHRYN BIGELOW'S Osama bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty may have won rave reviews and a slew of Golden Globe nominations, but it has also caused controversy thanks to its depictions of torture. The film has been condemned in some quarters for appearing to justify interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and giving the impression that they were helpful in the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.

The film, which opens in America next week and in Britain on 25 January, begins with scenes of torture and ends with the death of the terror leader. This "may leave a hazy impression that it was cause and effect", Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union told the New York Times this week.
Politicians, too, have expressed concern. "It's not waterboarding that led to bin Laden's demise," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, according to The Times. "It was a lot of good intelligence gathering from the Obama and Bush administrations, continuity of effort, holding people at Gitmo, putting the puzzle together over a long period of time — not torture."
According to, the first reviews of the film have triggered "a politically tinged fact-versus-fiction 'truthiness' debate that will be sure to run long after the movie debuts". There have even been spats on Twitter between reviewers.
The LA Times says: "Although the film-makers say they never intended to take sides in the debate and the movie is not a documentary, Zero Dark Thirty implies that torture can be effective. Now, the film stands poised to shape perceptions of the issue for Americans far beyond the nation's capital."
Guardian critic Tom Shone says that the film's "reading of events – that torture led to the killing of Bin Laden – is demonstrably false". But he adds that the film is hardly a ringing endorsement of waterboarding and associated techniques.
"Anybody going into it expecting to come out air-punching the good ol' USA are in for a shock leaving them shaken not stirred. The movie does indeed make a case for torture. But guess what? It looks surprisingly similar to a movie making the case against it. The torture in the film is squalid, sickening and prolonged."
And there’s a bigger problem with this film than the issue of torture, says Peter Maass in The Atlantic. What is "far more important and troubling" is that Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of what her terms “embedded film-making... the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavour known as embedded journalism".
The film, he says, has effectively been sponsored by the CIA. "The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return," says Maass. "We're getting the myth of history before getting the actual history."

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