Sunday, August 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Be forewarned: this post contains a few mild spoilers about the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

I finally got around to watching Zero Dark Thirty, and am frankly confused by the criticism that it misrepresents torture as having been useful in the hunt for bin Laden. As far as I can tell, the film nowhere shows torture leading to useful intelligence. Early in the first act a detainee is tortured to try to get him to reveal the date of an upcoming attack; however, the detainee does not break, the attack takes place, and it is ultimately only through pure trickery that the interrogators later are able to get something useful from him with respect to the hunt for bin Laden. At a few other points in the film, other detainees are seen offering up little bits of useful information, either in person or on video, but it is not clear whether this is because of torture: some clearly are being mistreated, but it is never clear that they were tortured to extract information (rather than just being in a foreign prison where prisoners are routinely mistreated), or that any of the information they offered up was the result of this mistreatment (in the sense that they would not otherwise have been forthcoming). Furthermore, the information they offered never, as far I can remember, added to that offered by others who showed no indication at all of having been tortured. The principal CIA interrogators on the ground in the film believe in the value of torture, but the film never seems to support that stance. If I have missed something, perhaps others can fill me in, but I came away from this film feeling that it presented torture as fairly useless.

This is not to say that I have no misgivings about the film; in fact, I don't think the film should have been made at all so soon after the events it dramatizes. Compression into a 2½-hour Hollywood drama naturally requires one to play fast-and-loose with the facts in a number of ways, and this is problematic since right now the public needs to know how the hunt actually proceeded. I certainly would like to know a lot more about it than I do, but I feel no more clear about it after watching the film than I did before. If people simply viewed the film as entertainment, then there would be no harm—in fact, taken in that light it is a very good film—but inevitably it will inform what many people actually believe about the way the intelligence world works. Whether or not it misrepresents torture, the film, by its non-documentary nature, necessarily creates a muddle where right now we need clarity.

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