‘With great power, comes great responsibility’, or so the saying goes. One might argue that to extend this principle to the film industry is unrealistic and in many cases that may be true. However in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar nominated portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden released in the UK this week, the allocation of responsibility is very much warranted.
Directorhas been keen to emphasise that the film “is not a documentary”. However she and others behind it have done little to distance themselves from accusations that the film benefitted heavily during its creation from briefings by individuals closely involved in the investigation. In fact by courting the controversy this has created and promoting the film as being “the story as it happened” they have created the impression that this is about as close to an official portrayal as you can get. One would hope that they did so in the certain knowledge that their editorial decisions on accuracy and creative direction were sufficiently sound as to warrant such a description. If they ever believed this to be the case, it appears now that they were woefully mistaken.
With the investigation into the whereabouts of Bin Laden lasting almost a decade, a number of choices about which of its phases and aspects to focus on had to be made. Having taken the decision to make torture a prominent element of the film, the filmmakers bestowed upon themselves a certain additional burden of responsibility. This would require them to treat this issue with the maturity and honesty that such a divisive challenge to ethics and morality required. They would be obliged to offer the audience a portrayal which was proportionate to the true relevance and effectiveness of torture within the context of this investigation and to provide a sufficiently realistic depiction of its practice that it reflected reality and did not shy away from it for fear of audience discomfort.
The principal accusation that has been levelled at the creative team behind Zero Dark Thirty is that the scenes in which torture is used are too shocking. In response they have argued that the images shown are not overly graphic, that they don’t cause distress to the viewer and most importantly that they are portraying reality. It is here that they demonstrate their total lack of appreciation for the true nature of the practice they are claiming to recreate on film. Far from being accurate, the scenes do not even begin to come close to representing the reality of torture during the era covered in the film. Indeed perhaps they are not shocking enough.
Interrogation logs from detention facilities such as those shown in the film talk of Muslim men being forcibly groomed, stripped naked, with attack dogs inches from them, being deprived of sleep for days, having threats made to their families, being exposed to such extremes of hot and cold that they had to be treated for hypothermia and being straddled by partially clothed women who subjected them to touching which by normal criminal standards would be considered sexual assault. The filmmakers must have known this, they have boasted of their thorough research and this material is available in the public domain. Instead they took a conscious decision not to portray the true reality of torture, instead they flirted with it, they used the now almost clichéd practice of waterboarding and some loud music to make the audience feel shocked and uneasy, to make it seem like they had shown the gritty reality of the detainee experience. What they actually achieved was the creation of a parody, and the danger is that it is a similarly artificial, sanitised visualisation of torture that will come to mind when one hears phrases such as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and is asked to decide whether they deem it to be something that is sufficiently inhumane as to warrant outlawing. In what is a startling misjudgement those behind the film have used their power of influence to trivialise torture in a way which raises challenging questions regarding their willingness or ability to comprehend both the significance of the issues at hand and the weight of their responsibilities in engaging with them.
In response to other allegations that the film places an exaggerated importance on torture as a factor in the investigation, Bigelow and others have been quick to point to the inclusion of an isolated scene where analysis of existing documents and files provides a key breakthrough. This moment is indeed shown in the film; however it is featured for only a very short time in comparison to the torture scenes which make up much of the early stage; one could say it is almost glossed over. This is consistent with the failure throughout the film to apply any sort of proportionality to events. It would seem that this reflects a conscious decision to abandon factual accuracy to create a more entertaining product; acceptable perhaps for an original work of fiction, but for the film that tells “the story as it happened”?
By the time the viewer makes it through the first third of the film they have, to an extent, been conditioned to focus on the interrogation scenes and to place a level of importance on them which is inconsistent with their usefulness in reality. It may be the case that other important points in the hunt for Bin Laden were included in the film; however it is the persistent mention of detainees, the interweaving of interrogation footage, the characterisation of third party interrogation video as a vital source, the casual depiction of a CIA black site in Poland and the lamenting manner in which the ‘detainee program’ and its torture filled sites is spoken of after its ‘demise’ - it is these aspects of the film which render any argument of accuracy or balance null and void. A continuing thread is woven throughout, the effect of which is that all but the most naturally sceptical members of the audience feel persuaded by the notion that interrogation, interrogation using torture no less, yields results and produces information which, in this case, was crucial to the discovery and eventual killing of Bin Laden.
This is simply not an accurate reflection of the truth; the most cursory assessment of testimony from those involved with evidence verification following post 9/11 interrogations will show major concerns with the accuracy and usability of information obtained under torture. Even a slightly more critical look at the ratio of detainees and interrogations to accurate useable information in the film itself will highlight inconsistencies - the willingness on the part of the creators to introduce an alternative, misguiding narrative into the film despite this raises further serious questions concerning their awareness and credibility which as yet remain unanswered.
It is clear that the creators of Zero Dark Thirty failed on a number of levels to confront the issue of torture and its many challenges with appropriate gravity. They appear, whether through ambivalence or as a result of a conscious decision to sever themselves from reality, to have approached its inclusion with a nonchalance that is as alarming as it is dangerous. Its portrayal fails to relay the vulgarity and severity of the treatment of detainees nor the extent to which its use was ineffective in generating useful information both in the hunt for Bin Laden specifically and the ‘War on Terror’ more widely. Indeed the way in which torture is featured in the film is misguiding to such an extent that through its influence it risks creating a false alternate narrative which could have a significant negative impact on continuing work to eliminate the use of torture and disprove its effectiveness in the United States and beyond.