Seven steps to learning to love US torture and detention policies, via "Zero Dark Thirty"

A waterboarding scene from the film "Zero Dark Thirty."

Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First One Hundred Days, explains seven simple steps to making US torture and detention policies once again acceptable to the American public, as illustrated in "Zero Dark Thirty."


As its core, Bigelow’s film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11. Zero Dark Thirty -- for anyone who doesn’t know by now -- is the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who believes that information from a detainee named Ammar will lead to bin Laden. After weeks, maybe months of torture, he does indeed provide a key bit of information that leads to another piece of information that leads… well, you get the idea. Eventually, the name of bin Laden’s courier is revealed. From the first mention of his name, Maya dedicates herself to finding him, and he finally leads the CIA to the compound where bin Laden is hiding. Of course, you know how it all ends.

However compelling the heroine’s determination to find bin Laden may be, the fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists. It’s as if she had followed an old government memo and decided to offer in fictional form step-by-step instructions for the creation, implementation, and selling of Bush-era torture and detention policies.

Read the entire piece at Tomdispatch.

Today, January 11 2013, marks 11 years to the day after the administration of George W. Bush opened the terror detainee center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And today, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opens nationwide. My review of the film is here.

(Thanks, Laura Poitras!)


    1. Bigelow didn’t get the nomination for Best Director. So yes, I think they called her out. With a film as highly critically reviewed as Zero Dark Thirty (95 at Metacritic and 93 at Rotten Tomatoes), for her to not get the nomination can only indicate that The Academy doesn’t appreciate directors who justify torture.

  1. I don’t understand your fascination with this issue, Xeni. While I really, really wish that Bigelow hadn’t made this change in her movie (and I can’t imagine why she chose to add the torture in the first place), it’s a goddamn movie that makes no claims to be documentary. Maybe it’s because I went in knowing what to expect, but I loved the movie and thought it was a gripping, beautiful, well-written narrative.

    Would I have taken the scene of a successful torture out? Absolutely. But I’m not Katherine Bigelow, so I go into her movies expecting to be fed her vision of whatever story she is telling. Just because I disagree with the politics of the story, does not mean I can’t enjoy the movie for what it is.

    If you want to have a political discussion about the history of torture in this country, great, let’s do it. But don’t try and frame the discussion around a fictional movie. Especially when it very strongly comes across as a personal vendetta against the movie and the film maker.

    1. “It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.”   

      –Andy Warhol

      By falsely showing torture as a useful step leading to the unlawful killing of Bin Laden, Bigelow ends up, in effect, endorsing the use of torture. And bolstering general American support of it.

      Why are you supporting that kind of destructive, sadistic crap?

      1. I disagree. While american’s may not be the smartest group of people on the planet, I do not believe that this movie will change anyone’s mind about torture/detention.

        In Bigelow’s previous movie, she asks the viewer to sympathize with a fictional protagonist doing fictional things in an historical context. The main character in the movie LOVES WAR MORE THAN HIS OWN CHILD. Are you also suggesting that thongs of american men left their wives and children to join the army after they watched it?

        I do believe that discussions about this issue are important, because they educate people that the events in this movie are not necessarily true. But don’t blame the movie when actual people espouse real politics that you (and I) disagree with.

        1. I do not believe that this movie will change anyone’s mind about torture/detention.

          Instead, it’ll simply reinforce what the ignorant are already taught to believe through conservative radio and FOX “News”;  Now making their brains even more walled up against reality.

           What could possibly go wrong?

        2. I disagree. While american’s may not be the smartest group of people on the planet, I do not believe that this movie will change anyone’s mind about torture/detention.

          You’re correct, but that’s exactly the problem.  I would like Americans who support torture to change their minds.  As a result, I’m not really fond of the fact that people are making movies that will support retrenchments of pro-torture attitudes among my countrymen.

          The problem with propaganda is not that it changes anyone’s mind but that it reaffirms to people what they already “know” and makes it more difficult to change their minds on it.  Especially since propaganda inevitably uses non-rational means of affirmation.  I’d like pro-torture folks to consider their positions rationally and having a movie that pushes emotional buttons to make folks feel good about torture makes that more difficult.

          I’m not saying that the film definitely constitutes propaganda — I haven’t actually seen it.  But I don’t think criticizing a movie over the potential for retrenching dangerous views is bad or off-limits or in poor taste or otherwise socially proscribed in any way.

          1. “I’d like pro-torture folks to consider their positions rationally” – I’d argue that’s what this film actually seeks to do. Most of the complaints about it being ‘pro-torture propaganda’ seem to really come down to it not being sufficiently anti-torture propaganda. But how effective would that be in convincing anyone who was pro-torture, or even on-the-fence-about-torture? Strong propaganda is easily recognized as such and just as easily dismissed by those who might have a dissenting opinion. Thus it’s likely that if the film were blatant anti-torture propaganda it would be seen only by those who were already anti-torture, reaffirming their already held beliefs while doing nothing for those who weren’t already strongly anti-torture. 

            As it stands now it might turn off the people who don’t need to be convinced (which is fine), while leaving open the possibility that those who are on the fence may come away open to a rational discussion about the problems with and ineffective nature of torture.  Sure, it might not convince a strongly pro-torture audience member to change their mind, but neither would blatant propaganda. By keeping it’s message subtle it opens up the possibility of reaching those who haven’t already firmly made up their minds.

      2. How about because it’s a movie, and one may support or oppose movies based on their artistic merits, without reference to their political or moral content. (I originally wrote “must”, but I’m not making that argument either. You may oppose a movie for its moral content, certainly. Just don’t expect everyone else to do the same, even when they agree with you on the morality.)

        Look up the Motion Picture Production Code for an example of what happens when we do the opposite, and attempt to constrain entertainment media within the bounds of a particular political or moral agenda. It’s not a pretty picture. “Miscegenation” is one of the forbidden articles.

        If you want to put forward a cinematic argument against torture, then do that, and I’ll judge that film on its artistic merits, too.

        1.  Bigelow and Boals boast that their film is “based on facts and is journalistic”, except when they get called on their bullshit and then they cry “but it’s art”

        2. one may support or oppose movies based on their artistic merits, without reference to their political or moral content.

          So you’re saying that we’re not allowed to criticize films for their political content?

          Look up the Motion Picture Production Code for an example of what happens when we do the opposite.

          And then you’re pretending that you’re defending free speech?  because you’re doing exactly the opposite.

    2. … it’s a goddamn movie that makes no claims to be documentary.

      Neither was Jaws, and yet it helped define how people viewed sharks, and conservationists have worked very hard to shake off its image.

      Guy Fawkes is used as a symbol for internet activists and a lot of protests against corrupt elites. None of it has much to do with the person, a Catholic who tried to assassinate a Protestant king, or even the traditions about him. It has a lot to do with V for Vendetta, though.

      If you’re arrested in the US, what happens if you don’t get a Miranda warning? How many phone calls do you get? Ask around, and tell me what documentary the answers come from.

      Movies do shape how our culture regards things. Yes, we can judge how they stand up as art, but there’s no rule that we must regard them in a vacuum like that. “Misleading” – or “wrong” – are valid reviews, too.

    3. it’s a goddamn movie that makes no claims to be documentary.

      No claims? There’s an opening slide saying it’s based on first-hand accounts. You must not have seen it, or read the article in this post.

    4. ….it’s a goddamn movie that makes no claims to be documentary.

      “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” Bigelow told The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. The film is a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic,” writer Mark Boal told New York. Speaking to Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today, Bigelow said, “I think the film doesn’t have an agenda. I think it just shows the story as, you know, the story of the greatest manhunt in history. And that’s part of that history.”

      It’s obvious that this film’s claims to authenticity are different from those of something like “Paranormal Activity.”

      I don’t know that it promotes torture, but it seems like Bigelow and Boal got sloppy in their fact checking.

    5. Top Gun was a fictional movie too, but enlistment went up after it’s success.

      Movies have a great affect on people’s attitudes, thoughts and behaviours. We’re not sheep who’re going to run out and torture people now, but like racist jokes, repeating negative behaviours isn’t helping the world out any because you’re keeping an outdated idea, concept or view of the world alive and active when it should just fade away and die.

      1. I think he’s asking for a citation on the “falsely” part. 

        I don’t know one way or another.

    1. I’m not sure why you need a citation for that. It’s a logical argument – if it isn’t apparent on its face that it’s true, then what kind of citation would change your mind?  Like, if spock had said it? ;-)

  2. I have to wonder if the people saying ZDT endorses torture actually saw the same movie I did. The movie I saw depicted torture as largely a waste of time, and one that took a heavy toll on the people who did it. (mild ‘spoilers’ from here on out) None of the torture is presented as having any effect on later or pending attacks – the ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario so often cited as justification for torture. The one key piece of info they do get – the nickname of the messenger – didn’t even come directly through torture, they got it through standard interrogation tricks. And then, after spending years trying to pin down who the name referred to, it turns out they had the guy in intelligence files provided by allies which had been sitting around unexamined the whole time – probably because they were wasting so many resources on torture & detention. The real key element to tracking the messenger – his mother’s phone number – is essentially bought with a Lamborghini. The takeaway I had was that if we’d focused our efforts purely on traditional intelligence gathering, analysis and tradecraft from the start we likely would have tracked down OBL years earlier. 

    1. I think you’re probably right that the movie doesn’t explicitly endorse torture.  The problem seems to me that you and people making your argument assume that everyone who sees the movie is going to walk away with the same impressions you did.  That’s simply not realistic.  A hard-core authoritarian conservative isn’t going to walk away with the same impressions you did.

      Based on the conflicting reviews of this movie, I get the impression that it’s really a sort of Rorschach blot where people look at an ambiguous presentation and wind up reading their own opinions into it.  I think there is a potential for the movie to reinforce the attitudes of those who are already pro-torture (I say “potential” because I have not seen the movie and do not want to make a determinate judgment on this as a result; I’m almost certain the film will have this effect because that’s how humans are).  And I think that is a legitimate basis for criticizing the film from a moral perspective.

      1. Does a person who makes a movie about torture always have to make it so that hardcore authoritarian conservatives will walk away with their minds changed? Or is it just this movie?

        I don’t get the arguments some people are making. It seems like the movie (from what I’ve read), shows that torture wasn’t effective, but people are still concerned because there is torture in the movie?

        1. “Does a person who makes a movie about torture always have to make it so that hardcore authoritarian conservatives will walk away with their minds changed? Or is it just this movie?”

          When a piece of media raises questions that are already answered, it makes its own statement.

          1. What questions are being answered? The movie depicts the brutality and inhumanity of torture and it certainly doesn’t show it as being particularly effective in generating intelligence.

      2. I don’t know how any rational person comes out of this movie not thinking it doesn’t explicitly endorse torture.

        It specifically showed that torture is effective and that torture is almost wholly responsible for the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

        1. I disagree. The depicted instance of torture that was effective was only a small piece in a mosaic of gathered intelligence. It was bribery that proved most effective.

          1. You are incorrect.

            The point of the torture is to get Abu Ahmed.

            The point of the bribe is to get the number of Abu Ahmed’s mothers phone.

            They wouldn’t have anyone to bribe if they hadn’t committed the initial torture. 

            If you believe the film, torture is wonderful and it achieves magnificent results. And it got us UBL.  God bless America.

        2. Did you actually read what I posted? I consider myself a pretty rational person, and I believe I laid out a fairly rational explanation for why I believe it doesn’t endorse torture. 

          There was nothing particularly effective about the torture depicted. The main victim gave up absolutely nothing of interest due to the torture they subjected him to. When he finally does give up a name, it’s after they’ve stopped torturing him, and it’s elicited through a simple deception similar to what you’d see in an interrogation scene from a typical episode of Law & Order. And then years later it turns out even that small bit of information referred to a person they’d had in their files the whole time, and it’s likely that if they’d focussed their efforts on pursuing existing intelligence instead of detention and torture they could have identified him much earlier. 

          In fact, as far as I could see everything which is depicted as leading to the eventual capture of OBL was fundamental intelligence and detective work. I personally can’t see how any rational person comes out of this believing torture was “almost wholly responsible for the capture of OBL”. 

          1. Apparently, we saw different films.

            The captive knew that at any time he lied, he would be put back in the Happy Torture Room.

            How can you say that it was the good food and pleasant conversation that got the good intel, when it was preceded by days of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, audio harassment, hunger, humiliation, etc.?

            You say “they had records on him all the time.”  Yes, they had his real name.  But that is useless without knowing his importance.  The torture reveals there was a high-level courier named Abu Ahmed.  The “records they had all the time” reveals Ahmed’s true name and photo.  Torture was a value-add.

            Plus, they showed multiple grainy-shots of other torture centers in which the victims confirmed Abu Ahmed’s existence and function in Al Quaida.

            I’m not arguing torture is effective. I do not and I think the film is a crock. I’m arguing the film is arguing torture is effective.

    2. thanks for making a well-reasoned argument; i still have read that bigelow was led by the nose to drop pro-torture elements into the movie via the usual CIA disinfo means/influence (see above links re. “maya”), but you at least use real, movie based arguments, so thanks for that.

    3.  Thank you for this review, I wasn’t going to see the film since so many people have gotten the other interpretation from the scenes. It looks like they either missed the distinction, or didn’t want to see it. I’m often the one left explaining plot twists to friends.

    1. It’s Southern California. She looks like what her plastic surgeon made her look like, just like the rest of us.

    1. Sullivan, for being one of the “best” of the conservatives the media has to offer, is still an unreliable ally on any particular issue.

    2. I saw the movie, and saw the “enhanced interrogation” techniques portrayed as being both fruitless and cruel, and any information elicited from the captive came not from torture, but from humane treatment

      No. The “humane treatment” you observed is the reward that comes after prior torture. The prisoner is constantly told “when you lie to me, i hurt you”; the flip side is “when you tell me the truth, I reward you.”

      The movie showed over and over again that “Torture Works!”  At least 5 times, they reiterated how black-site torture upon various detainees confirmed who Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti was. And Ahmed led directly to Bin Laden. Torture brought Bin Laden to justice.

      The only reasonable conclusion someone can come away from this movie if you believe the movie is that torture works and torture is necessary. (Disclaimer: I do not believe the movie.)

      1. I did not see it that way at all. And “reward” for torture? What, best in show? Why would anyone get a reward for giving up no info? And I disagree that anyone gave up info as a direct cause of torture. That was not in the movie I saw. 

      2. Sure, if you believe the ‘humane treatment’ was what elicited the information, but that’s not what’s depicted. In fact, they show that didn’t work – when they give him food and drink the first time he still refuses to give anything up and ends up being put in a box. The way they get the info out of him is by using their knowledge of the recent attack (which he doesn’t know about) to trick him into believing that he’s already given up useful information, which they claim he doesn’t remember doing as a side effect of sleep deprivation. Now there are certainly arguments for and against sleep deprivation as an interrogation tactic and whether it constitutes torture, but it’s not even presented as the specific technique used to elicit information – it was simply a point of reference in their deception of him, and that deception is what got him to give up information.

        And it wasn’t reiterated at all that torture confirmed who he was. They depicted a variety of people being interrogated but not tortured – many of whom appeared to be cooperating without torture by answering questions about various suspects. The confirmation of who Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti was a deduction based on the willingness of people to talk about other suspects but not him specifically.

        Now if you want to argue that it’s pro-detention and interrogation, I’d say you’re right – but that’s a very different argument than ‘torture works and torture is necessary’.

        1. And it wasn’t reiterated at all that torture confirmed who he was. They depicted a variety of people being interrogated but not tortured – many of whom appeared to be cooperating without torture by answering questions about various suspects.

          You’re right. We don’t see the detainees being tortured at the time of their interrogation.  But it’s already a long movie, can’t we take the pre-torture as read? Bigelow already showed us what the pattern is: torture, interrogation, torture, interrogation.

          If they were going to “only” interrogate him, why take him to the black site? I think there’s a reason it’s a black site, whose existence is unacknowledged by either the US or the host country.   There’s a reason the CIA frigging erased the tapes of all the recorded interrogations.

          They could’ve brought them to Guantanamo (where they had pretty harsh conditions to begin with), but they didn’t because they wanted maximum, unmonitored harshness for those particular detainees.

  3. what i find most disturbing about the discussion in regards to torture and zdt is the fact that we completely ignore the fact that EFFICACY IS BESIDES THE FUCKING POINT.

    let’s say that taking a hammer to someone’s toes, fingers and teeth was EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE in extracting useful information.

    does that in any way make it right?  or acceptable?

    1. Efficacy is not beside the point, as it’s basically the pro-torture argument – sure it’s bad, but it’s the most effective tool or only really effective tool we have, so we just have to accept it. The film counters that argument by depicting it as not particularly effective, and presents a much more effective alternative which doesn’t have the moral problems of torture. 

  4. The point is that they can justify that “it gets things done” and the horrible people of the USA could nod along. It is horrible and gets nothing done. You’ll never impose actual morality and avoid ill-action.

  5. “However compelling the heroine’s determination to find bin Laden may be, the fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists”

    Um, whoa, hold on.  That sentence can only be read without head-splitting cognitive dissonance by Obama apologists.  The ethos of the *Bush* administration?  I voted for Obama, twice, because I believed and still believe the alternatives were worse, but he’s continued every Bush-era illegal practice we know of, refused to prosecute torturers, and is appointing one of the guys involved to lead the CIA.  Torture is Obama’s ethos now, too.

    1. That’s not true.  The black sites have been shut down.  The CIA doesn’t do its skullduggery anymore. 

      Sure, none of the Bush-era CIA torturings have been investigated and they got away with erasing all evidence, but at least there is not Obama-era CIA torture going on.  (by which I mean waterboarding, etc.– illegal detention in guantanamo still persists.)

  6. “I would like Americans who support torture to change their minds.”

    …says the concerned citizen, calling a film they’ve never seen ‘propaganda.’

    Is this just an opportunity to get on a moral soap box? The film is not propaganda. It allows you to have your own opinions on torture. God forbid there should be shades of gray! I think it’s ironic that people who consider themselves “liberal” or “progressive” want everyone else to see things their way. It’s as ironic as atheists who try to evangelize for the good of the world by asking the religious to consider their point of view. Just sit down and let people think for themselves, however backwards it may seem to you. If you’re a pacifist, stop fighting a war to change everyone’s mind for the satisfaction of your ego.

    1. If you’re a pacifist, stop fighting a war to change everyone’s mind for the satisfaction of your ego.

      Thinking that pacifism is some kind of ego trip says a lot about you and nothing about pacifists.

  7. This reminds me of the critical response from certain quarters to Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, his brilliant film about the eponymous terrorist. Like Bigelow, Assayas doesn’t sermonize or deal in simple black and white moralities. Some not very film literate people got up on their soapboxes to claim that Carlos glorifies terrorism. 

    For a naive viewer whose engagement with the film is purely passive, representation means recommendation. This is exactly the reason why most Hollywood filmmakers consistently underestimate the viewer’s intelligence by constructing their narratives around easy audience-identification figures and by inserting bathetic speeches about Serious Issues, so that the viewer will not be left in any doubt about what they should be thinking.

  8.  Because “Paranormal Activity” doesn’t have a shot in hell of being used as an example of why we should torture people.

    Before you object that Zero Dark Thirty couldn’t be used that way, please do try to remember the white house officials citing “24” and Jack Bauer’s tactics as justifications for the war on terror.

    We make sense of the world through the narratives we pick up from culture.  Film does have a huge impact on how we see the world and how we relate to it in a moral sense.

  9. “Pedantic” doesn’t make any sense to me in this context.

    Do you agree or disagree that people are much more scared of sharks and shark attacks than is warranted by the infrequency of shark attacks?  If you agree, do you deny that “Jaws” has something to do with this irrational society-wide fear of sharks?

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