By: Yocheved Cahn
A New Yorker article discusses squashed issues relating to the 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” in regards to its portrayal of torture. This film is about the ten year manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his ultimate assassination at the end of the film. Zero Dark Thirty starts out with a hard to watch intense “interrogation” scene featuring water boarding, sleep deprivation, and humiliation of suspected terrorists (warranted by the Bybee Memos at the time). The main protagonist of the film, Maya, is a young CIA analyst brought to Pakistan gather information after the 9/11 attacks and has a noticeable sympathy for the “interrogated” suspects at first. The film follows her as she becomes a hardened terrorist hunter ultimately losing all sympathy for suspects and the “interrogations” they may face. All of her work leads to the eventual raid and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The New Yorker article sees this as the moral of the story, that torture will lead to success and it was not questioned at all.
The article, written by Jane Mayer, points out that throughout the whole film, even if torture is shown, the question whether it was legal never comes up. She points out that during the initial “interrogation” scene when Maya is noticeably disturbed by what is happening to the suspect, she still remains silent. In actuality, an on looking FBI agent was so troubled by what was happening; he made a big deal that got up to the top of the Bush Administration. The only anti-torture moment in the film comes when a short clip of newly elected Barack Obama condemning torture while the main protagonists seem to either not care or are annoyed by his announcement. Right before the clip is shown, one “interrogator” warns Maya to be careful because politics are changing and so might the definition of torture.
Mayer notes that although torture is depicted as leading to the finding of Bin Laden which was not true, a letter to Senator John McCain showed that CIA got their information from a non-detainee. Several other senators have come forward stating that information did not come from detainees indicating that if any torture was conducted it did not get the key information to finding Bin Laden. Later, detainee explains he will cooperate because he does not want to be tortured again showing that torture brings results. Many other commentators including Frank Bruni say that this film will help Americans embrace torture as a means to a justified end, “no waterboarding, no Bin Laden.” The real problem is, according to Mayer, this film was not portrayed as full fiction but “based on a true story.” Knowing that there are cases of mistaken identity such as El-Masri v United States and cases like his, Zero Dark Thirty, which justifies torture, hard to watch.
I found this article useful in understanding the controversy of Zero Dark Thirty, that the film can influence thoughts on torture. It also shows me that the New Yorker believes that moviegoers are quite naive about the laws against torture which may or may not be true. I think the article does not give enough credit to the filmmakers for being vague enough to allow people to get curious and research the laws against torture. I would think that most people found the torture scenes horrifying and perhaps lead to questioning. As we have learned, the most important checks on national security is us. So, when a film tries to portray a certain view to us such as torture, we must discern if this view is truly legal and if it is not we must correct it.