At the very beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the audience is told that the movie they are about to see is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Then we hear tapes, terrifying if familiar, of those final calls being made by those trapped on 9/11.
Then comes the torture.
Bigelow has defended the scenes, which leave audience members rooting for our heroes (who are doing the torturing) as a “part of our history.” If you believe the movie (and you shouldn’t), torture was key to finding and killing Osama bin Laden.
Except it wasn’t. This is a movie masquerading as a true telling when in fact what it tells is a lie.
Others, including Jane Mayer in The New Yorker and Glenn Carle on the Huffington Post, have detailed what’s wrong in Zero Dark Thirty — what’s wrong about the efficacy of torture (which tends to produce false information or none at all) and what’s wrong about the role of torture in the killing of bin Laden. (The key name did not come from a detainee in CIA custody, according to former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who knows more about the “actual events” than Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal.)
And contrary to the defense being offered by the filmmakers in the aftermath of such criticism, the film does not, in Boal’s words, “show the complexity of the debate” about torture. There is no “debate” in the movie. Everyone in it — hero and heroine and their bosses — is for it. The only contrary voice is a clip of President Barack Obama in the background, whose condemnation of torture seems, while you’re watching it, to be the voice of a legalistic priss.
The problem is that it’s dangerously wrong, and not simply because it is distorting the debate here at home about torture (“Look, Mom, it works,” you’ll hear some conservatives boast.), but potentially and much more seriously because it could endanger the lives of Americans who are already risking their lives for our country.
This movie won’t be seen only by those who know that what they’re seeing is fiction. It won’t be seen only by Americans. Entertainment is America’s biggest export. The myth that Americans support torture, that we depended on it for our greatest military operation, will be seized upon not only by those in the world who already hate us but also by those who might grow up to hate us and those who are still not certain about how much they hate us. Just as we are lulled into supporting torture, they will be lulled into hating us for it.
The “myth” — and that is what this movie is selling, pure and simple — that torture is what allowed us to kill bin Laden insults the hard work of the Americans who risked their lives and also endangers those who follow in their footsteps. It arms the extremists with far more powerful propaganda than anything their own machines are capable of producing. It cements the view that there is no limit to the evil we will engage in to suit our goals, and that in this respect we are no different from our enemies.
At one point, one of the heroes/torturers tells the detainee that if he doesn’t cooperate, we can send him to Israel. Even in the midst of the film’s drama, I cringed. The point was: We’ll send you to Israel, and they’ll kill you. The danger of gratuitous lies is not limited to Americans.
Another scene in the movie, one of the doctor knocking on the door of the “safe house” in the hopes of collecting information under the guise of giving polio vaccines, provoked a collective chuckle in the theater. Except that there really isn’t anything funny about it. There was, reportedly, such a doctor, who is being held in a Pakistani prison. But the myth that polio programs were created by the CIA to gather intelligence has led to the suspension of such programs in Pakistan and elsewhere and has blocked efforts to wipe out that scourge. And we’re laughing? We are better than that.
The First Amendment protects the right to make movies, including this one, not because words are harmless but because they aren’t. They have power. With power should come personal responsibility for how it is used.
I wanted to see a movie about the hunt for bin Laden. I wanted to feel proud of the Americans who risked their lives to hunt him down. If it’s just a movie, as its defenders have urged, it should not pretend to be based on “actual events.” It isn’t. But God help us if it leads to them.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.