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Rants and Raves: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Does A Film Have The Responsibility To Get The Facts Right?

Jessica Chastain stars as a CIA agent at the center for the hunt for Osama Bi...

Credit: Sony Pictures

Above: Jessica Chastain stars as a CIA agent at the center for the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Zero Dark Thirty"


"Zero Dark Thirty" (opening January 4 throughout San Diego) has been racking up award nominations but it's also getting criticized for its depiction of torture.

"Zero Dark Thirty" starts with the statement that it's "based on first hand accounts of actual events." As the screen fades to black we hear real calls from 9/11 and then it cuts to a detainee being tortured. An American CIA agent waterboards the detainee and tells him: "Try to understand the concept here. I have time, you don't. I have other things to do, you don't. It's cool that you're strong, I respect it, I do. But in the end everybody breaks, bro, it's biology."

And break he does, giving up information that will set the film in motion and point the main character in the direction she needs to head in order to get Osama Bin Laden.

In less than five minutes "Zero Dark Thirty" mixes fact and fiction with little concern for how the audience sorts it out. That's because it's a Hollywood movie more concerned with getting your adrenaline pumping than with making a political statement or delivering a thoughtful documentary about torture. So what does that mean? Does that make the film less good? Is a film, which is a work of art presenting an artist's subjective point of view, responsible for factual accuracy or is it the audience's responsibility to do the fact checking or to understand that what they are seeing is a work of fiction? Does a film have a responsibility for the reactions it may prompt? And is there only one truth, only one way to present certain facts or information?

These questions are being raised more forcefully than usual for a number of reasons. First, the film makes claims of being based on facts. In addition, torture is a sensitive and complex issue, and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks Americans and their government began seriously considering if there was a time when torture was an acceptable tool. And finally, any film depicting violence of any kind has been put under greater scrutiny in light of two mass shootings -- the very recent one in Newtown, Connecticut and the other at "The Dark Knight Rises" screening in Aurora, Colorado.

And the truth is that there is no easy or definite answer. It bothers me that a complex topic like torture is reduced to a narrative device, yet I cannot fault Kathryn Bigelow's skills as a no-nonsense director weaving a tense procedural thriller about a female CIA agent determined to get Bin Laden. I've always liked Bigelow. She refuses to conform to Hollywood conventions of what a woman director should be. She's never made a chick flick or made an issue of being a female director. She's made the type of genre films usually reserved for male directors, films such as "Near Dark," "Point Break," and her Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker." With "Zero Dark Thirty," she has made a film with political ramifications yet she has never been a political filmmaker. If Oliver Stone (director of "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK," "W," and "Platoon") or Michael Moore (director of "Bowling for Columbine" and "Roger and Me") tweak facts or information, you can be sure it is to make some social or political point. But in Bigelow's case, she has never made films driven by a message. She is much more a genre filmmaker who just wants to tell a good story. She is an adrenaline junkie like the Patrick Swayze character in "Point Break" or the Jeremy Renner one in "The Hurt Locker." And she's damn good at riveting us with an action story. But does her focus on making a tense thriller relieve her of the responsibility to make sure all her facts are right? And if so, who does the fact checking?

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal.

The problem in the case of "Zero Dark Thirty" is that the story relies on torture to set the story in motion but is not interested in showing torture in a larger context. Screenwriter Mark Boal claims that the film is accurate in its depiction based on his research, and denies that the film is in any way "pro-torture." In a sense, the problem is not really about the accuracy of the scene but rather that by focusing on one incident of torture that leads to useful information the film may lead some people to think that torture is effective. I don't think the film intends in any way to be viewed as advocating torture yet some people could walk away from the film thinking that yes, there is a time and place for torture and it works. The film could have shown that torture can also produce false information or it could have debated the moral questions involved since there is no absolute way to know if someone being tortured is guilty or innocent or able to provide information or not. But that would have slowed the film down and taken it off course.

To its credit, the film does show that torture is brutal and horrific. And in watching the scenes I felt disturbed and upset that this is something my country might have sanctioned and approved of. Bigelow and Boal also show that torture takes a toll on the person administering it, that it was not something he enjoyed or wanted to do. He did it because he was ordered to get information and he thought it was an effective means of achieving that end. The film does show President Obama saying that he is taking torture off the table but then a CIA agent complains that he is removing a useful tool. So in the context of an action film, "Zero Dark Thirty" does try to broaden the discussion but without sacrificing its pace or narrative.

Is that troubling to me? Yes, a little bit. Does it hinder my appreciation for the film? No. It does shows that credit for finding Bin Laden also goes to the detective work of the main character and others. A key piece of information surfaces only because an intelligence staffer took the time to wade through mountains of documents and data to uncover useful information. This scene is getting far less attention because it is -- like the work itself -- rather quiet and unassuming. Yet the film shows that wading through documents is as essential a part of the job as working in the field.

I would urge anyone who sees the film to also make a trip to the San Diego Museum of Man's Torture Exhibit in which you are asked to view torture in a broader context to consider why we do torture and if there is a time when torture is okay. The Museum's intent is to create "Upstanders" rather than "Bystanders," to urge people to stand up against any kind of torture rather than to stand by and let it happen.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

The Navy SEALS entering Osama Bin Laden's compound in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Another thing to note about "Zero Dark Thirty" is that it was written and began shooting before Bin Laden was killed. So Bigelow and Boal initially had a film more clearly rooted in fiction and with an open ending. When Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS, the filmmakers had to scramble to rewrite and adjust their film to real events. In a sense, this made the film seem more rooted in reality than it might have initially intended.

As for the film "Zero Dark Thirty," it is a solid and tense procedural thriller with a strong female protagonist. Jessica Chastain's Maya may look soft and delicate but she -- like director Bigelow -- is steel-willed with no time for sentiment or politics. In a sense the film is a revenge tale in which Maya wants to kill Bin Laden. It's the simplicity and single-mindedness of her goal that hooks us and the film lays out in meticulous detail how long and hard she had to work to get her revenge. What's refreshing too is that Chastain is a female action lead who does not have to have a boyfriend or a teary breakdown scene or agonize over choosing a career over family. She is allowed like most male leads in an action film to simply let her work define her. It's a welcome change of pace and Chastain excels in the role.

Bigelow does have a knack for shooting and directing action. There is a matter of factness about her approach that is highly effective. When the Navy SEALS enter Bin Laden's compund, we see their efficiency and their ruthlessness. Each downed body gets an extra shot to the head and or chest to insure that the person will stay down (the real double tap you could say). It's both shocking and completely appropriate under the circumstances. These scenes are briskly and efficiently shot and compel us with their simplicity.

"Zero Dark Thirty" (rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language) proves to be a riveting tale about the little people who work long and hard to make big breaks happen. It has stirred more controversy than it probably intended or expected, and perhaps the discussion it has stirred is good.

Companion viewing: "The Hurt Locker," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Incendies," "Pan's Labyrinth"

Here is some additional articles regarding the film's depiction of torture:

The Guardian

The Daily Beast


Financial Times

Time Entertainment

The Center for the Victims of Torture

Information from the Survivors of Torture, International here in San Diego:

  • Torture is illegal, immoral and un-American.
  • Torture does not yield reliable information - From our experience, we know that people say anything to make the torture stop.
  • Waterboarding and other forms of torture endanger Americans, especially our brave troops, and undermine national security.
  • Military experts agree that torture and cruelty place service members at great risk of being subjected to similar inhuman treatment at the hands of our enemies if they are captured.
  • Torture and cruelty also jeopardize the cooperation of our allies, which is vital to our ability to combat global terrorism.
  • Waterboarding and other forms of torture backed by torture apologists as U.S. counterterrorism measures seriously weaken the rule of law in this country.
  • The United Nations defines torture as inflecting severe pain, whether physical or mental, on a person. Mock executions and simulated drowning would be included in this, so waterboarding is torture. This handout might be useful from the largest torture treatment center in the U.S. It's about methods of torture that don't leave physical scars and addresses the term "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Senator Feinstein, the chair of the intelligence committee issued a statement in April and again yesterday to say that waterboarding did not lead to the capture of Bin Laden and calls that viewpoint "misguided and misinformed" and lists several interesting facts regarding this issue.

This article from Time Magazine also looks at the question of whether information was obtained about Bin Laden through waterboarding.

For reading: Dr. David Perry, Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson College in North Carolina, previously Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and author of the 2009 "Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action, and Interrogation"


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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