We don't know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym "Ahmed from Kuwait" with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, "It's him," explaining that she happened across the nugget while "painstakingly" reviewing "old files." My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from "a third country." One high level agency official told me, "You could write a book about how we [did it]." The agency says torture was not involved, and there's no evidence to suggest it was.
If you start the story of finding bin Laden from there, and only from there, then the hunt was torture-free. It's almost a passable argument. Until then, after all, "Ahmed from Kuwait" was just one insubstantial lead among many, just a semi-fact in an ocean of facts. But torture was in the room when that semi-fact was delivered up, and belongs in any truthful telling of it.
Gibney, an especially influential critic given his standing as a filmmaker and as a principled opponent of such methods, agrees that it was right for Bigelow and Boal to show the torture, but argues that they ought to have used these scenes to more clearly demonstrate how futile and "ridiculous" such tactics were. He sees the subject of torture as "one of the great moral issues of our times," and views this story as one that could have made a strong argument against the use of torture. Bigelow and Boal might well agree with him about this. If the film leans in any direction on the subject, it is in this one. Gibney doesn't see it that way. He is a passionate artist, and makes films that are shaped by his convictions. That is a fine thing to do. But pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.
The truth about torture itself is not clear-cut. Those who argue that it simply does not work go well beyond saying that it is wrong. They may not even consider it a moral question. After all, if threatening or mistreating a detainee will always fail to produce useful intelligence, who other than a sadist would bother? I am not convinced. I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.
That is not the choice our nation made back in 2001, when this story begins. The fear that contaminated our military prisons in subsequent years became a scandal. It would be very neat to conclude that it was not only wrong, but useless. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't do that, nor should you.
* This post originally stated that a terrorist attack in Khobar depicted in the Zero Dark Thirty occurred in 1996, six years prior to the action in the film. In fact, the film depicts an attack in Khobar that happened in 2004. We regret the error.