A Guide to the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Torture Debate

Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden isn't even out yet, and already people are sparring over its depiction of torture. Here's how everyone got so angry so fast, and how to talk about what everyone's talking about.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden isn't even out yet, and already people are sparring over Zero Dark Thirty. Many critics (including our own Richard Lawson) have praised the film for its realism, but certain columnists are now insisting that it glorifies torture, and the critics are fighting back. The voices in this debate can be roughly divided into two camps: 1) the cinephiles who say that portraying torture cinematically isn't the same thing as endorsing it, and 2) the civil libertarians who say that Hollywood shouldn't be portraying the "good guys" engaged in acts of torture. Here's how everyone got so angry so fast, and how to talk about what everyone's talking about:

Phase 1: Critics got all effusive.

Apparently everyone who gets paid to size up movies loved this one. Critic organizations from the New York Film Critics Circle to the Boston Society of Film Critics to the National Board of Review have all placed Zero Dark Thirty at the top of their 2012 lists. Early reviews admit that the torture scenes are brutal, but argue that the film remains politically neutral on the subject. "Zero Dark Thirty is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated," writes The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "There's essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden's in-plain-sight Pakistani compound." Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal have been praised for their meticulous researched into the bin Laden raid. In a New York article out today, Mark Harris called the duo "probably our most prominent and least sentimental cultural custodians of the post-9/11 war era."

Phase 2: Columnists got all righteous.

What's that we hear? Amidst all the thundering applause comes the sound of booing. Frank Bruni launched the backlash yesterday, writing that Dick Cheney would feel vindicated by Zero Dark Thirty's take on torture. Taking issue with Bigelow's claim in a New Yorker profile that she's bringing "almost a journalistic approach to film," Mother Jones' Adam Serwer writes:

The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture, despite available evidence to the contrary.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have found that the bin Laden mission did not hinge on any information obtained from C.I.A. detainees, meaning that torture may not have played any role in the lead-up to his assassination after all. So why is it such a central part of Bigelow's film, asks the irascible Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald:

What this film does, then, is uncritically presents as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.

Phase 3: Critics fired back.

Then came the inevitable backlash-to-the-backlash phase. In his retort to Greenwald's rage, Mark Harris made a good point: you haven't even seen this film yetZero Dark Thirty is still over a week away from limited release, and last time we checked political commentators aren't usually invited to press screenings. Saying a film glorifies violence is always subjective, and it's even more subjective when you're going off second-hand reports. Here's New York's film critic David Edelstein responding to Greenwald's criticism of his review:

I've always admired Greenwald, but his characterization of my review as "gush" is ridiculous. And one should never pronounce on a movie--let alone liken it to Nazi propaganda--without seeing it ... the filmmakers are very careful. They hedge a lot. They don't come close to 24 in their depiction of ticking time bombs and ACLU lawyers ready to sweep down and liberate mass murderers.

Phase 4: So what happens next?

Everyone will still go see Zero Dark Thirty, it will most likely win a few Oscars, and debates about the political implications of violence in film will continue to flare up from time to time. You know, like they always do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.