Why the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Filmmakers Still Can't Defend Their Torture Scenes

Filmmakers Kathyrn Bigelow and Mark Boal have been more candid about defending Zero Dark Thirty. It's just not very clear what their defense is, exactly.

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Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are continuing their press tour — amidst an ongoing Senate inquiry — for Zero Dark Thirty's wide release on Friday, January 11. Predictably, the pair is mired (again) in their film's unsparing portrayal of waterboarding and other methods of torture. This time around, however, the filmmakers have been more candid about challenging the argument, widely discussed in December when the film opened in New York and Los Angeles, that their film endorses torture. It's just not very clear what, exactly, the grounds of their defense have become, or ever were.

On Sunday, after a screening at the MoMA in New York, Bigelow defended the film on the basis of historical accuracy:

Personally, I find it reprehensible, but I think to have omitted it would’ve been to whitewash history. [...] It is part of that history, part of that story. It’s not all of that story. There were many, many, many tactics that led to the finding of Osama bin Laden.

Then, on Monday evening, at an awards ceremony for the New York Film Critics Circle (which gave Bigelow its award for Best Director, and ZDT its award for Best Picture), Bigelow couched her defense in terms of artistic license:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the naughty subjects of our time.

Later, Boal described the film as a kind of morally instructive tale for present and future generations to study and learn from:

I stand here tonight being extremely proud of the film we made... In case anyone is asking, we stand by the film. [...] I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.

But later in the ceremony, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Boal claimed ZDT was purely entertainment:

It’s a movie. I’ve been saying from the beginning it’s a movie. That shouldn’t be too confusing. [...] It’s in cinemas, and if it’s not totally obvious ... Jessica Chastain isn’t really a CIA agent; she’s a very talented actress. But I think most American audiences understand that.

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