Its depiction of torture ruined its Oscars chances, but that's the very reason this film will live on: Pop culture's portrayals of military practices can shape real ones.
Once hyped as a best-picture frontrunner, Zero Dark Thirty snagged only one Oscar at last Sunday's ceremony—for best sound editing, which it won in a tie with Skyfall. What happened? Hollywood observers blame political controversy for killing the film's chances with Academy Voters. And indeed, as if to say "mission accomplished," the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday dropped its highly publicized investigation into whether the filmmakers were given inappropriate access to classified CIA operations.
Ironically, though, the very issue that stoked the film's controversy—its depiction of torture—may ensure it has a bigger, more-lasting legacy than any other film released in 2012. Regardless of whether the movie's actual politics are pro-torture, anti-torture, or somewhere in between, experts in the military and intelligence community say there's good reason to think Zero Dark Thirty will shape how interrogators and policymakers act in the years to come. After all, pop culture's depictions of interrogation and torture have affected real-world practices before.
"One of the issues that instructors run into is that they have a lot of younger people coming in, whose only exposure to interrogation is, up until that point, through media," a Department of Defense research scientist who specializes in interrogation training told me. "We struggle with how to un-teach these new interrogator the wrong things they have learned from such previous interrogation exposure."
When I watched Zero Dark Thirty, I thought about Tony Lagouranis, an Army interrogator who served in Iraq in 2004, who I interviewed for my book about American soldiers and torture. Back then, many interrogators told me they lacked adequate training, and fewer had field experience. They faced widespread problems identifying and capturing insurgent targets, and sorting out the detainees who were haphazardly picked up in sweeps. And their superiors place unattainable expectations on them: for instance, believing that interrogators should collect actionable intelligence from a detainee in 30-minute sessions.
In the absence of better guidance and training, and in the midst of failing intelligence operations, interrogators like Lagouranis said they drew on various sources for inspiration, including talk about what kind of coercive techniques worked elsewhere, what special ops had been doing nearby—and what they saw on their television screens. In between interrogation sessions, he and his colleagues watched movies and TV shows from their bunker office in Mosul. They later said that the kinds of pressure that was used to make their suspects talk in these Hollywood depictions was especially compelling to them, fueling beliefs that pain and duress were effective tools for questioning their prisoners.
"None of us were complete idiots—we knew it was make-believe," he said. "But still, it affects you."
That's not surprising to Barry McManus, a former CIA chief polygrapher and interrogator, who notes how and why some interrogators might turn to TV and movies in high-pressure situations.
"You're dealing with a lot of inexperienced young men and women, and all of a sudden they are put into an environment where they're tasked with getting information," McManus said. "When it doesn't go the way they think it should go, as quickly as they think it should go, with the pressure they have, they tend to revert back to things they've seen on TV or in movies—thinking that this might be the right thing to do."
In the book, Torture Team, author Philippe Sands describes how Army Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate at Guantanamo, had witnessed the effect of Fox's anti-terrorism thriller 24 on the base. She believed the show contributed to an environment in which those at Guantanamo were encouraged to see themselves as being on the frontline, and to go further than they otherwise might. Interrogators even copied the methods of show's protagonist, Agent Jack Bauer, she said: "You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas."
In Lagouranis's case, his unit mostly reproduced "harsh techniques" that other units casually mentioned in passing or copied what other units were doing at the time. But he and his team leader remember how their superiors wanted to reproduce a psychological torture technique they had seen on their office TV screen: a mock electrocution, whereby a detainee would hear the screams of someone they presumed to be another detainee coming from the room next door. The soldiers who were present protested, and ultimately the suggestion was never enacted. (Lagouranis even filed official reports about the torture he saw and was involved in, and wrote a book about it titled Fear Up Harsh.)
Yet there was another chilling instance that occurred around the same time Lagouranis served in 2004. US troops in Tikrit, Iraq, were abusing their detainees. Army Inspector General, Lieutenant General Paul T. Mikolashek, investigated and filed a report that found "at the point of capture, non-commissioned officers were using interrogations techniques they literally remembered from the movies."
Pop culture's stories about torture and interrogation have been shown to influence not only troops on the ground in the heat of a moment, but also US officials at home.
Speaking before a Canadian legal conference in June 2007, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited a 24 episode, in which Bauer tortures a suspect and collects vital information that prevents an attack against Los Angeles, as proof-positive that torture works.
"Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Scalia said. "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so ... So, the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes, and ought we believe in these absolutes."
Another judge, Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who was managing real-world terrorist threats during the Bush administration, said he saw parallels between the show and his own work while speaking to a sell-out crowd at the Heritage Foundation in 2006.
"Whether it's the president in the show or Jack Bauer or the other characters, they're always trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options ... and you have to weigh the costs and benefits of a series of unpalatable alternatives," Chertoff said. "And I think people are attracted to that because, frankly, it reflects real life. That is what we do every day."
Decision-makers-in-training have been affected by media as well. According to West Point instructors, after September 11, cadets pointed to TV shows and movies to defend the real-life use of torture by US military personnel. The pointed to torture scenes in movies like Rules of Engagement and The Siege to make their case. And one of the most-cited shows that cadets used to argue for torture was 24.
Let's pause for moment to consider that so far there's no empirical evidence showing that enhanced interrogation techniques, "harsh techniques," torture—whatever you want to call it—are a reliably effective means of collecting actionable intelligence. In fact, even the CIA's own studies and scientists have found that "intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment" and "any circumstance that impairs the function of the brain potentially affects the ability to give up information, as well as the ability to withhold it." There are many other ways in which torture's verifiable costs have outstripped its supposed gains, including grave costs to intelligence and military operations.
And while Zero Dark Thirty also shows the non-coercive detective work that found Osama bin Laden, when it portrays torture it does so in much the same way that pop culture has traditionally portrayed it.
"There's a way TV or movie interrogators break a prisoner, and that's by establishing a total power over the detainee until the detainee's will breaks," Lagouranis said. "It's always beating a detainee's guard down instead of finding the way around it."
Indeed, most interrogations scenes in Zero Dark Thirty involve breaking detainees in some way—either through the torture scenes or the dialogue.
"I'm bad news. I'm going to break you," says Dan, the CIA interrogator in the film.
In another scene: "It's gonna take a while. He has to know how helpless he is."
And: "In the end, everybody breaks—it's biology."
Already, some former members of the CIA have largely endorsed the film's renditions of recent history and the aims of the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (or EITs). In the press, they've quibbled with the film's oversimplifications, but said that it got the intent of the CIA's interrogation methods right.
"These things weren't gentle or kind, but the impact ... was psychological," explained former CIA director Michael Hayden, speaking with fellow CIA personnel at a forum at the American Enterprise Institute last month about Zero Dark Thirty and use of EITs. "The impact is you are no longer in control of your destiny, all right? You are in our hands, and therefore, that movement into the zone of cooperation as opposed to the zone of defiance."
Testimony like that could help sway popular ideas about the effectiveness of these techniques, and influence future debates about the efficacy of torture, further complicating the relationship between fiction and interrogation: Fictions have shaped ideas about torture and interrogation; those beliefs have informed some interrogators' ideas about coercive techniques during the "war on terror" (and, in some cases, influenced real-world interrogations); and now CIA personnel point to a movie that depicts their involvement in torture to validate that it was necessary and effective. It's a feedback loop.
No one argues that movies and TV alone lead to torture; situations and pressures play the central role. But long before Zero Dark Thirty and even 24, folklore and fiction have influenced views on interrogation and investigative work. Even shows like CSI have an impact on prosecutions—so much, in fact, that it's been dubbed the "CSI effect." Or take the often-cited "ticking time bomb" situation used to justify torture. According to Darius Rejali, noted torture historian and author of Torture and Democracy, the very first reference to a successful "ticking time bomb" scenario actually comes from French novel, The Centurions—that is, a work of fiction.
And to be fair, Zero Dark Thirty's writer and director insist that their film doesn't promote torture. Writing in the LA Times, director Kathryn Bigelow explained that "Torture was... employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore."
That may be true. But even so, Zero Dark Thirty is incontrovertibly part of the canon of dramatized counter-terrorism plots that conveys that, however unseemly, torture played a role in providing crucial clues that eventually led to an evil mastermind. It portrays harsh interrogation methods that could be duplicated in the field. And it goes one step further by claiming fidelity to "actual events."
That's reason enough to fear the sequel.