Torture: Separating fact and fiction

“Zero Dark Thirty” has been criticized for its depiction of torture.

By Eric Mink

I’m a lousy awards handicapper. If I were to predict which movies, artists and artisans will win Academy Awards on Feb. 24, your smartest bet would be to bet against me.

I have my favorites among the best-picture nominees, of course. Both “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi” — pictures of astonishing consistency of vision and execution — thrilled me with a richness of images and sounds and took me on deeply challenging emotional journeys.

I would not put “Zero Dark Thirty,” another nominee, in their class, although it has racked up scads of nominations and awards from professional groups and critics’ associations here and abroad.

A fictionalized account of one aspect of the United States’ 10-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden, “Zero” certainly is a well-made picture. But its sole dramatic driving force is a CIA analyst/interrogator named Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) who strikes only one emotional note — obsession — in the entire film. That’s particularly problematic for a movie that, at 2 hours and 37 minutes, treads a lot of water in the middle. Meatier roles in “The Help” and “The Tree of Life” gave Chastain’s range and artistry much better workouts.

Most of the cinematic brilliance of “Zero Dark Thirty” is packed into its immensely satisfying payoff: a re-creation of the May 2011 helicopter mission of the specially trained U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This 30-minute, almost dialogue-free sequence boasts direction, film and sound editing, music scoring, acting, set design, costuming, hand-held camera movement and, most significantly, cinematographer Greig Fraser’s use of light, all of which work in seamless synch. 

And then there’s torture.

“Zero Dark Thirty” has been pelted with criticism (and showered with publicity) for the way it handles the torture of prisoners by CIA analysts hoping to break down resistance and extract useful intelligence about terrorist leaders and plots.

Real-life truth

The use of torture by American interrogators originated with President George W. Bush’s declaration on Feb. 7, 2002, that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions outlawing prisoner abuse did not apply to members of al-Qaida or the Taliban. Coercive interrogations soon began in Afghanistan and secret CIA prisons overseas, and spread, at the urging of senior administration officials and lawyers, to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then to Iraq. 

The FBI, the top career lawyers of the military service branches and some officials within the Justice Department and even inside the CIA itself resisted the administration’s push to “the dark side,” as then Vice President Dick Cheney called it. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled Bush’s declaration in 2006. The film makes no mention of this legal battle. 

Movie truth

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie made by a sprawling team of professional filmmakers led by director Kathryn Bigelow. Actors play some real people and some invented people. They speak words written for them by a screenwriter and appear in settings constructed for, or adapted for, movie purposes. As a work of fiction and art, “Zero Dark Thirty” has no obligation to stick to the historical record, whether crystal clear or hotly disputed.

Even so, the film muddies the waters considerably with the declaration on its opening title card: “The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.”

Movie torture

Jane Mayer, a journalist for The New Yorker magazine who has written brilliantly and at great length about the issue of torture and interrogations, takes issue with “Zero Dark Thirty” on many points, some more persuasive than others.

Most compelling is Mayer’s contention that the beginning of the movie paints torture as a necessary evil that leads, at the end of the movie, to the death of bin Laden.

There are eight interrogation scenes involving four different prisoners in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the first beginning two minutes into the picture. Collectively, the eight scenes occupy about 22 of the film’s first 45 minutes. The shortest lasts less than one minute, the longest more than seven.

Five of the interrogations show CIA personnel torturing and abusing prisoners physically and psychologically, including two incidents of prisoners taken to the brink of death by drowning, a practice called waterboarding. Of the remaining three interrogations, two involve prisoners who have been tortured previously.

“Zero” certainly doesn’t glorify or glamorize torture. But torture constitutes the foundation of the movie, which I’ve now seen three times. It provides the audience’s essential first steps on a filmic journey to the ending that everyone knows is coming and everyone knows is right. In this movie, without torture there would be no journey at all.

Real-life torture

Legally, torture was declared an abomination among civilized nations more than 60 years ago. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 — adopted in post-war horror and shame at the methodical Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other declared enemies of Hitler’s Third Reich — prohibits physical and psychological torture. It also bans supposedly less severe actions labeled “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” sometimes called “torture lite.”

The Geneva provisions were reinforced 40 years later by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, adopted by the U.S. in 1994. The terms of both also are reflected in U.S. criminal statutes, including Chapter 113C (torture) and Chapter 118 (war crimes) of Title 18 of the U.S. Code.

But in the real world, might not the immoral act of torturing a terrorist produce information that could save countless lives? Theoretically, but only if torture works — many experts believe it extracts so much false information as to be worthless — only if its use is strictly limited and controlled and only if there’s no other way to get the information. 

Israel, it turns out, inadvertently conducted a 12-year experiment testing this premise. In 1987, the Landau Commission authorized interrogators for Israel’s General Security Service to apply “physical pressure” in strictly limited circumstances. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that such authorizations were illegal and that interrogators had ingeniously found ways around the commission’s limitations. The limits became meaningless, and abuse proliferated, much as it did soon after Bush discarded the Geneva Conventions and authorized “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Abusive interrogations like those in “Zero Dark Thirty” certainly took place, and fragments of information from them may have become part of a vast intelligence mosaic that six or seven or eight years later tracked bin Laden to Abbottabad. But was that the only way?

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Leon Panetta, who was the director of the CIA at the time of the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden, was asked that very question.

He replied, “I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that.”

If so, then the immorality of torture for a greater good was … just … immoral.