The seductions of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jonathan Olley AP This photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Navy SEALs seen through the greenish glow of … Continued

Jonathan Olley


This photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Navy SEALs seen through the greenish glow of night vision goggles, as they prepare to breach a locked door in Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Columbia Pictures’ hyper-realistic new action thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The controversial Oscar-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty” opened this weekend. During much of the film, I was on the edge of my seat. Osama bin Laden masterminds the killing of almost 3,000 people, and the CIA engages in a complex operation to find and kill him. It is a compelling tale with a labyrinth of successes and failures and eventually does lead to bin Laden’s assassination.

The image that kept coming to mind is one that takes place on myriad schoolyards across the globe. A smaller kid is bullied by a big kid, and our sense of injustice is inflamed. Then a teacher or even a larger kid stops the bullying and punishes the bully, and we feel gratified. There is something human about feeling satisfied when evil is stopped and there is accountability.

In that way, “Zero Dark Thirty” has a seductive plot. We want the bully to be punished, and some believe that any means necessary should be used to accomplish that goal. Out of that mindset, we watch the CIA employ varied gruesome means of torture to gather intelligence, leaving many to walk out of the movie believing that torture worked –it led to the bully and to his ultimate punishment.

But like many seductions, there are serious problems. First, the film is not based on the facts about the U.S.’s use of torture. “Zero Dark Thirty is a drama;” it is fiction. It inaccurately suggests that the use of torture by U.S. authorities led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former ex-officio member of the committee, have publicly refuted the idea that torture provided critical intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden. Senator McCain, in fact, has directly criticized “Zero Dark Thirty,” saying that the filmmakers fell “hook, line and sinker” for a false narrative about how the United States obtained the intelligence to track down bin Laden.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently adopted with a bipartisan vote a more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s use of torture. The report is the result of a more than three-year investigation and is based on information contained in several million pages of documents about the detainee interrogation program. The committee now needs to vote to release the report. After watching the fiction, we now need to know that facts about U.S.-sponsored torture in order to ensure that our nation never tortures again.

The second problem is that torture is immoral. Just because you can behave in a certain way, does not mean that you should. Just because you can torture to get information does not mean that this interrogation method is moral. Torture is a moral abomination. It runs contrary to the teachings of all religions and dishonors all faiths. It is an egregious violation of the dignity and worth of each and every person. Torture is degrading to all involved – the victim, perpetrator and policymakers. The Golden Rule makes it clear: Torture should not be perpetrated on others because we would not want others to do so to us.

The third problem is that torture is illegal without exception. In 1994, the United States signed the UN Convention Against Torture, agreeing to abide by the following proscription: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a response to those three problems, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a 20-minute film, “Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture Forever,” a significant part of its “Fact Not Fiction” campaign.

Torture is too important an issue to allow a film such as “Zero Dark Thirty” to be the final arbiter. The facts need to play that role. I call on the Senate Intelligence Committee to release its report as soon as possible in order to end U.S.-sponsored torture forever.

Rev. Richard L. Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, is the Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

  • alamanach

    Thanks for your thoughts. In the Zero Dark Thirty I watched, the guy didn’t start talking in earnest until they quit roughing him up and instead sat him down with some warm food. And anyway, the movie wasn’t about torture. There were interrogation scenes in it, waterboarding and all, but there were also scenes with cell phones, and one memorable scene with a Lamborghini. But the movie isn’t about cell phones or Lamborghinis, either. It was a movie about human emotions. It was a movie about the emotional toll that war has on the people who fight it.

    By the way, there are old Army field manuals (available on the internet) from pre-2001 that describe interrogations methods and the logic behind them. You can read up on how to conduct interrogations, and how to resist interrogation, and learn what interrogation is really all about. The interrogations conducted in the movie are largely incoherent compared to interrogations in real life, and that’s true whether one were employing torture or not. It’s a piece of fiction.

  • edwardmwoodward

    I remain unconvinced that whatever was done to any Gitmo detainees was more torturous than the fourth class system at The Citadel in 1967. That said, I have yet to see the movie but intend to do so.

  • alan40

    I saw the film and was surprised at the “torture” it depicted. No broken bones, no permanent injuries, no death. Waterboarding a few minutes with no adverse affects. We need a new word to differentiate this from what our enemies do.

  • tatooyou

    “no permanent injuries”

    Does that include no permanent mental injuries ?

    Would it be torture to march you up against a wall, turn you around to face a firing squad of four men with rifles, then ask you for any last requests, blindfold you, so that you can only hear “ready”, “aim” “fire” only to hear the clicks of the rifle hammers hitting the firing pins because there were no bulletts in them ?

  • tatooyou

    Maybe you should do more than just “see” the movie to come to an accurate conclusion.

  • forestbloggod

    “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

    Unfortunately, the bully is our military and shadow corporate minions.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    “Just because you can behave in a certain way, does not mean that you should.”

    There is a statement that could apply to any number of current day alternative lifestyles.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “We need a new word to differentiate this from what our enemies do.”

    Torture is torture, changing the word does not change the realilty.


    A christian lecturing everyone on the immorality of torture is laughable.

  • Publicola1

    ZD30′s recounting of the role of “enhanced interrogation” played in the UBL hunt is more accurate than anything that will come from Senate Intelligence Committee.

    Whether you think “torture” (water boarding, diet restrictions, sleep deprivation, loud music – all technically “torture” as is bamboo under the fingernails and removal of fingers) was right or not, you should not blame the movie makers for telling it like it is (was).

    Guess the same people whining about ZD30 also do not like movies which depict the targeting of 100′s of thousands of civilians in carpet/fire bombings in Hamburg, Tokyo, Dresden – yes it seems a surprise to some that we (America) actually and intentionally targeted civilians (a LARGE number of civilians) in WW2.

    Don’t blame the movie for depicting such actions – nor for accurately pointing out their effective role in winning the war.

  • djjc123

    Haven’t seen the picture? 2hrs 37min.

    The star of the show? Osama. Without the real-life, charismatic super-villain, you got one long, tedious procedural. If you compress it to 48 min, you got a decent episode of “Cold Case.”

    And the pulse-pounding assault on Osama’s hideout? It’s like a beefed-up N.Y. SWAT team shooting up a candy store, blasting their way through to the back room where the sick old mobster is hiding out.

    The director makes the assault look dangerous and suspenseful, with fuzzy, green shots, fading to black, SEALs whispering to each other, more green fuzzy stuff until they whack Osama in his jammies, without a weapon. Big brave SEALs.


    And the critics creamed over it, drooling over Jessica Chastain.

    There, saved you $12.

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