Zero Dark Thirty Supporters Defend Film's Use Of Torture Scenes

This time of year can be frustrating for film fans. Critics and film journalists able to see films early write argument pieces for movies general film fans haven’t seen yet, from This is 40 and Django Unchained to The Hobbit (which, at least, opens Friday) and Zero Dark Thirty.

A particular think piece posted to The American Prospect, for example, discusses director Kathryn Bigelow’s approach to warterboarding and torture-driven investigative techniques as the military tracked Osama Bin Laden. But it’s such a detailed read that audience members are going to want to bookmark it and revisit it after you’ve had a chance to absorb ZDT and reach your own conclusions.

Film critic Tom Carson addressed the concerns – leveled, mostly, by people who haven’t yet seen the movie – that Bigelow’s drama was pro-torture. The movie does not shy away from the use of torture by our military to get prisoners to talk about Bin Laden’s possible location. Jason Clarke’s bullish, aggressive investigator employs vicious techniques to manipulate his subjects, and the scenes are as uncomfortable as is necessary. But as Carson writes, “Depicting torture as an effective intelligence tool isn't the same as endorsing it by a long shot.”

I can't believe anyone with half a brain could watch ZD30 and think the movie is hailing torture, American-style, as the niftiest thing since Pez dispensers. The torture scenes are squalid, vivid, and brutally protracted, and -- not by accident, since they lead off the movie -- they make the protagonists morally compromised from the get-go. Not to mention, by extension, us, since we paid their real-life equivalents' salaries. (The horrible sense of complicity when we realize we want the guy they're interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with is one of the more memorable experiences in recent movies.) There can't be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for. The point of Zero Dark Thirty isn't to let us exult that we got bin Laden, and never mind being finicky about how [...] The movie is all about the moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid to do it.”

This will be an issue that plagues Zero Dark Thirty as it plays for wider audiences. The torture scenes, I’d argue, are essential to the story Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are telling, and omitting them could be considered more offensive. But the conversation is out there, even before the movie has opened. It will be interesting to see which side of the argument audiences embrace once they are able to see ZDT with their own eyes.

Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.