Grappling with Zero Dark Thirty: Torture Works and the CIA Is Nothing But Awesome, Part 1:
(Yes, there are spoilers. What did you think?)
Now that he's seen the film, the Rude Pundit is going to wade into the debate over the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. Let's approach this objectively (or, as the filmmakers would say, "almost journalistically") first. Torture scenes occupy a good chunk of the first hour of the two-and-a-half hour film. Plot-wise, prisoners tortured by the CIA, directly or through intermediary countries, give up the name "Abu Ahmed," the cover for Osama Bin Laden's courier, but they do not give his real name or a way to find him. It's not until a few year's later that a character who appears only once in the film tells Maya, the CIA agent protagonist and dogged Osama bin Laden pursuer, that she found the courier's name in a file that was part of a flood of information the CIA received right after the 9/11 attacks.
Simply put, the logical progression of the plot is that Maya and the CIA would not have known to look for the courier had it not been for what was revealed during the torture of multiple prisoners. Yes, detective work in the post-torture (or Obama) era led to the discovery of the real name and then bin Laden's compound, but the awareness of who to look for came from the tortured. As far as the story on film goes, torture works.
The torture scenes are not presented as anything other than brutal and degrading. In fact, the Rude Pundit watched those moments, where CIA interrogator Dan treats Anmar (based, probably, on Mohamed al-Qahtani) like a dog and where Anmar is, more or less, crucified, and thought, "I don't give a damn what side Dan is on. Any nation that does this to people as official policy is asking for payback. And I kind of wanna see Dan get killed." He is not. He gets to return to Washington and work there for the rest of his career, unpunished.
You have to deny what is presented on screen in order to think that the movie says anything other than "Torture is a tool to get information; it is not the only tool, but it is a tool." Director Kathryn Bigelow has said as much, even saying that torture is "reprehensible." But she doesn't say it's wrong or that it didn't work.
What's wrong with the film is that it pretends to be devoid of any moral perspective. By focusing, to the exclusion of anything else, on the hunt for bin Laden, the film wants you to see everything as part of that hunt, especially what gets results. But it's not objective. The torturers are humanized, like when we see Dan and his (no doubt ironically) caged monkeys. The prisoners and Pakistanis are depicted as evil others who are ultimately weak.
We are manipulated with audio of people who died in 9/11. We are shown multiple terrorist attacks, which is fine and relevant, if a bit overwrought. What's the purpose of that other than to say that that the means justify the ends? To show us that terrorists do bad things? No shit. In the context of Zero Dark Thirty, the reason to do that is to make us as driven as Maya to find bin Laden, even if that means beating a prisoner handcuffed to a table.
Later today (or tomorrow): How the CIA is awesome and what it all means.