The problem with 'Zero Dark Thirty'

In this undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jessica Chastain, center, plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives, stationed in a covert base overseas, with Christopher Stanley, left, and Alex Corbet Burcher, right, who secretly devote themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' new thriller, "Zero Dark Thirty."

By Michael Yudell

Whether you are rooting for Anne Hathaway’s gritty performance as mother-turned-prostitute-turned martyr Fontine in Les Misérables, or Bradley Cooper’s breakout performance in Silver Linings Playbook, you should also be thinking about something else while watching Sunday’s 85th annual Academy Awards — the Academy’s “Best Picture” nomination of the deeply troubling and historically inaccurate Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow’s cinematic exploration of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

From senators to famed Hollywood actors, critics have pounded the film for its glorification of torture and for suggesting that torture played a critical role in finding bin Laden, when the evidence suggests it did not. Does this film really deserve the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “recognition of the highest level of achievement in moviemaking”? Let’s review.

Unlike most historical films that begin with the qualification “Based on Real Events,” Zero Dark Thirty ups the ante, introducing us into the world of CIA interrogations and Al Qaeda with much less qualification. It is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” By selling itself as something more than fictionalized history, Zero Dark Thirty suggests it’s something it is not. As Steve Coll has written in the New York Review of Books, the film “aligns its methods with those of journalists and historians, and it appropriates as drama what remains the most undigested trauma in American national life during the last several decades” (referring, of course, to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001).

Criticism of the film has centered largely on the role that torture played in the search that led to the killing of bin Laden. “You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” said Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture. “That’s not the case.”

The CIA’s acting director, Michael Morell, wrote in a letter to agency employees that "the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Ladin. That impression is false.” Morell added,  “as we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad.  Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well." 

Director Bigelow has defended her film, writing that "it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices."

But the debate over the role that torture played is in many ways beside the point. And Bigelow misses the larger issue: despite our foray into “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), U.S. laws and obligations, as outlined in Executive Order 13491,  prohibit it — and all that we know about it makes torture not just morally reprehensible but also an awful strategy to extract information. The 24-like scenario where the hero tortures a prisoner to save a city from nuclear annihilation is a fantasy. Information extracted by these techniques is notoriously unreliable.

A 2002 memo from the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency highlights the dangers of torturing enemy prisoners and warned that torture solicits "unreliable information." Said the memo: "The unintended consequence of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners is that it could be used by our adversaries as justification for the torture of captured U.S. personnel.”

Bigelow has created a false debate about torture. Beyond that, however, Zero Dark Thirty also gives an inaccurate rendering of how the torture was actually carried out. And this, to me, is where the film devolves into propaganda. Watching the CIA agent “Dan” interrogate his prisoners, I saw a passionate and patriotic American trying desperately to elicit information that he believes will save American lives and perhaps lead to senior Al Qaeda officials (and maybe even bin Laden). The film wants you to root for him, Dan, the man on the line. He tortures not because he wants to, but because he believes he has to. And he does it in a way that is both repulsive and impulsive. When Dan tortures, you believe that his motivations are visceral and just, even as they turn your stomach and try to challenge your moral compass.

Why is this such a critical flaw in the film?

Because, according to leaked CIA memos and some outstanding journalism, that is not what actually happened. And in portraying it as she does, Bigelow is engaged in both flagrant deception and moral duplicity. The routinization of torture and the complicity of health officials in carrying it out, convey a much different moral burden than the character Dan brought to the film.

According to a 2004 CIA report, obtained in 2009 by the Washington Post, enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) not only had to be approved by “headquarters,” but could “be employed only by trained and certified interrogators” with “appropriate medical and psychological monitoring of the process.” That report also details a “two-week Interrogator Training Course designed to train, qualify, and certify individuals as agency interrogators.” The “curriculum for that course “included a week of classroom instruction followed by a week of ‘hands on’ training in EITs.”

Even more chilling is an addendum to that report detailing medical and psychological support for interrogations. The CIA’s Office of Medical Personnel played a key role in enhanced interrogration techniques, and was used as a justification for torture. In the view of the Bush administration, the presence of medical personnel during torture — including practices like waterboarding, cramped confinement boxes, prolonged diapering, and sleep deprivation —somehow made it not torture. (In Zero Dark Thirty none of the characters present during the torture scenes were identified as medical personnel.) Psychologists and medical personnel were “responsible for assessing and monitoring the health of all Agency detainees subject to ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques.”

The report also details the precision with which, contrary to the film’s depiction of it, waterboarding was to be  carried out: “The subject is immobilized on his back, and his forehead and eyes covered with a cloth. A stream of water is directed at the upper lip. Resistant subjects then have the cloth lowered to cover the nose and mouth, as the water continues to be applied, fully saturating the cloth, and precluding the passage of air. Relatively little water enters the mouth. The occlusion (which may be partial) lasts no more than 20 seconds. On removal of the cloth, the subject is immediately able to breathe, but continues to have water directed at the upper lip to prolong the effect. This process can continue for several minutes, and involved up to 15 canteen cups of water. Ostensibly the primary desired effect derives from the sense of suffocation resulting from the wet cloth temporary occluding the nose and mouth, and psychological impact of the continued application of water after the cloth is removed.”

Other torture-related memos suggest that medical personnel carried out research on detainees. One stated that “in order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented.” Doctors would observe “if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled … and how the subject looked between each treatment.” The American Medical Association has clearly decried the use of physicians in carrying out torture. The American Psychological Association has been taken for task for not doing so.  

The use of medical personnel in torture sends an awful and potentially dangerous message. Members of the public health workforce, including physicians and psychologists, should be trusted by communities here and abroad. Using them to help sanction state torture undermines that mission, and threatens efforts to bring health care to populations around the globe.

I am not one to quibble with Hollywood’s sometimes inexact use of history to tell stories. But doing so in the service of one of our nation’s darkest moments  — the illegal use of torture during wartime and the complicity of health officials in that torture — only fuels these darker impulses.

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