Fact, Fiction, and Freedom in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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No recent event in American foreign policy has captured the public imagination like the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Kathryn Bigelow's slick, technically brilliant film "Zero Dark Thirty" is surely only the first in what will be many retellings of that story. It's no Hollywood hagiography—the plot is admirably devoid of cliché and the eventual success of the mission is shown in a mature and restrained fashion, in stark contrast to the wild celebrations with which it was greeted in reality. However, one problematic feature of the narrative has sparked massive amounts of controversy—the movie's depiction of torture.

Leaving aside completely its moral reprehensibility, it is now widely accepted by many in the federal government that torture—including so-called "advanced interrogation techniques" such as sensory deprivation and waterboarding—does not provide accurate intelligence. Despite this, "Zero Dark Thirty" shows a crucial piece of intelligence, the identity of bin Laden's courier, being obtained only after a subject is beaten, starved, shackled to the ceiling, imprisoned in a tiny box, waterboarded, and sexually humiliated.

Later detainees are shown being sensorially deprived and struck in the face until they confirm the intelligence. One agrees to give up his information because, he says, "I have no desire to be tortured again." When one character bemoans the cessation of the detainee program because it would have been able to confirm bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, nobody contradicts her. Doubtless though it is that part of the filmmakers' mission here to confront the full horrors of American-sponsored interrogation and rendition, the depiction of torture in "Zero Dark Thirty" does seem to deviate from the now commonly accepted narrative.

Plenty of ink has been spilled on this subject in a wider political sense, but what implications does it have for the artistic unity of the movie itself? Ms. Bigelow and the movie's screenwriter, Mark Boal, have been talking up the journalistic qualities of the film and their efforts to make it as true to life as possible—the oft-abused term "docudrama" has been bandied around.  There's nothing wrong with that, and for the most part they succeed. However, the aforementioned discrepancy threatens to compromise their artistic integrity and the veracity of the events they depict.

One could argue that the torture component of the narrative is excusable because "Zero Dark Thirty" is, at the end of the day, only a film, and thus able to use poetic license. Fair enough, but this would appear to upset the film's claim to journalistic accuracy. In the movie, then, what is actually true-to-life? How do we, as viewers, know? If cinema ever makes the bold claim that it resembles real historical documentation, then it had better be prepared to be critiqued as such.

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