Movie's depiction of torture raises brave, valid questions

20:38, Feb 11 2013

Torture is one of the moral issues of our time. In the years since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the American response has embraced the foul as well as the fair and the lines between revenge, retribution and justice have not always been clear.

Whatever the idiotic pronouncements about "freedom" and claptrap spoken by politicians and apologists for the US intelligence community, the Bush administration was quick to cede the moral high ground and gets its hands as dirty as any bona-fide terrorist.

It is to New Zealand's eternal shame that we got sucked into this poisonous culture, our SAS personnel on the ground in Afghanistan transferring suspects to the US and Afghan forces with full knowledge that these individuals would be tortured.

A recently released film depicts torture with a matter-of-fact frankness rare in mainstream cinema. In a narrative sense Zero Dark Thirty is "about" the CIA's hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Thematically, the film poses much larger questions, drawing its audience into scenes of systematic abuse, making us complicit with the torturers as prone victims are beaten and subjected to waterboarding. The casual nature of these scenes is disquieting, as much for the violence as the way it is presented as becoming normalised as standard CIA practice.

This is not a film in which characters reflect on the morality of their actions. There are no sleepless nights for the waterboarders, just a slight admission of weariness. It is an absolute given that ends justify means and that bad men with proven links to the enemy deserve to be treated as punching bags.


Because there is a suggestion that the information gleaned during the torture sessions is of use in the quest to establish bin Laden's whereabouts, Zero Dark Thirty has attracted huge controversy.

Screenplay writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have come under attack from both ends of the US political spectrum.

Republicans have questioned their research methods and implied improper access to classified documents and personnel, arguing, on the one hand, that the depiction of abuse is overstated and, on the other, that Boal and Bigelow had no right to knowledge of it, let alone to dramatise it in a way that might make their fellow citizens question CIA tactics.

Liberals and conservatives alike have criticised the notion that torture could be in any way effective as an intelligence-gathering method, finding the idea dangerous, distasteful and factually wrong.

There would seem to be no consensus as to the last point.

For many, it is an absolute that information obtained under duress will always be suspect to the point of being inaccurate. Others concede that torture can produce results on occasion, but argue that the real problem with its use by the CIA was that in the Bush years it came to be thought of as a magic-bullet solution to the detriment of other, more consistently reliable techniques.

Film-maker Alex Gibney, whose own eloquent documentary, Taxi to the Darkside, did much to expose the US abuses to the world, has strongly criticised Boal and Bigelow for not emphasising this enough, calling Zero Dark Thirty "irresponsible".

Whatever the historical truth of the matter, I would argue that having it seem as though torture produced useful information sharpens the philosophical debate that is at the heart of the film. It is easy to reject torture if it is seen to be a method of practical flaws and dubious outcomes.

The real challenge that Zero Dark Thirty poses is to reject torture for moral reasons, because it is wrong in and of itself, even if it does further a cause perceived as right. Torture is a means that destroys the end, obliterating the difference between good and evil.

Really challenging art doesn't tell us how to think, it provokes a response. That some find Zero Dark Thirty an endorsement of US human rights violations says more about them than the agenda of the film-makers.

Boal and Bigelow dare to question whether the price paid for killing Osama bin Laden was worth it. It is a brave and provocative query, a testament to American free speech as much as to all the horrors carried out in the name of democracy.