A scene from Zero Dark Thirty. (AP)
Washington, Dec. 13: Even before its official release, Zero Dark Thirty, the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has become a national Rorschach test on the divisive subject of torture.
The film’s unflinching portrayal of the CIA’s brutal interrogation of al Qaida prisoners hews close to the official record, offering a gruesome sampling of methods like the near-drowning of waterboarding.
What has already divided the critics, journalists and activists who have watched early screenings is a more subtle issue: the suggestion that the calculated infliction of pain and fear, graphically shown in the first 45 minutes of the film, may have produced useful early clues in the quest to find the terrorist leader, who was killed in May 2011.
Such a claim is anathema to outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s decision in 2002 to resort to methods that the US had for decades shunned as illegal. And a new, 6,000-page report on CIA interrogations by the Senate Intelligence Committee, based on a study of some six million pages of agency documents, finds that brutal treatment was not “a central component” in finding Osama, said the committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein.
But the report, which the committee will decide whether to approve tomorrow, remains classified, with little likelihood that any of it will be public for months. It has already become fodder for a partisan fight, with Republicans denouncing it as flawed and incomplete.
Nearly a decade after the CIA is last known to have waterboarded a suspect, the American argument over torture remains unresolved and has lost little of its emotional potency, whether the spark is a blockbuster movie or a Senate report.
According to intelligence officials and the incomplete public record, detainees who endured varying degrees of physical force did tell their interrogators some truths, as well as half-truths and outright lies. What remains unprovable is whether — as FBI agents with long experience questioning terrorists have argued — the same or better information might have been obtained without taking the morally and politically treacherous path the CIA chose.
Mark Boal, the screenwriter of Zero Dark Thirty, which is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, said in an interview yesterday that the movie was no documentary, though it is based on extensive research.
“I’m trying to compress a programme that lasted for years into a few short scenes,” he said. The film, he said, attempts “to reflect a very complex debate about torture that is still going on” and shows brutal treatment producing both true and false information.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw the film on Tuesday night, said he was concerned that because the film opens with torture and ends with the killing of Osama, “it may leave a hazy impression that it was cause and effect”.
But he added: “I don’t think it makes a strong case for or against torture. It shows the big breaks came from good, old-fashioned intelligence work.”
A major difficulty in judging just how faithful Zero Dark Thirty is to the facts is that many facts remain hidden from the public. Though President Obama has repeatedly condemned such methods — his only appearance in the film is on a television that shows him declaring, “America doesn’t torture” — he also declared on taking office that he preferred to “look forward, not back”, and there has never been a public official inquiry into torture and the questions that surround it such as its effectiveness, its legal basis and how extensively it was used.
Senator Feinstein calls her committee’s report “comprehensive” and “strictly factual”. She has previously made clear that the report is harshly critical of the programme, saying that the inquiry found that “coercive and abusive treatment of detainees was far more widespread and systematic than we thought”.
But the report was written by Democratic staff members after Republicans declined to participate.