Frank Bruni, The New York Times:
Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker:
Peter Bergen, CNN (unpaid adviser to the film):
"[I]t's hard not to focus on them, because the first extended sequence in the movie shows a detainee being strung up by his wrists, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep, made to feel as if he's drowning and shoved into a box smaller than a coffin.
"The torture sequence immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It's set up as payback.
"And by the movie's account, it produces information vital to the pursuit of the world's most wanted man. No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that's what 'Zero Dark Thirty' appears to suggest."Steve Coll, New York Review of Books:
[T]he filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy. . . .
The easiest question to consider is what Zero Dark Thirty actually depicts about the part torture played in locating bin Laden. . . . There can be no mistaking what Zero Dark Thirty shows: torture plays an outsized part in Maya’s success . . . . In virtually every instance in the film where Maya extracts important clues from prisoners, then, torture is a factor.
Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker:
"Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden's courier, whose trail led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding."
Peter Bergen, CNN (unpaid adviser to the film):
"The compelling story told in the film captures a lot that is true about the search for al Qaeda's leader but also distorts the story in ways that could give its likely audience of millions of Americans the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees -- such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation -- were essential to finding bin Laden. . . .
"'Zero Dark Thirty' is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes -- that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden -- is not supported by the facts."Film critic Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly:
"The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ''enhanced interrogation techniques'' that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Dick Cheney Barack Obama could love. At the same time, the film spins its fearless — and potentially controversial — stance toward the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners into a heady international detective thriller."
The sad fact is that Zero Dark Thirty could have been written by the tight circle of national security advisors who counseled President George W. Bush to create the post-9/11 policies that led to Guantanamo, the global network of borrowed “black sites” that added up to an offshore universe of injustice, and the grim torture practices – euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — that went with them. . . .Film critic Stuart Klawans, The Nation:
As its core, Bigelow’s film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11. . . . [T]he fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists. It’s as if she had followed an old government memo and decided to offer in fictional form step-by-step instructions for the creation, implementation, and selling of Bush-era torture and detention policies.
"I can easily name twenty better films released in the US in 2012. But as for the torture: I said in my column, and will repeat: the movie revels in it. In a film that’s entirely about professionalism—are you, Jessica Chastain, tough enough to do the job?—the ability to overcome a first squeamishness and participate in torture, initiate torture, identify with a torturer as your mentor, is the defining quality of a character who makes herself hard-core enough to earn the respect of Navy SEALs.
"Arguments that the film exposes torture as abhorrent are absurd. The movie juices the audience on the adrenaline generated by these physical confrontations, and offers vicariously the sense of power enjoyed by the person holding the leash.
"Does the film go further, and present torture as the necessary tool for taking down bin Laden? Absolutely."Emily Bazelon, Slate:
"I think the movie has earned its acclaim because film critics aren’t fact checkers. And when you do check the facts, you find that while the movie is putting a thumb on the scale for torture, the film doesn’t get the role it played in the Bin Laden chase condemnably wrong. I do think the movie reads as pro-torture, and as someone who opposes the practice, I wish that it didn’t. . . .
"When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests."
Greg Mitchell, The Nation:
"In summary, I’d simply say that those picking apart various scenes and pointing to key details in the film are not wrong in suggesting that the film’s depiction of torture helping to get bin Laden is muddled at best—but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably will be: Yes, torture played a key (if not the key) role."
Film critic David Edelstein, New York Magazine:
"It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other 'black sites'—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture."Novelist Bret Easton Ellis:
"The most morally dubious, obtuse and overrated movie of 2012: Zero Dark Thirty."Michelle Shepard, national security reporter, The Toronto Star:
"[F]or the greater movie-going public it will be hard not to walk away with the impression that this type of interrogation was a necessary evil – at the very least, an essential part of the CIA’s tool box when forced to operate in what Cheney famously dubbed 'the dark side.'"Jane Mayer, the New Yorker:
"Yet what is so unsettling about 'Zero Dark Thirty' is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it . . . .
"In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.'s 'enhanced interrogation techniques' played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. . . .
"In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, 'Zero Dark Thirty' endorses torture in several other subtle ways. . . . The filmmakers subtly put their thumb on the pro-torture scale, as Emily Bazelon put it, in another scene, too. . . .[B]y the time millions of Americans have seen this movie, they will believe that, as Frank Bruni put it in a recent Times column, 'No waterboarding, no bin Laden.'"Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney:
It's difficult for one filmmaker to criticize another. That's a job best left to critics. However, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, an issue that is central to the film -- torture -- is so important that I feel I must say something. Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible and inaccurate in the way they have treated this issue in their film. . . .
I want to focus my concern on the way in which the film is fundamentally reckless when it comes to the subject of torture . . . . [I]t's a cop-out for Boal and Bigelow to say they shouldn't be held to account for the meaning of their film because "it's just a movie," and/or because it's a "journalistic account." In the context of the final result, neither statement is credible. When it comes to torture, the film fails the truth test for both accountants and poets.Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell:
I would not normally comment on a Hollywood film, but I think it important to put Zero Dark Thirty, which deals with one of the most significant achievements in our history, into some context. The film. . . the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.
[T]he 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.Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein (Chair, Intelligence Committee) & Carl Levin (Chair, Armed Services Committee):
Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Osama bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect”. . . .
The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing:
My problem with "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't just that it validates the use of torture, and sends a clear message that the systematic violation of human rights, drone strikes, and extrajudicial assassinations are just the dirty truths that "protecting our freedom" requires.
My problem is that its use of accurate documentary detail and artistic verisimilitude seems not merely a weak justification for its inaccurate depiction of torture's value, but a way of drawing the eye to it, a whispering and surreptitious endorsement.Michael Wolff, the Guardian:
The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. . . .
Kathryn Bigelow is a fetishist and a sadist, which, in a literary sense, certainly has a fine tradition. But without some acknowledgement that this is her lonely journey and not a shared one – not our collective reality, not a set of accepted assumptions but, for better or worse, her own particular, problematic kink – all you have is a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda.
In a riveting opening section, the film obliquely credits the discovery of the key piece of information in the search for Bin Laden to the torture of an Al Qaeda prisoner held by the CIA. This is at odds with the facts as they have been recounted by journalists reporting on the manhunt, by Obama administration intelligence officials and by legislative leaders.
Bigelow and her writing partner, Mark Boal, are promoting "Zero Dark Thirty" in part by stressing its basis in fact. It's curious that they could have gotten this central, contentious point wrong. And because they originally set out to make a movie about the frustrating failure to find Bin Laden, it's hard to believe their aim was to celebrate torture. But that's in effect what they've done.Dan Froomkin, The Huffington Post:
Zero Dark Thirty is a despicable movie, even if Bigelow and Boal didn't intend it that way. . . . Do yourself a favor, and don’t go see this movie. Don’t encourage film-making that at best offers ambiguity about torture, and at worst endorses it. Spend the two and a half hours and the $10 on something more valuable, and moral.NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake:
SawFormer US Air Force Col. Morris Davis, Chief Prosecutor in the Guantanamo military commissions:
#ZD30. Portrayal is gov't propaganda film. Leaves no doubt torture got leads. Torture scenes tame compared 2 reality. Ends justifies means.
Nothing was tortured more in the making of Kathryn Bigelow's film "Zero Dark Thirty" than the truth about torture.
While it's just a movie, it runs the risk of becoming the basis for a false view of reality for millions of moviegoers who have largely ignored a decade of debate about the efficacy of the United States sanctioning torture. . . .
This is Hollywood's version of reality about torture. It is a false reality that does a disservice to our many effective interrogators who obtain critical intelligence through humane methods, as well as the public who deserve to know the truth about torture.Mother Jones film critic Asawin Suebsaeng:
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter—and former journalist— Mark Boal explicitly draw a (patently false) link between the savage torture of Islamist detainees and finding Osama bin Laden. And that's a hell of a thing for Boal to do, given that he began his last movie by quoting the rabidly anti-torture lefty Chris Hedges.
Mehdi Hasan, Political Director, the Huffington Post UK:
[T]he truth is that the entire plotline of ZDT is built on a lie: that the torture of detainees by the CIA produced the intelligence which led the US to Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottad, Pakistan.
In pushing this false narrative, the movie effectively excuses and implicitly condones the torture that was done by the Agency - it was a necessary means to an important end; it worked as a method of intelligence-gathering; it was vital to protect America and track down Bin Laden.
I'm a member of Hollywood's Motion Picture Academy. At the risk of being expelled for disclosing my intentions, I will not be voting for Zero Dark Thirty - in any Academy Awards category. . . .Torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances. Zero never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal. It does portray torture as getting results. . . .Individuals and groups protesting the easy tolerance of torture in Zero Dark Thirty have been dismissed by some commentators as having "a political agenda." The grievous problem presented by torture is not political. It's moral. And it's criminal.
[T]he film lets the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency play the protagonists with the true claim to Bin Laden’s scalp.Chris Hayes, MSNBC:
This is not a coincidence. The CIA played a key role in shaping the film's narrative, corresponding with the filmmakers to negotiate favorable access to a movie that one CIA official described as "get[ting] behind the winning horse" of the "first and biggest" movie about the Bin Laden raid, according to internal CIA emails obtained by Judicial Watch.
"I had a moral revulsion to the film." It "colludes with evil". It's "objectively pro-torture."_____________
See also: Peter Maass, The Atlantic: "Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty': The acclaimed thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking."