How should progressives look at the film Zero Dark Thirty, opening this week, and already causing some controversy and debate? First, I would suggest, remember that it's a movie. As a movie, it succeeds brilliantly. At the end, it takes you inside the raid on bin Laden's hideout in the incredibly super-realistic way that only a film can do. Before we get to that point, the film lays out a ten year history showing just how difficult it was to find and follow the trail that led to that hideout. So judge it as an example of the genre of detective story and thriller, topped off by a war movie style commando raid.
Second, what should be emphasized is that this story is a triumph of feminism. The hero is a woman CIA operative whose dogged focus on her target finally leads to success. Although the film takes some liberties with history for the sake of a good narrative, apparently this part of the story is essentially true. There was a woman at the center of the effort to hunt down bin Laden, and those who want to give credit to the male actors, whether you favor Bush-Cheney, or Obama, or Navy Seal Team 6, must also recognize the key role of a smart, stubborn female detective. And cheers to Mark Boal for a great script, to Kathryn Bigelow for her determination and skill in filming this story, and to Jessica Chastain for bringing this character to life.
What's unfortunate about the film--and perhaps not the film's fault--is that it is going to revive an ugly debate about the efficacy of torture in providing clues that ultimately led to finding bin Laden. For about the first half hour or so, we are treated to graphic depictions of the dark days of secret interrogations of detainees. The filmmakers decided to show these scenes in a neutral or "balanced" way, almost documentary style. But I would not be too quick to condemn the film because it includes scenes of torture. The CIA's brutal interrogation of detainees is after all, part of the history. And the audience is free to decide what to make of this depiction. If you are repulsed, disgusted, and horrified, that is certainly a legitimate reaction that the film allows you. On the other hand, if you see torture as a necessary evil, the movie lets you identify with CIA interrogators who seem to feel that way also. I suppose some members of the audience will even cheer the mistreatment of the bad guys, in this movie mostly focused on one particular mid-level Al Qaeda bad guy, if you believe that no punishment of the people who plotted the murder of Americans on September 11 can be too extreme.
The reason I say it's unfortunate that the movie will open up a new debate about torture, is that this debate is not likely to lead anywhere productive. Those who advocate torture will resort to the following logic: After being tortured, some of the detainees talked. Therefore torture was effective. They can point to scenes in the film that justify this logic. Those who are against torture will say that we would have gotten just as good or probably better information without needing to resort to torture. That side of the debate can also point to scenes in the film showing that bribery was more effective than torture, or that the NSA's advanced surveillance techniques were what really led us to the target. It's an unresolvable argument.
This stale debate doesn't resolve the real issue, because even if we were to grant that torture can sometimes be effective, it must still remain illegal. The civilized world has already made that decision and it is irrevocable. There's no debate about it. Nobody who is taking this question seriously is trying to remove the prohibitions against torture under international law, or set up a new legal code defining under what circumstances torture may or may not be used. Bush and Cheney did make an effort, relying on the Office of Legal Counsel, to redefine some of the harsh interrogation techniques they authorized, as not constituting torture. But the Bush administration eventually retracted those opinions itself, and they never tried to argue that anything that could be defined as torture should be legal. To the extent torture continues to occur, it therefore must remain a shadowy practice beyond the bounds of the law. To the extent the CIA engaged in torture, we must remain disgraced by that conduct, or at a minimum, have grave misgivings about it. It's not a record to be proud of.