THE BLOG
01/17/2013 04:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

A Response to Kathryn Bigelow's Latest Statement on Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

Dear Kathryn Bigelow,

I would like to start by saying that I am a fan of your Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker and thought it was masterfully done. I appreciated the fact that you were able to express your disapproval of the Iraq War not with polemics, but by showing its futility. I was also glad that you eschewed America's customary and bipartisan worship of soldiers as demi-angels by showing their more human side and that there are people serving in the armed forces not for God, freedom, or patriotism, but simply as a job they committed to or for their own personal and idiosyncratic reasons. I'll admit that I was greatly disappointed when you did not speak out more forcefully against the war when you took the stage to accept the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in front of a televised audience much larger than those who had seen The Hurt Locker, but I understand how that would've been a nerve-wracking thing to do which might alienate potential paying ticket buyers.

I read your January 15 response in the Los Angeles Times to people like myself who have said that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. I would like to address it.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that criticism and blame for America's torture policy should ultimately be directed at George W. Bush and his administration for creating and implementing it. I believe that Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, possibly White House legal counsels Alberto Gonzalez and John Yoo, Condoleeza Rice, and commanding officers who ordered soldiers to torture should be charged with war crimes and thrown in jail. I am appalled that the Obama administration has not held them accountable while low-ranking solders who followed orders to torture have been jailed, punished, and had their lives and livelihoods ruined. However, I'm capable of being critical of the Bush and Obama administrations as well as you and Zero Dark Thirty at the same time. It's not a case of either/or.

I understand the difference between depiction and endorsement, and I find the implication that I don't to be insulting. I have enjoyed many violent films and video games while understanding that they do not endorse the violence they depict, and I also understand the cathartic and entertainment value of simulated violence while recognizing that it does not encourage violence in the real world. And I hope that in your championing of the First Amendment, you are not implying that my criticism of your film means that I am against free speech or artistic expression, for to do so would not only be insulting, but dishonest and cowardly in its attempt to turn me into a pro-censorship straw man.

I agree with you that it is vitally important -- as well as an artist's unique privilege and duty -- to "shine a light on dark deeds." However, I feel that Zero Dark Thirty almost completely fails in doing this, to the point that it actually endorses the continuation of the "dark deeds" it depicts. I find this to be reprehensibly irresponsible. My problem is not that Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture, it's how it depicts torture.

I am not, as you said, "ignoring or denying" that torture was used by the Bush administration in the search for Osama bin Laden. It was used, and it's an outrage and a tragedy that destroyed countless lives and is something America's reputation and security may not fully recover from for generations, especially in the internet age. I'm saying that as far as I know, torture did not produce accurate information that led to bin Laden. My stance is backed up in statements by senators Dianne Feinstein (chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee), Carl Levin (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee), and Senate Armed Service Committee Ranking Member John McCain who have criticized the way your film depicts torture as being effective in gathering truthful information that was instrumental in finding bin Laden. Acting director of the CIA Michael Morell has also stated that Zero Dark Thirty's "strong impression" that torture was key in finding bin Laden is "false", though he left the door open slightly for you by saying "Some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques," adding that "whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved." Feinstein, Levin, and McCain called the last part of Morell's statement "potentially inconsistent" with the over 6 million pages of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

Here is my evidence that Zero Dark Thirty does in fact endorse torture as an effective way to obtain truthful intelligence. Ammar (Reda Ketab), the character we see tortured in the film's first half hour, is tricked into thinking that he gave CIA agents Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) information that prevented a terrorist attack, but he doesn't remember doing so because he had been tortured, including 96 straight hours of sleep deprivation. This leads Ammar to divulge the name of a high-ranking al Qaeda member, Abu Ahmed. We then see Maya use confessions by tortured detainees to confirm what Abu Ahmed looks like by showing them photographs. Later, Maya tells a detainee that she will have him sent to Israel (where he will surely face torture or worse) unless he gives her information. The detainee plainly states, "I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it." He proceeds to her the pivotal piece of information that Abu Ahmed is bin Laden's most trusted courier. Locating Abu Ahmed eventually leads the CIA to bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

You stated that despite these scenes, it "doesn't mean [torture] was the key to finding bin Laden", but I don't see why an audience member would think otherwise considering how effective you depict torture as being in gathering the key pieces of information that ultimately lead to bin Laden. What's more, Zero Dark Thirty goes on to consistently portray the banning of torture as a blow to the CIA's vital intelligence-gathering capabilities, and those who seek to ensure the U.S. does not torture are painted as out-of-touch bureaucrats.

In one scene, Dan tells Maya, "You've gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." When Maya's fellow CIA agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) sees Barack Obama in a televised interview saying that America does not torture and that banning torture is "part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world", she shakes her head in what appears to be disbelief, disdain, dismissal, or disgust. A CIA official known as the Wolf (Frederic Lehne) laments to Dan, "As you know, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us. The detainee program is now flypaper. We've got senators jumping out of our asses, and the director is very concerned that they will not stop until they have a body," causing Dan to proudly and confidently declare that he'll defend the CIA's torture program. When a National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) tells a CIA official named George (Mark Strong) that he needs confirmation before the White House can approve a strike that the mystery man in the Abbottabad compound is bin Laden and not a Saudi drug dealer, George tells him, "You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program." In other words, the CIA is incapable of obtaining a vital piece of information about bin Laden's location because they are no longer allowed to torture. This lack of certainty leads to the risky decision to send Navy SEALs into the compound instead of simply bombing it, which Maya describes as treating the SEALs as "canaries". Put another way, not being able to torture puts the lives of American servicemen at risk.

Ms. Bigelow, in light of the scenes I just described, I do not understand why you continue to maintain that Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture, since your film consistently portrays torture as an effective (or perhaps the most effective) way to gather intelligence from detainees, and that banning torture hampered the CIA's ability to gather vital information on bin Laden's whereabouts. Your statement that torture was not the key to finding bin Laden is totally inconsistent with your film, where torture and the threat of torture are used to learn and confirm the identity of the courier who leads the CIA to bin Laden.

Ms. Bigelow, you said in your statement that torture "is a part of the story we couldn't ignore." However, your film completely ignores the most important facts about torture, which has long been known by interrogation experts, psychologists, and military officials to be an ineffective, often counterproductive way to gather accurate intelligence. In fact, even the Army Field Manual describes the use of force as "not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear." Your film ignores the fact that of the tens of thousands of people detained by the U.S. in the War On Terror -- many of whom were tortured (or "softened up" or "broken" to use the military's euphemisms) before they were even interrogated -- the vast majority of them had no connection to al Qaeda, were eventually released without ever being charged of a crime, and some have even been awarded cash reparations for being tortured and falsely imprisoned. Sadly, over 100 detainees died while in U.S. custody, many as a result of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty ignores the fact that America's torture program inspired anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, causing many to vow revenge on the U.S. and its allies. It ignores the fact that torture scandals like Abu Ghraib caused support for the U.S. occupation in Iraq to plummet, enflaming the insurgency, prolonging the fighting, and putting U.S. troops at increased risk. It ignores the possibly irreparable damage to America's reputation as a country that respects the rule of law. It ignores the damage torture did to America's relationships with its allies, who became reluctant to hand over possibly valuable detainees to the U.S. for fear of being accomplices to war crimes and were furious when the U.S. detained and tortured their citizens without charge. It ignores the fact that if CIA agents such as Maya and Dan -- two of Zero Dark Thirty's "heroes" -- were actual people, they deserve to be tried and convicted as war criminals under international law for their unrepentant participation in the torture of detainees.

By repeatedly showing torture to be effective in obtaining intelligence and CIA agents bemoaning their inability to gather intelligence due to the ban on torture, while omitting nearly all of the flaws and devastating repercussions America's torture program caused, Zero Dark Thirty clearly endorses the use of torture.

Ms. Bigelow, you claim that you and the makers of Zero Dark Thirty "were not interested in portraying [torture] as free of moral consequences." However, I saw few instances in your film where characters grappled with the "moral consequences" of the war crimes they were committing. Maya seems a bit shaken after her first time watching Ammar being tortured, but she quickly quashes her emotions, telling Dan, "I'm fine," and recommends that instead of taking a break, they immediately return to torturing Ammar, which she actively participates in. In fact, Maya's comfort with torture and her willingness to commit it seem to be shown as evidence of her toughness and her growth as an agent. After directing the brutal torture of a detainee named Abu Faraj (Yoav Levi), we see a brief moment where Maya retreats to a bathroom, breathing hard, to gather herself. It seems like she may indeed be grappling with the "moral consequences" of the war crimes she's committing, but with the scene lasting just seven seconds and Maya's face mostly obscured the whole time, I can't know for sure. In the very next scene, Maya encourages Dan to torture Faraj and is surprised when he refuses. Dan tells her that he'll be returning to the U.S. because he's "seen too many guys naked, it's got to be over a fucking hundred at this point. I need to go do something normal for a while." Perhaps this is meant to show that Dan is indeed wrestling with the "moral consequences" of torture. But as I mentioned earlier, we later see Dan proudly take ownership of the CIA's torture program and confidently vow to defend it.

Earlier, in the same sentence where you declare your commitment to showing the "moral consequences" of torture, you state that "War, obviously, isn't pretty". To me, this implies that you see torture as simply an unpleasant reality of war, just as killing another human being, even an enemy soldier during wartime, would inevitably cause some degree of soul searching. But torture is hardly an inevitable reality of America at war, which is why the U.S. helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed the War Crimes Act, and is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions and other conventions banning torture. The U.S. has rightly condemned the use of torture by other nations, militaries, and organizations and has long used it as a way to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.

But because of the Bush administration's narrow and politically expedient redefinition of what constitutes "torture" along with its willingness to break international law, the U.S. can no longer honestly condemn torture. We have been exposed not as a nation of laws, but one for whom the ends justify the means, regardless of laws or morality. And I believe that your film will contribute to the U.S. remaining such by reinforcing the discredited notions that torture is effective, morally justifiable, was instrumental in finding bin Laden, and is necessary to keep America safe. Just days ago, far-right wing conservative Sean Hannity cited Zero Dark Thirty as proof that torture "ultimately did help lead" to Bin Laden. Just as the TV show 24 convinced millions of Americans that torture is effective and should be legal, Zero Dark Thirty is poised to further confuse Americans about the realities of torture and keep us on the deeply immoral, illegal, and tragic path the Bush administration placed us on after 9/11.

Ms. Bigelow, in light of what I see as Zero Dark Thirty's clear endorsement of torture as well as your statements defending your film's depiction of torture, its effectiveness, and its importance in locating bin Laden, I would like to submit the following questions to you and your screenwriter and producing partner, Mark Boal:

1. Do you believe that torture is an effective way to obtain accurate information?

2. Do you believe torture was used to gain accurate information that led to finding Osama bin Laden? If so, who told you that? Did they provide any evidence?

3. Do you agree that, in your film, the reason that Maya and Dan are able to trick Ammar into falsely believing he gave them information that prevented a terrorist attack is because he had been tortured to the point where he couldn't remember what he had told them?

4. In the scene where an unnamed detainee tells Maya, "I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it," then proceeds to give Maya accurate information that Abu Ahmed is bin Laden's most trusted courier (which ultimately leads to bin Laden) after she threatens him with more torture in Israel, is it unreasonable to think that an audience would infer that torture is an effective way to get a detainee to provide accurate information and that torturing detainees was instrumental in finding bin Laden?

5. Do you feel that if characters such as Maya and Dan were real people that they should be charged as war criminals for torturing detainees?

6. Do you feel that the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, prolonged sensory deprivation, and sexual humiliation should be classified as torture, or are they simply "harsh," "brutal," or "enhanced" interrogation techniques that do not meet the definition of "torture"?

7. How do you define torture?

8. Do you believe President Obama's decision to ban torture hampered the CIA's ability to find information that would lead to bin Laden?

9. What is your response to pro-torture pundits like Sean Hannity who cite Zero Dark Thirty as evidence that information obtained through torture helped find bin Laden, and that the U.S. should be free to torture in the future for reasons of national security?

10. If you believe that the U.S. used torture as an effective way to gather accurate information for the purposes of national security, shouldn't it then be permissible for U.S. soldiers to be tortured using the same techniques by other nations? Why or why not?

11. Ultimately, do you think the Bush administration's decision to allow torture was worth it?

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