There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that -- get this! -- we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more???
The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he's saying, in plain English, that America's torturing days are over, done, finished. There's an "aw, shit" look on their faces and then some new boss comes into the meeting room, slams his fist on the table and says, essentially, you've had eight years to find bin Laden -- and all you've got to show for it are a bunch of photos of naked Arab men peeing on themselves and wearing dog collars and black hoods. Well, he shouts, those days are over! There's no secret group up on the top floor looking for bin Laden, you're it, and goddammit do your job and find him.
He is there to put the fear of God in them, probably because his boss, the new president, has (as we can presume) on his first day in office, ordered that bin Laden be found and killed. Unlike his frat boy predecessor who had little interest in finding bin Laden (even to the point of joking that "I really just don't spend that much time on him"), this new president was not an imbecile and all about business. Go find bin Laden -- and don't use torture. Torture is morally wrong. Torture is the coward's way. C'mon -- we're smart, we're the USA, and you're telling me we can't find a six-and-a-half-foot tall Saudi who's got a $25 million bounty on his head? Use your brains (like I do) and, goddammit, get to work!
And then, as the movie shows, the CIA abruptly shifts from torture porn to -- are you sitting down? -- detective work. Like cops do to find killers. Bin Laden was a killer -- a mass killer -- not a general of an army of soldiers, or the head of a country call Terrorstan. He was a crazed religious fanatic, a multi-millionaire, and a punk who was part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen whom we trained, armed and funded in Afghanistan back in the '80s. But he was a godsend and a very useful tool to the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfields of the world. They could hold him up to a frightened American public and scare the bejesus out of everyone -- and everyone (well, most everyone) would then get behind the effort to declare war on, um ... well ... Who exactly do we declare war against? Oh, right -- terrorism! The War on Terrorism! So skilled were the men from Halliburton, et al. that they convinced the Congress and the public to go to war against a noun. Terrorism. People fell for it, and these rich men and their friends made billions of dollars from "contracting" and armaments and a Burger King on every Iraqi base. Billions more were made creating a massive internal spying apparatus called "Homeland Security." Business was very, very good, and as long as the bogeyman (Osama) was alive, the citizenry would not complain one bit.
I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work -- and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture -- no bin Laden. Two years of detective work -- boom! Bin Laden!
And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results -- and that torture is wrong.
Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!
But then we learn a piece of news: The CIA has had the name of this guy all along! For ten years! And how did they get this name ten years ago? From "a tip." A random tip! No torture involved. But, as was the rule during those years of incompetency and no desire to find bin Laden, the tip was filed away somewhere in some room -- and not discovered until 2010. So, instead of torturing hundreds for eight years to find this important morsel of intelligence, they could have found it in their own CIA file cabinet in about eight minutes. Yeah, torture works.
In the movie, after they have the name of the courier, they then believe if they find him, they find bin Laden. So how do they find him? They bribe a Kuwaiti informant with a new car. That's right, they find the number of the courier's family by giving the guy a Lamborghini. And what do they do when they find the courier's mother? Do they kidnap and torture her to find out where her son is? Nope, they just listen in on his weekly call home to Mom, and through that, they trace him to Pakistan and then hire a bunch of undercover Pakistani Joe Fridays to follow this guy's every move -- which, then, leads them to the infamous compound in Abbottabad where the Saudi punk has holed up.
Nice police work, boys!
Oh -- and girl. 'Zero Dark Thirty -- a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don't listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick -- and it would do you well to see it.
But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate -- namely, in this case, to debate "whether torture works." You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, "is torture wrong?" And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can't believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this.
If you allow the question to be "did torture work?" then you'll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don't know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing - but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don't.
But let's grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture "works." Here's what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don't we do that? Probably because we think it's morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he'll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question.
After I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a friend asked me, "During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most -- the American torturer or the Arab suspect?" That was easy to answer. "Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist."
"Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in Das Boot, that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate."
Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity -- and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains.
And that's what worked.
P.S. One final thought. I've heard fellow lefties say that even if the filmmakers didn't intend to endorse torture (Bigelow called torture "reprehensible" on Colbert the other night), the average person watching the movie is going to take it the wrong way. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that the lesser minds among us "get it." Should Springsteen not have named his album Born in the USA because some took it to be as a salute to patriotism (Reagan wanted to use it in his 1984 reelection campaign but Bruce said no)?
This story appears in the special Oscar issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Feb. 8.