01/13/2013 08:51 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

A Different Take on Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

Anticipation and controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her tour de force The Hurt Locker, has been growing for months. They both crescendoed this week, with the film's nationwide opening on Friday coming just one day after the announcement of this year's Academy Award nominations. The film received five nominations, though Bigelow herself was notably snubbed in the Directing category. The leading theory for her absence is that the Academy was influenced by the torture controversy, which has played itself out in reviews and on the blogosphere, in protests outside theaters by anti-torture activists -- and even a publicly released letter from the Acting CIA Director, Michael Morrell, to the Agency's employees.

The controversy has centered on the film's focus on the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (aka torture) to extract intelligence that ultimately led to the identification of bin Laden's hiding place and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L.S. who stormed the compound around 0:30 local time on May 2, 2011. Critics argue that the film justifies and glorifies the use of torture by erroneously suggesting that the CIA relied mainly on torture-extracted intelligence to find bin Laden.

In fact, the film is far more ambivalent about torture and its deployment. Ultimately, the film is a meditation on what the torture program has done to America as a country and to Americans as a people -- regardless of whether it is or is not an effective policy. The pro-torture reading improperly focuses on the film's "get bin Laden" plotting, rather than on the character-driven themes that are at the heart of what the film is actually about.

Even from a plot-driven perspective, the pro-torture argument has problems. From the beginning, the efficacy of relying on torture to obtain information is depicted as questionable. The film opens with the torture of a detainee named Ammar with links to al Qaeda, who refuses to reveal information that might have thwarted the 2003 Riyadh attack, which happens while he is in custody. And the film shows us that Maya becomes convinced of the importance of Abu Ahmad -- bin Laden's suspected courier -- not because of information that is revealed during torture sessions, but because of the consistent refusal of detainees to give up information about him. While we know from history that she is on to something, the skepticism expressed by Maya's colleagues feels reasonable and realistic.

But, ultimately, the film is about more than the series of events that led to bin Laden's discovery and death more than 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. The film is about Maya, or more accurately, it is about Maya-as-America and what the response to 9/11 has wrought upon them (us). Young and innocent at the time events of 9/11 take place, Maya is recruited "right out of high school" and has worked on "nothing" but the mission to capture or kill "UBL." Early on, she is sent to Pakistan where she begins her single-minded quest to find bin Laden's courier Abu Ahmed and, through him, bin Laden himself. And on this path, she (and we) graphically witness the torture of detainees, charting Maya's journey from the horrified neophyte who tentatively provides seasoned interrogator Dan with the pitcher of water he uses to waterboard Ammar, to the poised interrogator who unflinchingly interrogates Faraj and wordlessly instructs that he be beaten when he refuses to give her the answers she wants, to -- finally -- the drained woman of the film's final shot. A woman who, like her country, is now notably alone and with no immediate answer when she is asked where she wants to go, Maya is spent and hollow, facing an unknown future bereft of the clear and unwavering purpose that has driven her for a decade.

Critics' suggestion that the filmmakers made a conscious choice to focus on torture are true: this is a film about torture and its impacts. But those claiming that these were bad choices that could have been avoided without undermining the story of the hunt for bin Laden miss the point. The filmmakers are using that story to ruminate on the effects of torture and not the reverse.

Might the film have been better if it had been able to demonstrate that the use of torture in the hunt for bin Laden was not only isolating and ruinous but also (maybe) unnecessary to the outcome? Perhaps. But as Acting Director Morrell noted in his statement to employees: "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." By depicting the possibility that torture may sometimes be necessary -- a view that was held and acted upon by at least some administration officials at the time -- the film suggests deeper and more difficult questions: What if they were right, and it was necessary? Was it worth the toll that it has taken on us? And, where do we go from here?

Saunders, a former State Department lawyer, teaches Public International Law at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law.