Torture on Film

In the NYRB , Steve Coll complains about the depiction of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty . The film poses as a form of journalism, flashing a “based on real events” in the early frames. Coll doesn’t think it measures up.

For one thing, the film all but ignores tensions and debates within the government about the morality and efficacy of torture. Agents from the CIA and FBI both raised strong objections. But “The only qualms any of the CIA characters in the film express about torture are oblique and self-protecting. Dan, an interrogator portrayed by the actor Jason Clarke, laments wearily, as he rotates back to headquarters, that he has seen too many men naked, and that he fears the political environment in Washington that once created a permissive atmosphere for his dark arts may now be turning against them.” As Coll says, “it would hardly have undermined the film’s drama to have included such strong dissents.”

The film’s treatment of torture departs from history, Coll says, in two ways.

First, “[Screenwriter] Boal and Bigelow have conflated the pseudoscience of the CIA ’s clinical, carefully reviewed ‘enhanced techniques’ such as waterboarding with the out-of-control abuse of prisoners by low-level military police in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”

Second, ” Zero Dark Thirty ignores what the record shows about how regulated, lawyerly, and bureaucratized—how banal—torture apparently became at some of the CIA black sites.” Coll doesn’t say this to exonerate the agencies engaged in torture; on the contrary, ” CIA office routine might have been more shocking on screen than the clichéd physical abuse of prisoners that the filmmakers prefer.”

Coll concludes that the film’s “faults as journalism matter because they may well affect the unresolved public debate about torture, to which the film makes a distorted contribution” because it perpetuates “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument.”

However one comes down on the question of whether torture is permissible in extremis , and however we parse the distinction between torture and “enhanced interrogation,” the debate raises fundamental questions for our political life. Films and TV shows regularly depict torture as a standard method of getting information: What are we being taught about the efficacy of force? Torture is justified as a means of saving lives, but do we want to infuse this kind of crass utilitarianism into our politics and law? Once legitimated, torture might be turned against other enemies of the state. Ought we trust modern states to use such powers within bounds? Have they proven themselves capable of restraint?

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