It’s impossible to review Zero Dark Thirty without having to infiltrate a room full of political lasers like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment (much nicer metaphor than a mine field, isn’t it?). But you invite that when your movie screams “THIS IS TRUE” at the beginning, like Zero Dark Thirty does in its opening “real events” title card. You can’t just forgive everything in the guise of “but it’s a movie!” when the movie is so clearly telling you that it’s fact. Thus, whether Zero Dark Thirty correctly depicts torture isn’t nitpicking, it’s relevant. So is it “pro-torture,” as John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and others have alleged? Mark Bowden, who wrote a book about the search for Bin Laden, says it’s not. Alex Gibney, who directed a movie about torture, doesn’t quite say Zero Dark Thirty is pro torture, but says it’s irresponsible.
To make a long story short and an answer predictable, they’re both right. Zero Dark Thirty is not immoral because it depicts torture as it was (something that happened, a context, a small part of the story but not a major player) without taking a particular stance. But it is a little amoral that it doesn’t seem to take any stance. It even omits key events to keep from having to. From an artistic standpoint, it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with humans. It feels like an attempt to create suspense with no soul. Bowden’s rule of thumb for dramatizing a true story responsibly is that you can invent, but you have to “color inside the lines” of the truth. That is, you create fictions within the unknowns without altering the shape of the facts. Zero Dark Thirty mostly does that, but it also omits big chunks of them (we’ll get to that). Artistically, another problem is, who is Jessica Chastain’s character? I watched the whole movie and I still know nothing about her. Zero Dark Thirty invents a character with no apparent personality to tell a story the broad strokes of which we already know. How does that help? It even makes the movie dull at times, like a dry and talky procedural. The lady next to me was snoring loudly.
The Hurt Locker, for all the massive liberties it takes with actual military tactics, had a compelling protagonist and a clear perspective. “War is a drug.” What’s Zero Dark Thirty‘s perspective? Redheads are smart? Incorrectly or not, people jumped to “torture is good” because there’s a vacuum of anything else.
Gibney says ZDT is wrong because it doesn’t use its opportunity to argue against torture: