Perhaps my favorite scene in the film Zero Dark Thirty comes relatively early on, when the two CIA interrogators around whom the early film revolves arrive at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan to interrogate their next detainees. The soldiers on the base have been keeping a cage of small monkeys (for unexplained reasons), and the scene opens with the lead interrogator – the man shown as directing the torture of a detainee in the scenes before – standing before the monkey cage and feeding them small bits of his ice cream cone. The feeding is conducted beneath a large handwritten sign that says, “Do not feed the monkeys.” The interaction ends in frustration for the interrogator when one of the monkeys successfully swipes the entire cone.
It is a small moment. It is, in the cinematic sensibility of this film, subtle. And for me it very nicely captured the absurd predictability of one of the many things the American experiment with torture wrought. Back in 2006, when my colleagues and I at Human Rights First did the numbers (thanks in no small measure to the volumes of the government’s own documents released under FOIA), there had been more than 330 cases in which U.S. military and civilian personnel were credibly alleged to have abused or killed detainees – cases involving more than 600 U.S. personnel and more than 460 U.S.-held detainees. They included nearly 100 detainees who died in U.S. custody, including 34 whose deaths DOD reported as homicides. At least 8 of these detainees were, by anyone’s definition of the term, tortured to death.
I doubt I’m alone in the world in my metaphorical interpretation of that scene. But I do suspect I’m in a minority for a variety of reasons. Among others, as Amy Zegart notes in yesterday’s Times, in 2007, 27% of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. In Zegart’s August 2012 national poll, that number was up by 14%. In the same period, public opposition to, for example, naked chaining in cold rooms, fell from 79% to 51%. What do movies have to do with it? When my colleagues at Human Rights First studied the impact of media on public perceptions of torture back during the height of the popularity of the TV show “24,” they found that the show had helped reinforce how Americans, including policymakers, thought about torture: as necessary in certain situations. More, interrogators reported that junior soldiers imitated the interrogation techniques they had seen on TV. As Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib, once put it: “Everyone wanted to be a Hollywood interrogator. That’s all people did in Iraq was watch DVDs of television shows and movies. What we learned in military schools didn’t apply anymore.”
How much should the makers of Zero Dark Thirty care about such things? In her remarks before the Washington, D.C. premiere of the film last night, the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, said “we had no agenda” in making the film, and were “not trying to generate controversy.” We were trying, Bigelow said, to tell a story based on firsthand accounts of a decade’s worth of events given to screenwriter Mark Boal in his research. As a director, she said, I make the film. It’s up to the audience to interpret it. (The quotes are around words I’m sure I got exact, the others are the very close paraphrases from my handwritten notes.)
Room for interpretation there is. I walked out at the end of the film last night with two colleagues, who took diametrically opposed views about what they thought it had portrayed about the role of torture in leading to the capture of bin Laden. One thought it clear that the film showed that the CIA had the information or would have had the information about the existence of a courier from a number of sources (more than a dozen), and it wasn’t clear in the film whether all of them had been tortured. The other thought the film portrayed torture as producing the but-for lead that led to the eventual discovery of bin Laden’s compound. I thought it was dizzyingly unclear what the film was trying to say about the facts in this regard. My overwhelming perception of the intelligence efforts depicted in the film was of how fundamentally little the officials depicted knew, and how close to blind they all were, up until the moment bin Laden was shot in the head.
In this respect, I credit the filmmakers for their efforts to depict the human struggle with ambiguity. But while the film was in part about ambiguity – and about an avalanche of other things besides torture – it chooses (after some seconds of black screen and horrifying audio from the victims of 9/11) to lead with torture. The film could’ve started anywhere in telling the decade+ story about the hunt for bin Laden – in a Washington office, on a field of battle, with a family of one of the victims, even in a courtroom – but it features torture front and center. And for an extended period of time. More, the filmmakers chose to give voice to intelligence official characters who lamented the ending of the CIA detention program, but chose not to give voice to any intelligence official character (though such people also exist) who thought, for example, that torture was making it harder to find information they needed. It is not possible to tell a story like this (any story) as if simply presenting information devoid of meaning but for whatever meaning the audience attaches. The first and last time in the film one sees the protagonist intelligence agent Maya, she is a passenger – along for the ride in the first interrogation, being flown off to parts unknown in the final scene. The filmmakers have no such luxury. They are responsible for the story they choose to tell.
So what does responsibility mean? It is beyond obvious they have every right to make the film, exactly as they wish to make it, for whatever reason (or none) they wish to do it. Sure I would have told the torture story differently. (I would’ve also left out the film’s ample number of disappointing, even cringe worthy features. The absurdly overwrought performance in which a senior CIA bureaucrat berates the intelligence team for their failure to find bin Laden, banging his fist on the table like a bad motivational speaker. The greater absurdity of James Gandolfini in a bad hairpiece as Leon Panetta.) What might matter more is something like what happened when Human Rights First went through this back around “24.” My colleagues set up a meeting between the creative team behind “24” and the Dean of West Point and other experienced interrogators. Howard Gordon, an executive producer of “24,” even participated in a training film later developed for military academies that aimed to help troops distinguish the story of “24” from the reality of what they need to do. Far short of that, it would go some distance for the filmmakers to engage more in the public conversation. Bigelow and Boal deserve great credit for bringing their film to this kind of audience in Washington. But from an “aesthetic” point of view, Boal explained, he was not a fan of explaining work. And he did not.
That circumspection is well understandable, even admirable, under many circumstances. This, though, may be one of those circumstances in which more speech would help.