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Six Questions - and Answers - About Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made and entertaining film but its entire plotline is built on a lie: that the torture of detainees by the CIA produced the intelligence which led the US to Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. The movie effectively excuses and implicitly condones the torture that was done.

Kathryn Bigelow's critically-acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty - nominated for five Oscars on Thursday - has provoked much controversy in the United States over both its depiction of torture by the CIA and the importance it gives to the use of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

It has divided opinion - even on the anti-torture, anti-Bush left. Naomi Wolf, for instance, accused Bigelow of becoming a "Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture" whereas fellow US liberal icon, Michael Moore, said "anyone who claims that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture either hasn't seen the movie or wasn't paying attention".

On Wednesday night, I went along to a preview screening of the movie in Soho - and, having now watched Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) for myself, here is my attempt to pose and answer six key questions:


It is undoubtedly a fine film, with gritty and powerful performances from Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, among others. The cinematography is fantastic, the action sequences are tense and gripping and the superb script from Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal balances some of its cheesy, and occasionally banal, one-liners, with a fair few zingers: "Bring me people to kill," exclaims CIA official George (Mark Strong) to his Al Qaeda unit. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir," Maya (Jessica Chastain) tells CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), when he asks who 'this girl' in his meeting is.

I watched it for free - but I would have paid money to watch it.


I honestly don't think it does. I defy anyone to watch the torture scenes in ZDT, most of which take place in the first 45 minutes of the film, and feel anything other than queasy - and disgusted with the interrogators/torturers of the Central Intelligence Agency.

I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat, as were others in the screening room, as CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) punched, choked and kicked detainee Ammar (Reda Khateb), before having him waterboarded and then locked away in a coffin-size 'confinement box'; at times, I had to look away. Oh, and I agree with film critic Glenn Kenny on this: Ammar is "depicted to be a pretty sympathetic figure. Not necessarily admirable, but more human, or 'human' than Jason Clarke's swaggering, torturing character in that scene."

"We see a suspect in a black site, held up by chains on his arms attached to the ceiling. He has been beaten to a pulp, his eyes barely visible behind the swollen sockets, his dignity completely stripped away. We see him strung up, and tormented. He cannot sit or stand for days on end. We see him stripped in front of a woman. We see him walked around on a dog leash. The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed - correctly - as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture.. it is an exposure of torture."

I can't believe anyone with a functioning brain and a beating heart comes away from ZDT believing (a) the US government didn't carry out acts of torture (not 'abuse', or 'enhanced interrogation', but torture, plain and simple), or (b) torture isn't a deeply immoral and sickening crime against humanity.


Now, this is a very different question to the 'glorifying' or 'glamourising' question. Here is starts to get very tricky for defenders of the movie - because the truth is that the entire plotline of ZDT is built on a lie: that the torture of detainees by the CIA produced the intelligence which led the US to Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottad, Pakistan.

In pushing this false narrative, the movie effectively excuses and implicitly condones the torture that was done by the Agency - it was a necessary means to an important end; it worked as a method of intelligence-gathering; it was vital to protect America and track down Bin Laden.

In defence of ZDT, Andrew Sullivan, among others, has denied that the movie depicts the CIA's use of torture as central to the discovery of bin Laden's location in Pakistan. He writes:

"It may be that many people watching this movie will actually believe the torture was integral to the end-result. But that will be because they want to see that or because they are as dumb as [film critic] Owen Gleiberman. It isn't there."

I'm a great admirer of Sullivan, who helped lead the charge against US human-rights abuses during the Bush/Cheney years, but I'm astonished how he could pen those three sentences. He and I must have been watching a different movie. (The same applies to Michael Moore - see his quote above.)

Throughout the 160 minutes of ZDT, the viewer is told again and again:

(1) that 'the detainee programme' (i.e. torture) produced the intelligence which led to finding and killing Osama Bin Laden (or 'Usama' - the film's characters refer to him as 'UBL'), e.g. the detainee Ammar, shown being tortured at the start of the film, gives up the name of Bin Laden's courier - Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti - after he is let out of his torture chamber and given lunch by Dan, who then threatens him with: "I can always go eat with some other guy and hang you back up to the ceiling." Later in the film, Maya tells a team of US Navy Seals that the Abbottabad location was acquired from intel "based on detainee reporting". It's all pretty explicit.

(2) that "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e. torture) helped produce a wealth of useful information and intelligence on al Qaeda, its members and its operations. "I have no wish to be tortured again," says a Pakistani detainee to Maya, after being threatened with rendition to Israel. "Ask me a question." See, torture works!

Yet point (1) is blatantly untrue. One of the key sources of intelligence on Abu Ahmed was an al Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004, was "quite cooperative" and was not waterboarded by the CIA. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, respectively chairs of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, have written: "The original lead information [on Bin Laden] had no connection to CIA detainees."

Listen to Senator John McCain, former Republican Party presidential candidate and card-carrying 'hawk', who, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was given access to the CIA's intel on 9/11 'ringleader' Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti:

"We did not learn Abu Ahmed's real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any 'enhanced interrogation technique' used on a detainee in U.S. custody. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al Qaeda.

"In fact, not only did the use of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on Bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married, and ceased his role as an Al Qaeda facilitator - which was not true, as we now know."

That KSM provided "false and misleading information" helps rebut point (2) as well: torture doesn't work. It isn't just morally wrong, it is ineffective and unreliable. In ZDT, the CIA field agent and torturer-in-chief Dan (Jason Clarke) tells detainee Ammar: "Everyone breaks in the end.. it's biology." Nope. What happens is they say anything - literally, anything! - to make the pain stop.

As author and historian Alfred McCoy has written: "Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, under torture told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons... Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War."

Plenty of independent reports and studies have confirmed how al Qaeda agent Abu Zubaydah offered much more actionable intelligence to the FBI - with their traditional, noncoercive interrogation methods - than he did to the CIA - with their "enhanced" (i.e. coercive) methods. And as Glenn L. Carle, a retired CIA official who was involved in the detainee programme, has admitted, the Agency's coercive techniques "didn't provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information".

Yet, thanks to ZDT, as the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald points out, "there is zero doubt.. that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured."


Greenwald refers to this particular response to the numerous criticisms of the film's torture narrative as "the 'art' excuse", arguing that "the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade... [and] was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House".

Plus, he adds, "this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the 'journalistic' approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film's first screen assures viewers that it is all 'based on first hand accounts of actual events'."

To this, I would add: if Bigelow and Boal don't want to answer awkward questions about the glaring factual inaccuracies in ZDT, why does their totally fictional film begin with heart-breaking excerpts from the actual, real-life phone-calls (and news reports) from 11 September 2001? Why did they use actual, real-life people (e.g. CIA director Leon Panetta) as key characters in their movie?

As Mother Jones' Adam Serwer rightly observes: "If you're thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is 'history'; if you're a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it's just a movie."


You will come away entertained and impressed. You will come away shocked and maybe saddened. But you won't come away any wiser or better-informed - about terrorism, torture or Osama bin Laden.

It's a 160 minutes long, but we're not told why the CIA uses such barbaric techniques on their prisoners or about the origins of the detainee programme; we're not told about how the FBI tried to stand up to the CIA during the early years of the programme; we're not told why Pakistan is so - in the words of Maya - "fucked up"; we're not told why Maya is so obsessed with catching Bin Laden or anything about her back story (oh, except for the fact that she joined the Agency straight out of high school); we're not told anything substantive about any of the detainees we see; we're not told anything - anything at all! - about the causes of al-Qaeda-style terrorism or the motivations of the dark-skinned people who so regularly blow themselves up in Pakistan, Afghanistan, London, New York, etc.

All we get is a brief clip of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, on a TV screen in the background, telling a press conference after the failed bomb attack on Times Square in 2010 "that "there are some people around the world who find our freedom so threatening that they are willing to kill themselves and others to prevent us from enjoying them". Yeah, er, ok, Mike, if you say so..

A reminder: Michael Scheuer, the former head (and founder) of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, told me in 2011, ahead of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: "I don't think there are a lot of people who want to blow themselves up because my daughters go to university.. people are going to come and bomb us because they don't like what we've done.. people in the Muslim world.. regard us as malignant because of our policies."

It's a theme which a TV show like Homeland is bizarrely willing to touch and even explore - 'Sergeant Nicholas Brody' is radicalised after watching a CIA drone strike on a madressa full of innocent children - but a big-budget, Oscar-nominated film like ZDT, made by the people (Bigelow, Boal) behind The Hurt Locker, isn't. Scheuer, or his views, meanwhile, don't get a mention in the movie.

Depressing, eh?


I have to disagree with Glenn Greenwald when he says that "almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network".

First, there are few Muslims and/or Arabs in the film to begin with. Those that do appear - in a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden - were always going to be, predominantly, terror suspects, detainees or insurgents.

Second, as Glenn goes on to acknowledge, the movie shows us "a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information". Yep, I kid you not: a Muslim CIA official praying in his office inside the CIA HQ in Langley. And it's true, too: as the Washington Post reported last March, the chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center since 2006 is 'Roger', a convert to Islam. That'll have surprised the millions of ordinary Americans who watched ZDT but don't read the Washington Post.

Third, I was impressed and surprised to see the character of Hakim (Fares Fares), a CIA officer who happens to be Pakistani, plays a key role in the search for Bin Laden's courier and even accompanies the Navy Seals as they enter OBL's compound. We watch Hakim looking haunted, as he walks through the dead bodies inside the compound and sees the crying women and children of the al Qaeda leader's family being held at gunpoint by the Seals.

Fourth, there may be very little in the way of geo-political context in the film (see answer 5, above), but, thankfully, nor is there the typical, pseudo-intellectual speechifying by CIA agents (or, for that matter, Muslim detainees) about the role or importance of 'jihad', this or that verse of the Quran or some obscure and irrelevant theological issue, as is so often found in other mainstream US movies and dramas about the war on terror (I'm looking at you, 'Agent Carrie Mathison'). In fact, Islam doesn't really get much of a look-in during the movie - which is a bit of a relief.

Further reading (blogs):

** Glenn Greenwald, Adam Serwer and Jane Mayer make the case against Zero Dark Thirty and its depiction of torture

** Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Kenny try and defend ZDT from its torture critics.

Further reading on torture and the war on terror (books):

by Jane Mayer

'Chain of Command' by Seymour Hersh