Dec 18, 2012

Muddying the waters

  "The abuse scenes are crucial to “Zero Dark Thirty” because they serve as a claim — one made cinematically rather than with speeches — that these interrogation methods are unreliable when it comes to producing actionable information. The second session ends with the screaming, babbling, weeping Ammar insisting that he doesn’t know about a coming attack as he is sealed in the box. The final moment is shot from his point of view, and what follows is a scene of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. This juxtaposition of the abuse and the massacre suggests, in cinematic terms, that torture does not save lives. It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead." — Manohla Dargis
No. That is a factual misrepresentation, or at least a highly eccentric reading, at variance with 99% of the people who have seen the film, including admirers like myself and also including Mark Harris, David Edelstein, Frank Bruni, David Denby, Amy Sullivan, and Jane Mayer:—
The film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden....At one point, the film’s chief C.I.A. interrogator claims, without being challenged, that “everyone breaks in the end,” adding, “it’s biology.”
The torture is shown to work on two occasions. 1) In the scene Darghis talks about, it is only because Ammar is so disoriented by torture that the 'trick' works (he needs to believe that he muttered information while 'passed out'). As Emily Bazelon says:
Amar has short-term memory loss due to sleep deprivation (another form of torture) and of course has no access to news. Maya suggests leading him to believe that the Saudi bombing was thwarted because Amar had given up information about the plot. Plying Amar with food and playing on his mental weakness as a result of his torture Maya and her colleague make the subterfuge work. This is the way they get Amar to reveal the name of Bin Laden’s courier.
And 2) later, the bearded Pakistani talks to Maya immediately because he doesn’t "want to be tortured again". This leads to the courier. Moreover, the film portrays Obama's ban on torture as a catastrophic set-back to their intelligence effort. This has obviously delighted the right. Even the film's most ardent admirers have to deal with this uncomfortable falsehood. Dargis is the only one I've read who irons the wrinkle out entirely. You don't defend the film by sanitizing its version of events. You defend the film by saying that sympathy for the devil is legitimate artistic strategy. The above is an unforced error, muddying the waters still further. 


  1. The newspaper of record. Sigh.

  2. I feel tempted to point out that The Times has been signing off on the Bush administration's euphemisms for torture from the get-go, but in all honesty, I think Dargis's mistakes are her own. I sense an attempt to supercede the debate by taking a novel stance, "novel" in this instance being a synonym for "wrong."

  3. by the way, I have been listening to Desplat's soundtrack for ZDT and have changed my mind on the basis of that final 40 minutes