Early accounts of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, are calling the movie a defense of abusive interrogations. Over the weekend The New York Times' Frank Bruni wrote that it "presents the kind of torture that Cheney advocated—but that President Obama ended—as something of an information-extracting necessity, repellent but fruitful." That column set off still more commentary, as Glenn Greenwald, treating Bruni's description as accurate, complained that the picture "propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods."
But what if Bruni's description isn't accurate after all? Writing in Wired, Spencer Ackerman argues that Bigelow
presents a graphic depiction of what declassified CIA documents indicate the torture program really was...."Uncooperative" detainees are held down by large men and doused through a towel with water until they spew it up. (There's no "boarding" in this "waterboarding.") Helpless detainees are shown with rheumy eyes, desperate for the torture to stop, while their captors promise them nourishment and keep their promises by forcing Ensure down their throats through a funnel. Amar al-Baluchi, mocked for defecating on himself, is stripped and forced to wear a dog collar while Dan rides him, to alert the detainee to his helplessness.
These are not "enhanced interrogation techniques," as apologists for the abuse have called it. There is little interrogation presented in Zero Dark Thirty. There is a shouted question, followed by brutality. At one point, "Maya," a stand-in for the dedicated CIA agents who actually succeeded at hunting bin Laden, points out that one abused detainee couldn't possibly have the information the agents are demanding of him. The closest the movie comes to presenting a case for the utility of torture is by presenting the name of a key bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as resulting from an interrogation not shown on screen. But—spoiler alert—the CIA ultimately comes to learn that it misunderstood the context of who that courier was and what he actually looked like. All that happens over five years after the torture program initiated. Meanwhile, the real intelligence work begins when a CIA agent bribes a Kuwaiti with a yellow Lamborghini for the phone number of the courier's mother, and through extensive surveillance, like a police procedural, the manhunt rolls to its climax. If this is the case for the utility of torture, it's a weak case—nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.
Since I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, I'll refrain from weighing in on whether Bruni or Ackerman has described it more truthfully. I will note that three decades ago Bigelow was working for the radical journal Semiotext(e) and playing a part in Lizzie Borden's guerrilla-feminist science-fiction film Born in Flames (which ends as Zero Dark Thirty begins, with an explosion at the World Trade Center). I know better than to assume that Bigelow still holds any of those political commitments today. But I wouldn't go into one of her movies assuming I'll see an apologia for empire, either.