And the Oscar for Torture Goes To…

As I stepped out of the movie theater from watching Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a dramatization of the 10-year-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, I felt stunned, and yet a bit underwhelmed. The latter impression does not in any way attest to the quality of the film; on the contrary, I wholeheartedly believe that it is the best film of 2012 (at least from the ones that I’ve seen). No, rather, it was because of the controversy surrounding the film’s portrayal of torture.

Critics, pundits and moviegoers left and right had constantly commented on this matter, and thus made it a rather big deal. I went into the cinema expecting a big deal about torture, and came out shaking my head at how the hype had overblown it. And yet, this so-called “controversy” continues, and is still being taken incredibly out of proportion to the point where it unfortunately overshadows the film as well as its merits.

For one, the torture sequences comprise about 10 minutes of the film’s 157-minute-long running time, and the experience of watching them wasn’t as difficult to stomach as I initially imagined. Okay, perhaps I’m more desensitized than the average human being, but watching prisoners get (mild spoilers follow, so take discretion if you haven’t seen the film) waterboarded, deprived of sleep, forced to wear dog collars, confined to a coffin-sized box and humiliated wasn’t as terrible as the word of mouth made it seem. Hell, I was prepared for much worse torture, which “Zero Dark Thirty” (thankfully?) didn’t feature.

However, it isn’t just the portrayal of torture that people are throwing a fit over. The biggest accusation being directed toward the film and the filmmakers is that it glorifies torture, that it suggests that torture was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. This allegation is simply laughable, and one that the film, in addition to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, doesn’t deserve.

Simply put, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not endorse nor glorify torture. If it did promote the use of torture, then it would be a torture porn movie along the lines of “Saw” or other similar flicks, a movie where CIA agents would gleefully enjoy employing enhanced interrogation techniques on their prisoners — which is not portrayed in the film.

Instead, the agents, the characters, are forced to resort to torture as a means of achieving their objective, which is to obtain information, and do not appear to enjoy doing so. Is it not telling that the character of Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), the main protagonist and film’s moral compass that the audience follows throughout the film’s duration, is reluctant in watching torture take place and prefers not to torture her prisoners, ultimately using means other than torture to get the key information she needs? That doesn’t sound like a torture-championing film to me.

Since “Zero Dark Thirty” is based on historical events, Bigelow and Boal should be commended for depicting torture for what it is — an uncomfortable subject matter that, while morally wrong, was, if not is — used. The characters treat it that way, and when you, as the audience, watch these profoundly graphic and unsparing sequences occur, you should feel morally conflicted and sickened, as I did.

As for the debate regarding whether torture played a role in finding Bin Laden’s whereabouts, it has been stated by official U.S. government sources like Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin that critical information as such were not gathered through the use of interrogation and torture. Whether or not you agree with them, or about torture in general, shouldn’t mask the fact that torture played a role during the War on Terror, that it was practiced. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should look up and research the Abu Ghraib prison, or the U.S. Department of Justice’s Torture Memos.

The fact of the matter is, torture was used at some point by our government. As Bigelow said in an editorial she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “[Torture] is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.” That being said, the filmmakers are justified in portraying torture. There’s no way to argue against that, unless you want to establish that the interrogation methods used don’t classify as torture. If you want to do that, you’re facing an uphill battle, friend.

At the end of the day, we should keep in mind that “Zero Dark Thirty” is a film, plain and simple, that dramatically recreates historical events. People shouldn’t criticize nor attack the film and the filmmakers for depicting torture, for crossing moral lines. Instead, they should direct their anger toward those who decided that torture should be employed, that it was legally permissible.

Jun Im is a fourth-year film and media studies major. He can be reached at juni@uci.edu.