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Zero Dark Thirty: The CIA

An in-depth look at the CIA's involvement in finding the world's most wanted man, as seen in Zero Dark Thirty.

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Whatever Kathryn Bigelow's intention with Zero Dark Thirty, her new blockbuster about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, one fact is inescapable: this is a pro-torture film.

It doesn't matter that the torture scenes are confrontingly graphic. It doesn't matter that Maya, the CIA agent at the centre of the story, is clearly disturbed as she watches a detainee being beaten. Such ''nuance'' and ''complexity'' (so often cited in the film's defence) only makes things worse.

''Depiction is not endorsement,'' protests Bigelow, and that's true enough. I have no problem with the mere depiction of torture. But there is a problem with this depiction. The bottom line is that, as this film has it, the chain of intelligence that leads to bin Laden's death begins with information elicited from tortured detainees. Sure, it's not pretty, but it's effective. And however squeamish the audience might be about it, that's what matters.

Such "nuance" and "complexity" only makes it worse ... Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, in Zero Dark Thirty.

Such "nuance" and "complexity" only makes it worse ... Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, in Zero Dark Thirty.

It doesn't take long for Maya's discomfort to dissipate, and she's soon ordering that people of interest be tortured. This is our heroine, the character we cheer on as she gets ever closer to exacting vengeance on the man responsible for killing more than 2600 Americans on September 11, 2001. Ends justify means here, and none of Maya's heroics are achievable without her embracing torture. It's as though she just needed a chance to mature, to prove she's not ''too young for the hard stuff'', that ''she's a killer''.

When Jack Bauer tortures bad guys on 24, he's at least a cartoonish action hero. Where 24 sanitises torture to make it palatable, Zero Dark Thirty presents it as grotesque, then asks us to accept it anyway.

CIA agents lament the fact that their new President, Barack Obama, has banned ''the detainee program'', leaving them frustrated by ''lawyered-up'' detainees who remain untapped as rich veins of intelligence now they can't be roughed up away from public view. The scandals from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are discussed not as atrocities, but as annoyances whose principal importance is that they made torture impolitic. At no point are these perspectives contradicted or even challenged. They are simply declared true by interrogators, who the audience is entitled to assume should know.

Tellling the CIA story ... Kathryn Bigelow.

Tellling the CIA story ... Kathryn Bigelow. Photo: AP

About the only concession is a brief comment from a former interrogator, now in a Washington desk job, that information garnered from torture isn't terribly reliable. This leads him to doubt the intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts. But the point has no punch. Ultimately, he's wrong, bin Laden is killed, and the former interrogator is definitely not the hero.

There are several problems with all this, some of them factual. Jose Rodriguez, who ran CIA interrogation programs, protests that the torture scenes are fiction, that the agency's ''enhanced interrogation'' wasn't as brutal as Bigelow would have it. Meanwhile, three US senators who have reviewed CIA records on the matter (John McCain among them) describe the film as ''grossly inaccurate and misleading'', simply rejecting as ''incorrect'' any suggestion that torture produced vital intelligence leading to bin Laden. These are serious shortcomings in a project Bigelow describes as ''almost a journalistic approach to film'', and which is presented to us as a retelling of true, first-hand accounts.

But there are bigger ethical problems here. Zero Dark Thirty's pro-torture position is more audacious than that presented in shows like 24, and goes further than most torture apologists in the real world.

The argument for torture typically rests on an imagined ''ticking time bomb'' scenario. A bomb will go off imminently, but you don't know where. Your detainee knows but won't tell you. You conclude there simply isn't time to extract that information by traditional interrogation methods, so you start ripping out fingernails to speed the process along.

There are many problems with this argument, but it's enough here to note that it at least attempts to call torture a last resort justified by the imperative of urgency and impending catastrophe. What is extraordinary about Zero Dark Thirty's torture is that there's no urgency at all. ''It's going to take a while,'' says one interrogator initiating Maya into the process. ''He has to learn how helpless he is.'' This could go on for months or years if necessary before any useful information is extracted. No ticking bomb. Just routine.

Sure, that's clearly how the CIA employed it. It waterboarded September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, presumably because 182 times wasn't enough to get the information agents were after.

But doesn't this at least raise questions to be explored? Isn't it worth asking whether the information so vital to finding bin Laden could have been obtained by less brutal (and often more reliable) interrogation methods? What about the fact that the torturers simply could not have been sure the detainee even had the information they wanted?

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't engage with these questions. In fact it masks them because it turns out the detainee does provide useful information, so all is justified.

That's the point: it's not about depiction, it's about exploration. And on the issue of torture, this film explores with almost nothing.

That's probably because Bigelow worked so closely with the CIA. She's telling the agency's story. But the CIA is an interested party that has frequently sought to justify its use of torture. Often this was in the face of stern criticism from the FBI which - based on its expertise as professional investigators - rejects torture as unreliable and maintains that far better information comes from winning over detainees than by breaking their bodies.

Perhaps Bigelow should have spoken to them. It might have enlivened her to the questions she didn't ask. I don't think she set out to make a piece of pro-torture propaganda. But given her sources, I don't know if she was ever going to produce anything else.

Waleed Aly hosts Drive on Radio National.