Critical Analysis: Zero Dark Thirty – A Movie About Torture?


The movie  Zero Dark Thirty raises questions of its controversial portrayal of torture.  (
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. (

“Those torture scenes were incredibly hard to watch . . . How do you feel about torture?  Do you think it is effective?  I think it is morally wrong at all times to torture no matter what.  But what if it saves innocent lives, and you know that they would torture you if they had the chance.”  These were all phrases that I heard in passing as I left the movie theater last night after seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s newest war drama Zero Dark Thirty.  The movie opens with a compilation of voice-overs from September 11, 2001 and then cuts to a series of scenes where Arab prisoners are being tortured.  The scene is described by the New York Times as a scene where the interrogator “knocks Ammar down, subjects him to simulated drowning and forces him inside a horrifyingly small box. The violence is ugly, stark, almost businesslike and is largely presented without music cues or any obvious film-making commentary.” 

But this last point, that there is no imbedded film-making commentary either directly or indirectly is a point that has been vigorously debated and has thrust the subject of torture back into American discourse.  Some critics have said that the movie is

about those who did not protest, who went along and who — while searching for a needle in a haystack — interrogated detainees deemed ‘enemy combatants’ in what the former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld described as ‘a war like none other our nation has faced.’  The movie shows the dark side of that war. It shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid.

Others, however, are much more critical of the film, and go so far as to call for banning Zero Dark Thirty from any sort of Oscar consideration.  Jonathan Kim, a writer for the Huffington Post said that the film asserts “that torture is an effective way to gather information, that it was instrumental in locating Osama bin Laden, and that America should have never stopped doing it.” While Kim’s view of the film is harsh, there is an admitted undercurrent through the film that things became more difficult for C.I.A. investigators after President Obama disavowed torture as an acceptable interrogation technique.

In response to the film and the renewed discourse regarding torture, a “6,000-page report on C.I.A. interrogations by the Senate Intelligence Committee, based on a study of some six million pages of agency documents, f[ound] that brutal treatment was not ‘a central component’ in finding Bin Laden.” The report, however, is still classified.

In spite of, and maybe because of the movies, discussions, and political commentary on the issue of torture, everyday movie going Americans remain split over the role that torture played in fighting the war on terror.

Treana Hickey is a 3L at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law and a staff editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.