There’s more left unsaid than should be about the use of torture in the film Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s an omission that leads viewers across the world to understand Americans’ use of the practice in a simplistic—and damaging—way.
Christopher Pyle, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke and author of Getting Away with Torture: Secret Government, War Crimes, and the Bush Administration, said that the film’s depiction of the interrogation techniques used by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency leads viewers to incorrectly believe torture works.
“Torture rarely gets reliable information, but these folks want us to believe that torture works,” Pyle said of the filmmakers. “Now, it doesn’t work all the time, and there was lots of good detective work, but we’re taught by this film that, in some way that’s not exactly clear, torture provided a key piece of information. The fact is, it didn’t.
“But even if it did, it caused so much harm that the harm outweighed the benefit,” he added. “And most people won’t see that in this film.”
Pyle, a former military officer who made headlines in the early 1970s when he uncovered the government surveillance of civilians, said the film plays on viewers’ emotions to make otherwise intolerable behavior seem acceptable under the circumstances.
“This is a revenge film,” Pyle said, alluding to the opening scene in which we hear an audio recording of a woman about to be killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. “The film does encourage people to be desensitized to torture, because the only people being tortured are the bad guys.”
Also conspicuously absent from the historical narrative Zero Dark Thirty presents are the military attorneys and other officials who objected to the use of torture in the U.S. war on terror, Pyle added. Such a simplistic treatment of a complex and controversial moment in history, he said, just keeps audiences in the dark.
“[The use of torture] doesn’t make any larger sense,” Pyle said. “It may make you feel good. It may help you solve a particular little problem you have of tracking down a particular person. But it’s going to cause you more trouble than it’s worth.”