Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
ArticleComments [1]

Paul D. Miller

Justice at Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

2 of 3view all


Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly in other ways as well. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of such interrogation techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.

The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that. The scene of waterboarding that Bigelow included in the movie is an accurate dramatization. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the "enhanced interrogation" the United States conducted after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.

Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.

Is that just? Are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12, " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things—acts of revenge or humiliation—that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act—like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique—is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.

Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different from the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."


The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence [this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave], showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Ladan's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy—and a good swath of the American population—woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment—even refusing to show bin Laden on camera—lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.

icon2 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared