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Anticipated film reignites debate over U.S. use of torture

Kathryn Bigelow did not need to create any more buzz in Washington about her latest, undoubtedly Oscar-bound film. Republicans made such a stink about the unprecedented access the Obama administration gave her and her scriptwriter to "research" the project, it was guaranteed to be a must-see movie in the U.S. capital regardless of its content.

With the news that Zero Dark Thirty appears to make a case for the Bush administration's use of "enhanced interrogation tactics" to extract vital information from terrorists, however, Ms. Bigelow has generated Twilight-like anticipation for her film.

Republicans were expecting an Obama hagiography, a Hollywood rendition of the President's gutsy decision to order the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Instead, Mr. Obama is a bit player in a film that mischievously suggests the torture gruesomely depicted in the movie was the necessary evil Dick Cheney always said it was.

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Ms. Bigelow, whose film opens Dec. 19, has reignited a political debate about what Mr. Obama has referred to as "a dark and painful chapter in our history." It remains to be seen whether the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards (for The Hurt Locker) can take home a second Oscar despite offending Hollywood's liberal sensibilities.

Critics are in awe of the film even as they are repulsed by the apparent moral of the story – that waterboarding, the tactic the Obama administration deemed "illegal" torture, may have yielded valuable information that later helped the CIA track down Mr. bin Laden.

"What we tried to do is capture the complexity of the debate without being a history lesson," screenwriter Mark Boal told USA Today.

Perhaps, but the film might also reinforce a false impression among an American public conditioned by TV shows like 24 to view enhanced interrogations as effective tactics.

"We got lots of intelligence from torture – and a lot of it was really bad intelligence," noted Jeremy Mayer, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

The movie's release coincides with the adoption this week, by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, of a 6,000-page classified report that is sharply critical of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said the interrogation tactics and secret CIA prisons where they occurred between 2002 and 2005 were "terrible mistakes." Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured in North Vietnam, called torture "an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence."

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The stir created by Zero Dark Thirty (the title refers to the military term for 12:30 a.m., the time of the raid on Mr. bin Laden's compound in Pakistan) might have been even greater had Mitt Romney won last month's presidential election. The Republican nominee had indicated during the campaign that he would reauthorize the use of the enhanced interrogation tactics that Mr. Obama banned on his second day in office in 2009.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Obama had said: "As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals."

But if Mr. Obama has not used that phrase lately, it may be because torture is about the only questionable Bush-era counterterrorism tactic he has not embraced, from military commissions to indefinite detention. Mr. Obama has also accelerated drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, approving every new name on a lengthy "kill list" of enemies whose execution often leads to dozens of civilian deaths.

Strangely, there is virtually no public debate in the United States about Mr. Obama's use of those tactics, despite promising to embody America's "ideals." Maybe Ms. Bigelow should make a movie about that.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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