Waterboarding, the simulated drowning of a suspect, is one of the techniques in particular that has been defined as torture according to some lawmakers including President Obama. It was legal under the Bush administration and was used to interrogate some prisoners.
Bigelow is known for another film surrounding the Iraqi war, The Hurt Locker, that received critical acclaim and an Academy award. Bigelow is able to tell stories of the war without inserting partisan or ideological overtones in her treatment. This is an extremely difficult task given how much US involvement in these wars was a source of controversy in the United States and in some respects divided the nation.
Many critics and viewers of the film have argued that Bigelow shows how enhanced interrogation techniques were successful in leading to the capture of bin Laden and that, through this, she tacitly supports their use. Or at a minimum, she treats the process amorally. Some ethicists would have preferred that she took a harder stance against these practices. Others have argued that her function is simply to tell the story based on the intelligence she received.
Matthew Boudway in a Commonweal article, Alleva & Zizek on Zero Dark Thirty, outlined two contrasting articles by two different authors, Richard Alleva and Slavoj Zizek on this issue. In the more critical article of Bigelow's treatment, Zizek insists that "to depict torture “neutrally” is a kind of obscenity, if not a tacit endorsement. He asks us to imagine a “neutral” depiction of the Nazi death camps, one “focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed)."
I have not seen the film but I think Bigelow has struck the right pitch. I respect Bigelow as an artist for not trying to moralize this issue. In this she stands in the tradition of Tolstoy who, in Anna Karenina, passed no judgement on Anna who abandoned her child to take up with her lover. It would have been easy to cast Anna as irresponsible, spoiled, etc. But he simply told the story and this, in part, is why it remains one of the great novels of literature.
It is not for storytellers to moralize. It is for them to tell the story.
It is for us to reflect on the implications of that story and think about who we are, consider if ends justify means, ask questions. Clearly, one of the most perennial and classic ethical questions facing humankind has been, do the ends justify the means? Zero Dark Thirty has opened a national conversation, yet again, on this theme.