Anti-torture activists are picketing theaters in cities around the country and handing out leaflets. They seem to be confusing activism with journalism and art, which I suppose makes sense, since they’re the activists and Bigelow is the artist. But someone needs to explain to them how journalism and art work. …

But Bigelow’s critics didn’t want art, nor were they interested in a journalistic account. They wanted a cinematic op-ed piece and didn’t get it. True, neither the writer nor filmmaker articulate an anti-torture message, but those trained in the arts know this sort of thing is not always necessary or even desirable. Good novelists and filmmakers can manipulate the emotions and even opinions of their audience, but they also know that the strongest emotions and opinions are self-generated. One of the first things a student of creative writing hears from a good teacher is “show, don’t tell.” If you want the audience to think something is horrible, you don’t tell them something is horrible. You show them something that’s horrible and let them come to a conclusion about it themselves. …

There is no getting around it: What took place in those CIA black sites was a nasty business. If you abhor what went on there, you should appreciate the fact that Zero Dark Thirty portrays it unflinchingly. If, on the other hand, you approve of the rough methods used to extract information from captured al-Qaida members, if you think the results were justified by the means—rest assured that none of the film’s characters will step in front of the camera and call you a monster. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell anyone what to think. Its shows us what we should think about.