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With the controversy surrounding the depiction of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” threatening to overwhelm the movie itself, Kathryn Bigelow has taken it upon herself to articulate her point of view, in a piece published in the Los Angeles Times. The key paragraphs:

… First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind. …

… Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. …

… Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

… Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

This dovetails with what I wrote about “Zero” a month ago:

… My takeaway from the movie was that it seemed to show the torturous methods for exactly what they were, without taking a decisive stand for or against them. In fact, one of the things that impressed me about “Zero” was how apolitical it was.

At a minimum, there’s no minimizing in the film how cruel torture is. …

The opposing view, most recently articulated in great detail by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books, argues that “Zero” misses or misleads on so many key details that, consciously or not, it effectively endorses torture by making it a bigger factor than it was. Two brief excerpts: 

… In virtually every instance in the film where Maya extracts important clues from prisoners, then, torture is a factor. Arguably, the film’s degree of emphasis on torture’s significance goes beyond what even the most die-hard defenders of theCIA interrogation regime, such as Rodriguez, have argued. Rodriguez’s position in his memoir is that “enhanced interrogation” was indispensible to the search for bin Laden—not that it was the predominant means of gathering important clues. …

… As with discourse about climate change policy, the persistence of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture represents a victory for those who would justify such abuse. Zero Dark Thirty has performed no public service by enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate.

I hear that argument and it gives me pause, but I have to say, I’m still not convinced by it. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the ugliness of torture, raises enormous questions about its morality and efficacy, and ultimately tells a story where the key United States operatives, under the direction of the president, abandon it. (Does the fact that torture is repellent in the movie not constitute an argument against it at all?) However many audience members think the film endorses torture, I think that’s on them, not on “Zero.”

I would also note that at this point, amid all the conversation about the perceived impact of “Zero” on the torture debate, I haven’t seen it go to the next step. I haven’t seen any conversation where anyone uses it as a launching pad to argue for bringing torture back. That’s not to say I haven’t simply missed that, so if I have, let me know. But for example, relative to the furious debate on gun control in this country, the, “Go, torture, go!” side seems awfully quiet to me.  That strikes me as extraordinarily significant. Keep in mind that the people who actually make policy are too inside to be influenced by a movie. For those of us, like myself, who are against torture, we should be so lucky if this is the biggest ammunition the pro-torture side has.   

There seems to be little justification for people to treat “Zero” as reactionary modern-day propaganda, as if Bigelow were Leni Riefenstahl and “Zero” is “Triumph of the Will.” The potential of the film to rejuvenate pro-torture arguments seems greatly overstated – and should that rejuvenation occur, it’s not going to live or die with what people thought of “Zero Dark Thirty.” And nothing stretches credibility more than the idea that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal intended to make a pro-torture movie.  

If Bigelow and Boal finessed some facts, or if they were duped, if you will, into making torture a larger factor than it was (because let’s be clear – they believe in their movie), then that’s to their discredit if it was done irresponsibly rather than for a greater good, cinematically or culturally. In that respect, it’s no different than “Moneyball” getting some of its facts about the Oakland A’s wrong for no good reason – and, despite the apparent preposterousness of the comparison, about as likely to have an impact on our society going forward. 

My conclusion, however, is that the strengths of “Zero” far outweigh its weaknesses, and that the level of controversy surrounding the film has been unfair.