The "Zero Dark Thirty" debate isn't really about torture

Reducing "Zero Dark Thirty" to a partisan argument about torture misses the big questions it raises about America

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 29, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

Art can be created with moralistic intentions, but it is inherently a ruthless and amoral endeavor, whose meaning always gets away from its creator. It can certainly be used to soothe the savage breast, lend succor in an hour of darkness, and so on. But let’s not forget that children in the death camps were made to play Schubert by murderers and torturers who believed themselves to be civilized and cultured men. That thread of civilization and culture is what saves teenage genius Wladyslaw Szpilman’s life in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” – but the ironic question posed by that film is whether that’s a good reason for one man to live while millions of others died. Because he could play the piano?

Great art has been made to support democracy and to support inhuman cruelty. Picasso’s "Guernica" is not a great painting because it commemorates a massacre, but because the man who chose to commemorate the massacre was a great painter. If the classic example of a great film inspired by dreadful events is Leni Riefenstahl’s enormously influential Nazi paean “Triumph of the Will,” I’m afraid that D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK cinematic landmark “Birth of a Nation” isn’t much better. (Neither is “Gone With the Wind,” when you get right down to it.) Some of the more hysterical attacks on Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama-hunting thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” have invoked names like Riefenstahl and Griffith, which is putting the cart before the horse. We know that those directors had noxious intentions, while Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have specifically disavowed making a pro-torture movie or a work of “CIA propaganda,” in the words of Glenn Greenwald.

I won’t try to persuade you what to think about the depiction of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” since there’s probably no bridging the perceptual gap on that question. I do want to suggest, however, that the hot debate about Bigelow’s likely Oscar nominee opens up all kinds of other overlapping questions of fact and interpretation – and also about the uses and limitations of art, and the powerful responses it provokes – that do not yield clear answers.

Plenty of intelligent people with the right credentials, from author and journalist Jane Mayer to documentarian Alex Gibney, have expressed the view that “Zero Dark Thirty” takes unacceptable liberties with the facts and implies that torture was both useful and justifiable in the search for Osama bin Laden. Other people (myself included) see much more ambiguity in the story that “Zero Dark Thirty” tells and the way it tells it, and believe the film offers a dark allegory about the contradictions of American power and the “war on terror.” Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who does not think “Zero Dark Thirty” is pro-torture, has made the especially apt observation that it’s a story about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.

In fact, both interpretations can be simultaneously correct. Those are not mutually exclusive readings of the movie, partly because it’s an unusually complicated work, partly because there are so many things we don’t know about the Bush administration’s notorious “detainee program,” and partly because art is an inherently amoral and ruthless enterprise, however much we may want to believe otherwise.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal could have stood to think through the aesthetic questions surrounding their work a bit more clearly. (Bigelow’s noncommittal remarks about her own movies, and her refusal to discuss politics or ideology, are entirely characteristic.) By this point they have been well and truly hoisted on their own rhetoric of journalistic neutrality. When the film was in production, many right-wingers assumed it was a feature-length commercial for the Obama administration, and now that it’s finished many left-wingers see it as pro-torture agitprop. A former war correspondent who reported from Iraq, Boal has implied all along that his narrative stems from deep sources within the Pentagon and CIA, while at the same time retreating from factual challenges with the protestation that “Zero Dark Thirty” is a work of fiction that allows for dramatic license.

He has been pilloried by the film’s critics for this cake-eating act, but I don’t see anything essentially contradictory about it, at least on a philosophical level. Dickens, Dreiser and Tolstoy, among many others, relied on an unstable and often tendentious mixture of documentary and fiction, reporting and invention. This may sound grandiose, but I think “Zero Dark Thirty” is shooting for that level of complex historical fiction. For all I know, officials of England’s Court of Chancery found its portrayal in “Bleak House” to be grossly unfair, and would have denied forcefully that any case ran as long or destroyed as many lives as Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Novels are not films, to be sure, and the writers I just mentioned generally scatter clues, large and small, throughout their works to let us know who is good and who is bad, whom to love and whom to revile, and where the reader must stand to be on the side of the angels (and the author). Film is a notoriously untrustworthy medium in that respect, one that has often privileged villains and antiheroes, and Kathryn Bigelow is a former visual artist who approaches movies as kinetic visual sculptures, and never tells us what to think about what lies below their macho hard sheen. Recall that a similar but smaller ideological dispute broke out over Bigelow and Boal's Oscar-sweeping previous film, “The Hurt Locker,” which offered no explicit commentary about the war it depicted and was depicted in some quarters as pro-war and even as “a recruiting vehicle for the U.S. Army.”

Boal and Bigelow’s refusal to stake out a clear authorial position on the use of torture or the war in Iraq — or, for that matter, on the hunt for Osama and the entire American global-war apparatus launched since 9/11 — is clearly defensible on intellectual grounds. But it’s profoundly disorienting for many viewers, especially those used to the clear-cut moral polarities of a Hollywood movie (which Bigelow’s films have always resisted), in which the protagonist is assumed to represent the essential virtues and values of the audience. The confusion only deepens when you add the chauvinism of an America-centric audience, which will always start with the assumption that the U.S. role in the world is essentially benevolent, that torture or other war crimes are aberrations from a generally worthwhile enterprise and — this is crucial – that any movie about American military or intelligence operations shares that fundamentally patriotic point of view.

I don’t think those are safe assumptions when it comes to “Zero Dark Thirty.” I am not claiming to know for sure that Bigelow and Boal intended a subversive or critical commentary on America in the age of terror. (I mostly believe them when they say they don’t have a political agenda, at least in the normal sense.) But I think it’s a possible and indeed plausible reading. As Shamsi's remark about depicting war crimes from the criminal perspective suggests, I believe they are radically destabilizing our relationship with the main character and the story by throwing us into that torture cell with Jessica Chastain in the movie’s opening scene. It’s like: Welcome to the movies! Now that you’re settled in with your popcorn, check out what “we” did in the name of protecting freedom, in our hunt for the man we believed was our greatest enemy. What does that say about “us,” our relationship to the enemy, and the freedoms we supposedly believe in?

But there I go, venturing into my own interpretation, when the important point is that the filmmakers have deliberately left the door open to that interpretation, alongside numerous others. This has led to considerable bewilderment among many commentators about 1) what actually happens in the film; 2) what the film suggests or implies; 3) the filmmakers’ presumed intentions; and 4) how other and presumably less intelligent people will understand the film. So you get MSNBC talking head Chris Hayes pronouncing “Zero Dark Thirty” to be “objectively pro-torture,” as if you can know anything objectively about the message or meaning of a work of fiction. What he really means is that he’s assuming the framework of a pro-American Hollywood film and making a whole bunch more half-baked assumptions about at least the first three and probably all four of my points.

One of the big blows in the “Zero Dark Thirty” debate came with a letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton (who, incidentally, had nothing to do with making the film) from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. These august members of the senior chamber leveled some serious-sounding charges against “Zero Dark Thirty,” including the claim that it’s “grossly inaccurate and misleading” and “perpetuat[es] the myth that torture is effective.”

If you read their letter after you see the film, it comes off as a lawyerly masterwork of prevarication and ass-covering that mostly isn't about "Zero Dark Thirty" at all and was written on behalf of three veteran legislators seeking to distance themselves from now-discredited CIA policies they’ve known about for years. After a forceful opening paragraph, the senators back away from any specific interpretation of the film or the intentions of its creators and focus instead on how they believe it will be received. “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden,” they write. (Emphasis added.)

After some oddly lavish butt-kissing (Feinstein is a California Democrat beholden to the movie industry, after all), they admit that the “fundamental problem” is P.R.: “We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”

Public opinion about torture is a potentially serious matter, and I would agree that Bigelow and Boal have been a little weaselly about the distinction between fact and fiction. But then again we’re talking about a public that also believes in angels and UFOs; I don’t believe that the way a movie is labeled is likely to determine how people understand it. Hearing a gaggle of important senators trying to pin the blame for the public’s misconceptions about torture on a movie that has yet to play outside the coastal cities sounds a little like the sober, centrist version of Wayne LaPierre blaming video games for the Sandy Hook massacre. Hearing it from Dianne Feinstein, the most war-loving and spook-friendly Democrat in the Senate (who just this week spoke up in support of the government’s supersecret domestic surveillance program), is especially rich. Maybe the real problem here is all the unresolved trauma from the Bush administration’s torture policies, which people like Feinstein and McCain and Barack Obama have assiduously swept under the rug. Whatever you think “Zero Dark Thirty” is saying about torture, it’s brought it back into the national conversation.

Bracketing the question of whether torture appears to be useful or justifiable in the universe of “Zero Dark Thirty” – which we now know will be understood differently by different sane and reasonable viewers – let’s note that the film dramatically foreshortens almost 10 years of disparate events into 157 minutes, which if nothing else creates a false sense of narrative continuity and momentum. As my Salon colleague Natasha Lennard put it recently in a terrific article fact-checking the veracity of “Zero Dark Thirty”: “Everything we see on the screen, every piece of information we see the CIA gather, even every mistake we see the characters make, is part of a plot inexorably driving toward its own conclusion — bin Laden in a body bag. Every event in the film up until bin Laden’s death appears as a necessary link in the causal chain that gets us to that infamous bloodied corpse.” So the torture scenes we see in the movie, even if they yield false leads or disinformation, feel like important elements of the hunt for bin Laden simply because they’re there, propelling us hell-for-leather toward the violent climax we know is coming.

That’s the sense in which “Zero Dark Thirty” can be said to apologize for torture, or maybe to “normalize” it — not in moral but in dramatic terms, as a key ingredient in an exciting thriller. It also depicts torture, we might say, as a cruel but inescapable aspect of the human experience, something that happens in times of crisis and will no doubt happen again. (In fact, it is certainly happening right now, today, to someone.) If you want to attack the movie for its blasé, disillusioned attitude, for its refusal to give you good guys to root for and its almost totalitarian subjugation of all moral questions to imagery, energy, momentum and architecture — or for the generally icky feeling it leaves you with — go ahead. Although I think it’s a terrific film, those are legitimate reasons to hate it.

But reducing the debate to MSNBC vs. Fox News partisan politics, or discussions about what kind of intelligence gathering yielded which results, strikes me as reductive tribal thinking, especially when there are so many big questions about America’s role in the world that this film engages. In the long run, I’m hopeful this process will turn out to be healthy. If Bigelow and Boal had waited a few years to tell this story, it wouldn’t be surrounded by half as much controversy – but it also wouldn’t be half as powerful. We live in a Manichaean age when we want all of culture to have a clear political meaning, to divide into Democratic art and Republican art. As I said earlier, art has no innate morality and no party loyalty. It can be used to serve the ends of tyrants, reformers and revolutionaries, and the people who created it don’t get to control what it means. That part is up to us.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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