In an Op-Ed published Tuesday night in the Los Angeles Times, “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow sought to address the controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of torture, which has apparently cost her an Academy Award nomination for best director. Throughout her filmmaking career Bigelow has been circumspect about her political and aesthetic values, at times joking that she began as a visual artist, a field in which obfuscation is a positive virtue. Her language was guarded and indirect this time too, and closely echoed many of her previous public statements about the film. But at least Bigelow made it pretty clear that she did not intend to make a pro-torture movie, or to argue that the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogation” tactics played a crucial role in the search for Osama bin Laden.
While I don’t think Bigelow’s article is likely to staunch the flow of criticism, it may help to redirect the debate a little. If we accept the director’s self-characterization as a “lifelong pacifist” who supports “all protests against the use of torture” – a veiled reference to the anti-torture protesters who have staged demonstrations outside some screenings – then we need to agree that the controversy over the film is primarily a question of context and framing. In other words, it’s a matter of interpretation. Interpreting any film or cultural work can be a thorny business, and in interpreting this one we need to consider many things: There are the track records of the people who made it and those of the officials in Washington who have sought to undermine and attack it, along with the assumptions brought into the film by pundits, reporters, critics and ordinary moviegoers.
As Bigelow delicately puts it, during the weeks when “Zero Dark Thirty” was in limited release in a few major cities, “many thoughtful people” reacted to it “in wildly contradictory ways.” One thing she does not say, but that is now clear, is that the tone of studied ambiguity and journalistic or historical neutrality sought by Bigelow and Mark Boal, her writing and producing partner, has backfired on the film in ways they did not anticipate. Most film critics, who are presumably accustomed to artistic opacity and indirect modes of expression, have embraced “Zero Dark Thirty.” But many experts on the torture issue and the bin Laden hunt, from investigative journalists like Jane Mayer and Steve Coll to Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, have seen it as making false factual claims or defending the indefensible. (Others, including Michael Moore, Mark Bowden and CNN’s Peter Bergen, have praised the film.)
This spirited and often heated division partly stems from the specific way “Zero Dark Thirty” presents its wrenching scenes of torture – that is, with no editorial commentary and as part of a chain of causality that led to bin Laden, even if no single crucial and specific piece of information was produced that way. My Salon colleague Natasha Lennard has developed this idea further, and I think it’s important: “Linear historical narratives based around end points always risk making the events leading up to that designated end point appear necessary — like things couldn’t have played out any other way … 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.”
In her article, Bigelow puts it this way: “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.” I agree with that, but it isn’t quite adequate to address the narrative dilemma Lennard describes: On one hand, it would have been profoundly dishonest to overlook the prominent role that CIA or military policies of torture and rendition played in the American response to 9/11. (Imagine how much criticism would be directed at a movie that never mentioned those things.) On the other, including scenes of torture in a forward-driving narrative as forceful as this one risks making it look like a necessary link in that causal chain, which we can now say was clearly not Bigelow's intention.
I am not suggesting, by the way, that Mayer, Coll, Gibney or other critics of “Zero Dark Thirty” are insufficiently sophisticated to appreciate narrative ambiguity. (I know Alex Gibney, who is a terrific storyteller and hardcore movie buff, and who has been careful to say that he admires Bigelow’s craft and skill.) It’s more that they believe that ambiguity was misleading, misguided, misused and mistaken. While I don't entirely agree, it's a legitimate area of criticism. There are qualities baked into Bigelow and Boal’s narrative approach that some viewers will evaluate as fatal flaws, especially if those viewers are deeply engaged, on a moral or political issue, with the question of torture as an instrument of United States policy.
Here’s where we get to the rhetorical failures of many film critics (myself included) and others who have defended “Zero Dark Thirty.” Many of us focused first and foremost on Bigelow’s extraordinary technical command of the cinematic medium, which is not surprising. Beyond that, many of us began with the assumption that Bigelow and Boal almost certainly were not seeking to defend or justify torture and, furthermore, that it was legitimate to present such an explosive issue from a detached, novelistic point of view. While I still agree with those propositions, both are contentious, especially the second.
For many anti-torture activists, as for many journalists and filmmakers who covered the nightmarish excesses of the Bush administration, the issue of whether the U.S. will once again resort to such abominations is very much alive. To them, it seems unacceptable on many levels to present torture in a work of popular entertainment without rendering a clear judgment that it is both immoral and ineffective. As Gibney has put it, “Zero Dark Thirty” represents a missed opportunity to strike an unambiguous position on a question about which the public appears confused.
Bigelow has said several times now that “depiction is not endorsement,” but that’s again not quite sufficient, nor is it the only relevant framework. Shakespeare takes no clear position on regicide in “Julius Caesar” – it’s certainly depicted as effective – and Nabokov’s “Lolita” is told from the perspective of a child abuser who constantly tries to finesse questions about the morality of his deeds. But we haven't had recent presidents who argued (at least overtly) that we needed to loosen up our prohibitions on political assassination or pedophilia. In the political context of 2013, when the Obama administration has changed course on some controversial Bush-era policies – while ramping up others with extraordinary avidity and sweeping most of the worst crimes under the historical carpet – the question of where to draw the lines in the “war on terror” is very much in the balance.
“On a practical or political level,” Bigelow writes, “it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.” (Emphasis in original.) This is blandly stated, but makes an important point. It’s legitimate to dislike the film because it fails to make a forceful political statement against torture – which just isn’t the kind of movie Bigelow would ever make – but some of the film’s critics have a more complicated hidden agenda.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-authored a critical letter to Sony Pictures about “Zero Dark Thirty,” are ultra-connected Washington politicians who have supported every aspect of the Bush and Obama war campaigns, whether secret or overt, with the sole exception of torture. They are now trying to decontaminate the hunt for Osama bin Laden by separating it from the most repulsive policies of the last 12 years. Unfortunately, I suspect that some well-intentioned journalists and activists have gotten too deeply invested in Washington-centric internal policy debates to look clearly at underlying currents and larger historical questions.
For Americans to feel fully OK about the killing of bin Laden (in this reading), it must be presented not just as a military or intelligence victory over an enemy, but also as a propaganda victory and a moral victory, one that’s divorced from its own troubling history and free of any disturbing consequences. Both within the world of “Zero Dark Thirty” and the real world of Washington, the quest for bin Laden was seen as an unquestioned moral and political good, and ended with one of the few American foreign-policy successes of the last decade.
Bigelow writes that she and Boal “were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences,” and Boal has suggested elsewhere that he wrote the script with posterity in view, and was trying to think beyond the frame of present-tense politics. Whether he has accomplished that remains in doubt, but the point I’m making is that “Zero Dark Thirty” complicates the ideological script. If you view the bin Laden raid – and, for that matter, the continuing secret drone wars of the Obama administration – as existing on a continuum with the crimes of Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo, then the entire history of this period starts to look murky and morally compromised.
Indeed, as we see the Abbottabad raid in “Zero Dark Thirty,” no effort was made to use restraint or to seek bin Laden’s arrest. It was an act of lethal and implacable force, not to mention an extralegal military incursion into a supposedly friendly sovereign nation. Was the whole thing justified by all that came before it, or poisoned at the root? How will it all look viewed through the long lens of history, outside the narrative of American exceptionalism? I don’t know, but that -- and not the relatively minor question of who was tortured when, and what he spilled -- is the real question.