“Is it necessary to utter one’s ideas about slavery? Show it, that’s enough.”
So scribbled the French writer Gustave Flaubert, offering a pointed critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel and abolitionist rallying cry that Flaubert judged to be unnecessarily over-the-top in its anti-slavery views.
The substance of Flaubert’s above comment should be clear enough in its original context and, in my view, is the right and proper way to handle the nasty business of Bigelow’s film.
The situation: Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have been accused of depicting the torture of certain alleged terrorists by the United States in a manner to suggest said treatment yielded accurate and useful intelligence in the search for Osama bin Laden and was, therefore, both necessary and ethically permissible.
Accusers reject this perceived conclusion as wrong—both factually and morally—and the depictions themselves as effectively an endorsement of the practice. The term “torture apologist” has appeared more than once.
Having now seen the movie myself—I refused to broach the subject until I did—I will begin with Bigelow’s own characterization. “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” she said, adding, “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.”
For the term “journalistic,” Bigelow might well have substituted “objective.” As every newspaper person knows (or should), the central distinction between reporting and op-ed writing is that the former aspires not to have a point of view—to not “have a dog in the fight,” as former New York Times op-ed editor and current columnist Gail Collins phrased it.
As Bigelow would have it, Zero Dark Thirty presumes merely to report what happened amidst the manhunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, leaving it to the viewer to decide upon its moral dimensions. Admiring critics say likewise.
The problem here is Bigelow’s conflation of being objective with being non-judgmental. In point of fact, the two are not necessarily equivalent—not when being objective means acknowledging certain behavior that, by its very nature, invites negative judgment upon it.
Torture was, and is, an out-and-out violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory; to acknowledge its application and then fail to note this unfortunate truth—as the film indeed fails to do—does not quite qualify as “journalistic.” It is, by way of omission, a form of bias. (Perhaps this explains Bigelow’s qualifier, “almost.”)
Then there is the other rather weighty problem: The question of veracity. As much as the film’s defenders might protest to the contrary, Zero Dark Thirty makes it plain that torture was indeed an integral part of successfully tracking down bin Laden—a claim that myriad experts have made equally plain is simply not the case.
Bigelow and Boal are entitled to twist the facts of history to suit their cinematic purposes—as Ben Affleck does in Argo, for instance—but they must then acknowledge that that is what they are doing. Either Zero Dark Thirty is a journalistically accurate depiction of real events or a deft blend of fact and fiction. Both cannot be true simultaneously.
(The end credits include a disclaimer that parts of the movie are fiction. However, Bigelow’s and Boal’s comments remain.)
Having said all of this, I nonetheless understand what Bigelow thinks she means in explaining her modus operandi.
My point about Flaubert, as applied here, is the notion that torture, like slavery, is such an inherently and viscerally repugnant practice that its mere depiction is a sufficient means of illustrating its evil; the viewer would require no further assistance in reaching a conclusion. Were all the known and relevant facts in place, this would be—counterintuitively, perhaps—a form of objectivism.
But then my point about my point comes in the form of a question: Does this film—or any film—have an obligation to take a moral stand in the first place? Is it either possible or desirable for a work that deals so directly in matters of ethics to be non-judgmental?
New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein arrestingly writes that Zero Dark Thirty “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible,” only to then proclaim it the best film of 2012.
Are those two statements reconcilable? Can a reprehensible movie also be a great one? (It is the view of this scribbler that Bigelow’s is not the former and quite possibly the latter.) We have asked the question ever since D.W. Griffith lionized the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation in 1915. May the day never come when we arrive at an answer.