In a recent column, I spent so much time excoriating Zero Dark Thirty—in particular, the disingenuousness of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal—that I failed to mention how very much I enjoyed it.
As much as Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker demanded a thorough rebuke, so also does it deserve a resounding defense.
I began last time with a plea from Gustave Flaubert to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Is it necessary to utter one’s ideas about slavery? Show it, that’s enough.” My recommendation was, and is, that Zero Dark Thirty ought to be considered in this “show, don’t tell” context with respect to its depictions of torture.
As an extension of this thought, I offer the following quotation from Andrew Sullivan: “The case against torture is simply that it is torture, that capturing human beings and ‘breaking’ them physically, mentally, spiritually is a form of absolute evil that negates the core principle of human freedom and autonomy on which the West is founded. It is more fatal to our way of life and civilization than terrorism.”
If Sullivan is correct, then Flaubert is correct. If torture is axiomatically, viscerally and morally repugnant, then Bigelow’s film need not make any comment on it other than simply showing it being done. Those who are repulsed by torture will conclude the movie is against its use, while those who are not might think differently.
It is suggestive of the film’s greatness, not failure, that its politics can be subject to utterly contradictory interpretations by its viewers. The very existence of a debate over the film’s intentions is the most persuasive argument yet for Bigelow’s and Boal’s contention that Zero Dark Thirty is a movie without an agenda.
I am reminded of the brief, but passionate, brouhaha that erupted in early 2005 regarding Clint Eastwood’s film Million Dollar Baby, in which (spoiler alert!) the character played by Eastwood is compelled to assist in ending the life of a stricken dear friend. Critics argued that because Eastwood’s character was clearly intended to be sympathetic—the “hero,” as it were—the film was effectively in favor of assisted suicide.
To this, Roger Ebert countered that a freethinking person could just as easily see the film and conclude that Eastwood was a good man who made a bad decision, and that such a phenomenon does not diminish the movie one whit.
I would optimistically wager that a similar sentiment might be made about Zero Dark Thirty, although in this case it’s a bit more complicated—first because Bigelow’s film is based on real events, and second because its implications reach far beyond the conscience of a single person.
My own view, having seen the thing once, is that Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify or justify torture, although one can be forgiven for concluding to the contrary.
The film shows the employment of waterboarding, stress positions and so forth as part of the amassing of intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it does not suggest that the intelligence that actually cracked the case was a direct result of said “techniques.”
What we see, rather, is a prisoner providing valuable information to two CIA agents as they offer him hummus and fruit across a picnic table in the warm sunshine—that is, as they treat him with basic human dignity.
The complication is that this follows a sequence in which this man is indeed tortured, and his present tip-off might well spring from fear of being tortured again. Would he not have cooperated had he been treated humanely the whole time? Or, perhaps, might a lack of torture made his information even better?
It is a complex and nasty business. Good on Bigelow for dealing with complexity and nastiness. Few American filmmakers go to such trouble. I wish more of them did.
Of course, we are hardly done with the hard questions about the long journey from September 11, 2001 to May 1, 2011. Was torture necessary to gather the intelligence we required to conduct the so-called war on terror? If so, does that axiomatically make it justified? Or is Andrew Sullivan correct that some things—certain fundamental American values—are simply more important?
On the practicality question, I refer you to Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs, who cautioned a pair of cop-torturers, “If you beat this guy long enough, he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire—now that don’t necessarily make it so!”
On the moral question, I leave it up to you.