Zero Dark Thirty's Morality Brigade

(AP Photo/Sony - Columbia Pictures)

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't even come out until next week, but Kathryn Bigelow's much-hailed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is already provoking outrage in some quarters for allegedly "glorifying"—OK, sometimes it's "celebrating"—torture. As all too bloody usual, the loudest howls are coming from people who haven't actually seen ZD30, some of whom—yes, Andrew Sullivan, I mean you —really ought to know better. Ginning up controversies about movies without bothering to watch them first is really more Bill Donohue and the Catholic League's sort of thing, and does Sullivan want to be in that company?

Since plenty of other folks apparently do, I hope you won't mind two cents from a lowly movie critic who admires the hell out of Zero Dark Thirty and isn't exactly big on vindicating Dick Cheney's world-view. There are really two separate arguments here, and people shouldn't confuse the two—though they already have. One is about factual accuracy, and worth taking seriously. The other's about Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's attitude toward the very grim stuff they show us, which is an appalling thing to just guess at sight unseen.

Nonetheless, that's what Glenn Greenwald—whose December 10 Guardian piece attacking the movie really got the torture-glorification ball rolling—indefensibly did, in the process managing to smear everyone who'd praised ZD30. "Ultimately, I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture," he wrote. "It's more accurate [wow, really? Did one of us 'fess up over cocktails, Mr. Greenwald?] to say it's so admired because of this." (Emphases in the original.) Take it from me, it's never good when the sight-unseen crowd is driving the conversation.

So, first off, yes: Zero Dark Thirty does depict a circa-2003 torture session as providing the first murky clue in the long chain of them that eventually leads to bin Laden. Plenty of people in a position to know—e.g., ex-CIA director Leon Panetta—have said that just ain't so. On the other hand, Mark Bowden's convincingly reported (to my eyes) book about bin Laden's killing, The Finish, goes along with Bigelow and Boal, which doesn't mean he/they are right and everybody else is wrong. We don't know who the filmmakers did and didn't talk to while they were researching the story. It's possible their sources were the same as Bowden's and they decided to go with that version of events—events which, I'm pretty sure, we won't know the conclusive truth about for a good long while, if ever.

No question, if Bigelow and Boal knew better and scrapped fact for fiction—and you'd better make a good case that it was a conscious choice before you slag them—then they do deserve to be in hot water. But if you ask whether I think that would invalidate the movie, then I'm going to have to annoy you by saying uh-uh. And even, to some extent, defending their reasoning. For starters, depicting torture as an effective intelligence tool isn't the same as endorsing it by a long shot. As Andrew Sullivan should certainly know even if Dick Cheney doesn't, the minute asking whether torture "works" is accepted as the right yardstick for approving of it, the moral argument is lost. It's either abhorrent or it isn't. Back in 1966, The Battle of Algiers opened with an Algerian captive cracking under pressure to reveal the hero's whereabouts, and I don't think anyone would call The Battle of Algiers pro-torture. Instead, it's pro-terrorist—the only universally acknowledged Great Movie that is.

In any case, I can't believe anyone with half a brain could watch ZD30 and think the movie is hailing torture, American-style, as the niftiest thing since Pez dispensers. The torture scenes are squalid, vivid, and brutally protracted, and—not by accident, since they lead off the movie—they make the protagonists morally compromised from the get-go. Not to mention, by extension, us, since we paid their real-life equivalents' salaries. (The horrible sense of complicity when we realize we want the guy they're interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with is one of the more memorable experiences in recent movies.) There can't be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for. No matter what Greenwald imagines in the recesses of his "Gee, maybe I should get out more often" gray matter, the point of Zero Dark Thirty isn't to let us exult that we got bin Laden, and never mind being finicky about how. Right down to the great closing shot of Jessica Chastain's troubled, newly purposeless face, the movie is all about the moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid to do it.

Couldn't Bigelow and Boal have dramatized that without giving torture the credit for getting bin Laden? Maybe so, but to put the question that way is to identify their far from boosterish thematic concerns, not their obliviousness. Nor is that the only irony in play here. Even if torture eventually turned out to be no help in getting him, people were almost certainly tortured in attempts to pin down where he was. Can you imagine the outcry if an anodyne version of ZD30 had just left all of that out—the black sites, the brutalized detainees, the whole "enhanced interrogation" nightmare? Wouldn't a lot of the same people pillorying Bigelow now be accusing her instead of whitewashing the CIA and the Bush-Cheney administration by omitting those dirty deeds? Knowing they were dirty is one truth we should all acknowledge, and Zero Dark Thirty does. 

Comments

I think you're misreading Glenn Greenwald: "I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated."

Regarding "The Battle of Algiers" - You might want to take some time to reflect on that last time that great film crossed paths with American foreign policy...

"Pentagon sources report one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq. The Pentagon's special operations chiefs have scheduled a showing tomorrow in the Army auditorium of "The Battle of Algiers," a classic film that examines how the French, despite overwhelming military superiority, were defeated by Algerian resistance fighters." -- David Ignatius, Washington Post, August 26, 2003

"The viewer is then treated to a montage of the consequences: ordinary people tortured with electric shock, nearly drowned, hung upside-down -- acts so crude and brutal that in the end they undermined the morale of the French military itself. Is this what the Pentagon wants to convey to its men and women in Iraq or to those who will lead them? That the end justifies the means?" -- Sheila K. Johnson, TomDispatch, September 7, 2003

"While The Battle of Algiers has next to nothing to say about overall French strategy in Algeria, its most obvious military lesson—that torture is an efficient countermeasure to terror—is a dangerous one in this particular instance. Aside from its moral horror, torture may not even elicit accurate information, though the film seems to suggest it is foolproof." -- Charles Paul Freund, Slate, Aug. 27, 2003

Mr. Carson, this is probably going to annoy you. I haven't seen the movie, but I can comment on some logical problems with your post. First, this:
"No question, if Bigelow and Boal knew better and scrapped fact for fiction—and you'd better make a good case that it was a conscious choice before you slag them—then they do deserve to be in hot water."
Bigelow herself characterized the approach to the film as "journalistic," which it clearly isn't, since it's not factually accurate. But even then, regardless of her comment, one would not be required to make a good case for her consciously disregarding fact in favor of fiction. It's simply an inaccurate presentation in a movie which is supposed to be a dramatization of historical events. When there are two equally plausible sides to a story (but frankly, based on the evidence we have about the ineffectiveness of torture, this seems like a false equivalency), you wouldn't let a journalist, or a documentarian, off the hook for reporting only one, especially for artistic/thematic concerns, which you lay out as follows:
"...the movie is all about the moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid [to get Bin Laden]." But then later you make the case: "Couldn't Bigelow and Boal have dramatized that without giving torture the credit for getting bin Laden? Maybe so, but to put the question that way is to identify their far from boosterish thematic concerns."
So, perhaps they sacrificed fact for theme? Let's discuss those thematic concerns. Based on your description, it strikes me that the depiction of brutal torture as yielding results is intended (in terms of story-telling) to create a conflict between gritty, real-world necessity and moral idealism, employed to the effect of leaving the audience questioning whether that "spiritual price" was potentially worth paying, and thereby inciting the very question ("is torture effective?") that you claim, when it's asked means "the moral argument is lost." So the theme you and the filmmakers hold as the sine qua non, in fact, serves the very purpose you criticize Sullivan for ignoring, and identify as abrogating all genuine moral considerations.
I can understand that, when divorced from the real-world political content and the context of its release, the movie would make for an enjoyable, provocative work. But the fact remains that it purports to be more than that, and should be held accountable not only for inaccurate content, but for the dangerously misleading narratives it peddles.

Carson:

"In any case, I can't believe anyone with half a brain could watch ZD30 and think the movie is hailing torture, American-style, as the niftiest thing since Pez dispensers. "

Peter Bergen from CNN:

"The one time [president Obama] does appear in "Zero Dark Thirty" is in a clip from a "60 Minutes" interview in which he criticizes the use of "torture." By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy."

Frank Bruni, New York Times:

""The torture sequence immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It's set up as payback. "And by the movie's account, it produces information vital to the pursuit of the world's most wanted man. No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that's what "Zero Dark Thirty" appears to suggest.""

Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly:

"The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ''enhanced interrogation techniques'' that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked."

Mr. Carson, please call these reviewers and inform them that they don't have half a brain.

I wouldn't dream of telling my friend and colleague Owen that he has half a brain. But what are you all doing when you act as if whether torture "works" or not is the right reason to oppose it? I thought we all knew that torture would be reprehensible even if it was a foolproof way of obtaining information. Doesn't it occur to you that a movie can show it "working" to some extent and still treat it as morally repugnant no matter what the results are?

I don't think anyone would call The Battle of Algiers pro-torture. Instead, it's pro-terrorist—the only universally acknowledged Great Movie that is. http://www.motherofthegroom-speech.com

Where and how does the film treat torture as morally repugnant?

Bigelow and crew are not journalists or historians but narrative story-tellers and not are bound to tell any sort of "truth" at all. In fact, they do a disservice to themselves and their craft if they restrict themselves to verifiable truths, to the "based on a true story" tag-line. The story of bin Laden is a made-up story anyway, much like a myth or fable, with a character named "bin Laden" and a character named "Obama" and so on. She can torque that fable anyway she wants and does not have to answer to anyone about it. Of course, a movie without the torture would probably not sell as well (we crave the things that make us cringe), but that's another discussion. She's telling a fable about a fable.

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