Zero Dark Thirty's Morality Brigade
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.
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