Zero Dark Thirty is up for a lot of Oscars this weekend. It is also one of the most controversial movies in years, and one I have been mulling over a lot since I saw it. It is a powerful, expertly-crafted piece of cinema, full of great performances and a climactic sequence that will likely be remembered and clumsily imitated for years to come. It is, without a doubt, a Great movie.
But being Great is different than being Good. Greatness speaks to the magnitude of an achievement, whereas goodness speaks to the inherent worthiness or nobility of that achievement. And there’s a nagging possibility that Zero Dark Thirty is, like Oz, Great and Terrible. It is of course possible to be both – it’s pretty much conventional wisdom at this point that movies like Triumph Of The Will or Birth Of A Nation were technical and innovative triumphs in service of repugnant themes.
Not that ZDT is on the level of those movies; it’s far too thoughtful and ambivalent about its own characters and content to be placed in the same category as straight up nazi/KKK propaganda. I only bring it up to clarify that acknowledging the film’s considerable technical merits is a separate matter than judging it’s thematic content. To sort out that whole mess, I’m going to need to talk through my personal beliefs as they relate to torture, the debate surrounding it, the manner in which movies affect public discourse, the responsibilities of an artist to society at large, and how this movie pits all of them against each other in some sort of moral-rhetorical Thunderdome.
And spoiler alert, I’m like, fully liberal, so if you aren’t you may want to take a quick drink and steel up your sensibilities, because the next bits may produce mild chafing. The funny thing is, even if you disagree with the political views I’m about to espouse, the later sections are probably even more relevant to you, as you likely face the same sort of issues ZDT raised with me on some small or large scale with most movies that come out of the Gomorrah of Southern California each and every year.
ON THE MORALITY OF TORTURE
Torture is wrong. Full stop. And yes, waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques are torture. In the last 10-12 years we’ve pretended there is legitimate debate over this issue, when in fact it has all been clearly decided for over a century – US soldiers who waterboarded prisoners in the Phillipines were court martialed and the general who authorized it was dismissed from the Army by Teddy Roosevelt, even before we spearheaded the Geneva Conventions codifying torture as against international law, and before we executed Japanese soldiers who did it for war crimes following WWII, and before our generals specifically designated it illegal again during Vietnam.
(note – This being an opinion piece and not an academic paper, a couple links are far from the definitive word on the subject. I threw them up solely to demonstrate that I’m not pulling this stuff directly from my ass)
It has been a great moral failing on America’s part to have allowed the use of these techniques to be defended as valid methods of prosecuting the War On Terror. I understand the reasons it happened, and there have been moments when I felt myself waffling on whether it was maybe okay to do it a little bit to people who really, really (probably) had it coming. But I don’t kid myself about my motivations in those moments: it’s not because torture is a tricky grey area, or because there are legitimate questions as to whether the types of abuse depicted in ZDT actually constitute torture. It’s because I was scared. That’s it. I was scared shitless following 9/11 and I wanted to be reassured that everything that could be done to stop it from happening again was being done. I wanted to know that our protectors were going to Great lengths, even if they were Terrible ones.
But as a nation, I think it is fair to say, America should always be stronger than I am in my most cowardly moments. And I believe the true measure of strength is in how we live or fail to live up to our professed ideals, and not in the scale or severity of damage we are capable of inflicting. For the entire lifetime of the majority of Americans, we have possessed the power to destroy literally the entire world several times over if that was what we wanted. We know no end of ways to inflict agony upon a helpless person. We can do these things, easily. It is the restraint not to do these things, even when frightened or provoked, that makes us great.
Maybe that’s too high-minded. Perhaps it really boils down to this: the argument that we have to do these things to defeat this enemy strikes me as an admission of weakness. I mean, motherfuckers came at us with box cutters. I’m not saying shit isn’t serious, but if we’re so damaged by it that we don’t know how to hit back without shredding the Bill of Rights and Geneva Conventions, that to me tastes like admitting that we weren’t such hot shit to begin with. It’s saying “look, we just aren’t strong enough to handle this unless we do all that stuff we told everyone was unacceptable to do no matter what the circumstances.” I think that’s bullshit. And no excuse anyway. If your standards only apply when you are not under pressure, then guess what, you don’t actually have any standards.
I should really have just linked to Seanbaby and Batman making the same points in much more concise, hilarious fashion.
ON THE ACTUAL TORTURE DEBATE
That’s all well and good. But while it’s all the reason I need to oppose torture, I also recognize the fact of the matter is that most Americans do not agree with me, or at least don’t feel very strongly about it. So a great deal of the actual debate on the issue revolves around the murkier area of whether torture actually works as an interrogation technique. For my part, I believe that torture is effective at getting you a lot of information, and fairly quickly. The question is whether you get accurate information from it, which (spoiler) in the movie it does.
ZDT, to be fair, actually does raise this issue in a brief moment or two, such as when it is eventually revealed that the identity of the courier Maya has been searching for has been in the CIA’s records for a decade, but no one else had been able to parse its significance amongst the flood of leads and info they gathered post-9/11. I don’t think this is enough to introduce real ambiguity into the film’s presentation of torture, though. If the sharpest critique of torture is that it is so effective that it’s difficult to manage the surplus of information it produces, I think you came down pretty squarely on one side of that issue.
There are other practical arguments against torture, of course. But the film doesn’t touch at all on the effect a sanctioned torture program has on our standing in international affairs, how disastrous it can be when it produces bad intel (rather than useless info like the prisoner shouting random days of the week, which is a wash that leaves our heroes where they began), how it encourages our enemies to fight to the death rather than surrendering, or how even if only applied to foreign “non-lawful enemy combatants”, it sets an example for domestic law enforcement in how they might deal with especially difficult or unsavory subjects (if that seems like a stretch, there are documented cases of police departments using these techniques on citizens, including waterboarding, stretching back to the 1930s and further).
That’s not really a fault of the film, though, as most of that stuff lies well outside of the intently focused story it is telling. It does not present a well-rounded overview of the torture debate because it is not trying to be a movie about torture. And it isn’t, exactly, but it is a movie that condones torture. I’ll return to that distinction and why it is significant in the next section.
The point is, while I hate that the argument over torture is based so much around whether it works rather than whether it should be beneath us as a people, I accept that as a practical reality. America is far too accepting of torture in my view, and anything that makes it seem more like a reliable method of intelligence gathering is only going to exacerbate that problem. Zero Dark Thirty does suggest that the use of torture was effective. At the very least, it demonstrates that interrogations “enhanced” by prior acts of torture led to the major breakthroughs that led to Bin Laden. If you’re not apt to read between the lines even that much, it presents torturing prisoners as point A and a dead Bin Laden as point B, and the basic, inescapable logic of narrative cinema suggests that what happens at the end of a movie is the result of what happened in the beginning and middle.
This makes ZDT a pro-torture movie, because it ends with Osama Bin Laden dead. And as much as the film goes out of its way not to sugarcoat the brutality of the operation (and somehow manages to make an utterly gripping sequence out of it without resorting to blatantly manipulative jingoism – don’t ask me how the hell they pulled that off) it’s impossible to desensationalize these events. It is still the triumphant culmination of the hero’s struggles throughout the film, even if the final shots suggest that she feels somewhat hollowed out by finally achieving it. If the intention there was to make the audience question whether the lengths she/we went to in order to get Bin Laden were worth it, I don’t think it succeeded in actually planting those doubts in anyone’s mind.
And look, even my bleeding-heartiness has limits; I’m not suggesting that this shouldn’t be in some way triumphant, or that the raid itself was wrong. I’m against the execution of criminals without trial, but…well, it’s not like the guy was proclaiming his innocence or anything. When you publicly take credit for the mass murder of American citizens and declare open war on the entire country, I’m totally cool with the gloves coming off. Dude asked for a war, and that means less trials and more Black Hawks.
Anyway, the point I was making is that by the movie’s and vast majority of the audience’s estimation, killing Bin Laden = Good, so the movie depicts torturing people as producing a good result. And the majority of America, whether they think we should be using it currently, does believe on some level that it’s use on Al Qaeda suspects was justified. This is in no small part because the ends of those particular means included the eventual death of Bin Laden.
Given all those givens, the movie is ultimately pro-torture. It may be agnostic as to the morality of the enterprise, but it comes down strongly on the side of its effectiveness, which realistically speaking is the area that plays the largest role in shaping the opinions of the general public.
SO WHAT? IT’S JUST A MOVIE
Okay, so let’s pretend that you agree with me that torturing people is bad and that the movie encourages its acceptance as legitimate tool of intelligence gathering. The next question becomes so what?
So this creates a conundrum for me, the pinko movie geek. I’m completely against censorship of any kind, but one of my biggest pet peeves is people crying censorship when they are simply being criticized. Here’s the important distinction: only the government can really censor things. Nothing else is actually censorship; a network, studio or publisher isn’t required to help anyone distribute their works if they don’t want, and when people make fun of how stupid and terrible your ideas are, they are not infringing on your right to free speech, they are in fact exercising theirs. So for the love of God and my own sanity, stop going online and whining “I thought we had free speech in this country???” every time some politician or celebrity catches flack over saying something idiotic. We do have it, idiot, which is why we’re free to call idiots idiots when they’re being idiots.
This is not about censorship, it is about criticism, and while any time you say “this is bad” it carries with it the implication “…and they shouldn’t have made it,” that is very different from saying “they should not have been allowed to make it.” I am not saying that Bigelow and Boal shouldn’t have the right to make the film they want, I’m saying that I wish they wanted to make a different one, in particular because they’re so goddamn good at it.
And I really don’t even want to do that, because part of my godless liberal agenda is to allow artists to make whatever art they want. And I am generally contemptuous of the pearl-clutching mindset that would hold violent movies or video games to blame for whatever fresh horror some lunatic has found a way to inflict on his fellow men. I don’t believe that is true, or that depiction of horrible or disgusting acts amounts to endorsing them. I’m not worried about a rash of kids waterboarding their little brothers in the backyard, nor am I particularly worried about anyone who opposed torture being persuaded by the movie to switch their position. Hell, I don’t even think “torture works!” is the primary theme of the movie, which tries pretty hard at not having a discernible opinion about it.
But one thing that always feels a little off with me is that when us fans of dark and violent entertainments sneer at the pearl-clutchers, we’re can be so quick to dismiss their position as silly that we end up denigrating the artform we love. In our eagerness to distance our beloved slaughterfests from the actual slaughter of an Aurora or Newton, we end up in essence saying “they’re just movies! They don’t actually matter!”
Which is ridiculous. I don’t think movies implant violent urges in otherwise peaceful people, but if they are really incapable of impacting people in a significant way, then why do we spend so much time watching and analyzing them? Boring friends, family and strangers at bars with exhaustive diatribes about what a shitty script Prometheus has or how Jackie Brown is actually Tarantino’s strongest film despite being his only flop? Spend our free time writing 4000 word essays about them on websites that take their name from schlocky horror flicks?
We wouldn’t, if we really believed that. But we don’t. We know movies matter. Maybe not on the level that stuff like genocide, climate change, your mother’s love or a double shot of tar heroin on a cold Christmas morning matter, but we care about movies because they affect us powerfully. And if something can affect us positively, it also has the ability to affect us negatively. It has to.
But the question is really about how movies influence us. As I said before, I don’t think they inspire acts of violence, and I don’t think that most movies that set out to sway people’s opinion on a specific subject really have much of an impact. “Message” movies don’t change many minds, imo, not that ZDT is a message movie. No, I think that movies influence the public consciousness most powerfully not by way of the conclusions the story draws at the end, but in terms of what they take for granted while getting us there.
Let me give you a couple for instance-s. To use a very specific example, I don’t think a ton of people are walking around fully accepting the conspiracy theory that JFK puts forward as the real truth of the assassination. But I do think a lot of people have a totally warped view of who Jim Garrison was due to Costner’s portrayal. To use a very general example, I think movies have been very influential in making overt racism more and more socially unacceptable over the years. But I don’t think that is because so many racists saw Driving Miss Daisy or Crash and walked out thinking “man, that’s it, I’ve got to cut back on all this racisting.” Don’t get me wrong, maybe movies like that did lead some people to examine their prejudices to some degree, and that’s great. But I think that ultimately it wasn’t movies that set out specifically to end racism that succeeded in shifting the Overton Window, so much as a hundred other comedies and action movies and whatever that started using racism as a casual shorthand for establishing villains and assholes. Those less ambitious flicks normalized the idea that racism = bad in a way that didn’t really brook argument, because the movies weren’t trying to build up to that point, they simply took it as a given and never stopped to let you think about whether to accept or reject it.
Which, I worry, is what ZDT will do for torture. Again, I don’t think it’s going to change the mind of anyone who already agreed with me, but there is a very large portion of the population that is not enthusiastically pro-torture, but is sort of okay with it as long as they don’t have to hear about it too much. A high profile movie reinforcing the idea that these practices get major results is only going to make it easier for those people to quietly tolerate it, even if it never comes out and tells us that torture is great. In fact, it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t tell us anything about these highly charged real life scenarios.
But the most basic maxim of moviemaking, after all, is “show, don’t tell.” And not for nothing; commentary of any sort raises our mental guard. When a movie tells us something, we can choose to reject it. But what they show us has a way of slipping past our defenses and influencing us in subtle, surprising ways.
WHAT SHOULD THEY HAVE DONE INSTEAD?
Complicating this issue further is that I have no idea how Bigelow and Boal, were they interested in catering to my personal political views (while obviously having no obligation to do so), could’ve addressed these issues while making essentially the same movie. Because I take them at their word that they do not personally support torture, and that their goal was to tell this story as truthfully and objectively as possible. They didn’t set out to make an apologia for enhanced interrogation techniques as a valid weapon in the War on Terror. They actually wrote an entire script before anyone knew what Seal Team Six was. They were about to start production under the title Tora Bora, with the climax being the failure to capture Bin Laden in the titular valley a decade earlier, when Obama came on TV to tell us that we got him.
And I don’t know what the hell you do with your movie at that point. Sticking with the original version isn’t an option. Grafting a different finale on a movie that was initially about the failure of these tactics completely changes the thrust of the entire piece, and brings up all the issues I’ve been going over. Scrapping it and coming at it entirely from a new direction goes against your stated purpose of telling a true story as objectively as possible. It would be admitting that no matter how conscientious you are about getting the facts right, you’re still manipulating the audience’s response to them by how you present them, how you choose what to focus on and ignore or omit. That’s a thorny issue even for documentarians who have to edit entirely unmanipulated footage into a coherent narrative. But these two especially seem intent on making highly realistic movies about hot button political topics while retaining a staunchly apolitical pose. It is just a pose, however; I don’t think you can engage meaningfully with such charged political issues without taking some sort of stance on them.
But it is important to note, I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty in its final form is factually inaccurate or even dishonest. It’s probably much more accurate than most movies sporting the “based on a true story” label are, and as it applies to the issue I’m focused on, it does have the broad strokes correct. There was a program of systematic torture in place within the intelligence community for several years, and eventually that intelligence community was successful in finding and killing Bin Laden. That does not justify it; certainly not morally, but even in terms of efficacy. It took over a decade to produce that result, after all. Maybe the leads that led to the Abottabad compound would never have been uncovered at all without torture. Maybe we could’ve produced the same information with a cleaner interrogation program, but it would’ve been slower coming. Maybe it would’ve been faster. Maybe it would’ve been faster and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t have burned as hot and long as they did. We can’t know any of it for sure, because history only happened one way, and what it tells us is that abusing detainees didn’t stop us from (eventually) getting to him.
The distinction between correlation and causation is something we can debate in the real world. There is simply not room to parse out that distinction in a narrative film depicting these events, however, because as I went over before, that structure is built on basic, powerful assumptions of cause and effect. The type of assumptions that bypass our conscious critical faculties and appeal to our innate need to impose order and linearity to the mess of information we process every minute of every day. That need has served us well as a species, as constantly looking for the cause to every effect has figuratively rocketed us to the top of the food chain, literally rocketed us to the moon, and made cheaper, more potent tar heroin available on cold Christmas mornings.
That need to make sense of things is also the basis for storytelling, and the unspoken pact between the teller and the audience. What makes something a “story” is that it is what happens to the characters (be they real or fictional), but stripped down to the parts that matter. This goes as much for surrealists like David Lynch as for naturalists like Bigelow. As allergic as the former can be to linearity in his narratives, every shot in his movies is chosen for a purpose, because he believes it has some relevance to the whole. And of course ZDT is not a surrealist piece. It’s a straightforward, focused story, and if we are not to understand that the torture led to Bin Laden, then why exactly does it take up so much of the movie?
So in the end, we’re left with a movie that reinforces the dominate narrative of the torture debate, that it might be messy but damn it, it works. Which is a message that I find to be genuinely harmful to our society. So I wish it hadn’t been made. But I would never want to stop it from being made. I don’t want to hate it, but I can’t make myself like it. And round and round it goes.
That’s not much of a conclusion, though, so I’ll end by saying this to anyone who loves the movie and thinks I’m an idiot for worrying about this stuff: defend the movie, call me stupid, call my politics dangerously naive, tell me none of my opinions matter because I have no right to tell the filmmakers how to make their art. Just don’t tell me that ZDT doesn’t have a stance on torture. And definitely don’t tell me “it’s only a movie.” Because a movie, that’s a hell of a thing.
TL; DR version:
Great fucking movie. But kinda awful too.