Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On The Subject Of Torture And "Zero Dark Thirty"

There's a certain delicacy to the topic addressed not only by Kathryn Bigelow's bracing new film "Zero Dark Thirty" but also the debate surrounding the film's use of torture and mistruths in weaving the story of Osama Bin Laden's capture. You can come at this topic(s) from several perspectives, and for the sake of fairness, I will attempt all of them.

Mind you, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a film made by millionaires that will see a wide release in theaters and win several awards from critics and organizations discerning or otherwise.

Fairness is a concept that remains malleable in this context.
And now, an attempt to engage with the facts of this situation.

Kathryn Bigelow Is Not A ‘Nuanced’ Filmmaker

I'm personally a fan of Bigelow's pictures, as if that matters, but I also think they're culturally and socially relevant. I also think "Zero Dark Thirty" is her finest work, worthy of close observation and debate. And, like her best films (particularly genre fare like "Point Break" and "Near Dark"), there's a certain brute honesty to her craft.

The problem with our worst filmmakers who produce thoughtless, irresponsible work is the lack of aesthetic that produces films of non-specific spectacle. Bigelow's pictures, which reveal their strengths through force-of-will, show power through the details, the termite art behind paper-thin narratives like the bank robberies in "Point Break" and the sexually-poisonous future-shock of "Strange Days." Hers is the cinema of Anthony Kiedis' cheap sneakers hitting the pavement in "Point Break," or the uneasy sneer of Ron Silver in "Blue Steel," or even the exaggerated hell of suburban life in "The Hurt Locker." The easy way out is that she is a "genre" filmmaker. The complex truth is that she is a master of perception, of point of view, and of storytelling, but not of morality.

There is More Value In Insight Than There Is In Moral Responsibility

"Moral responsibility," such as the non-torture viewpoint (of which I subscribe to) is a personal attribute. It's necessary to understand that it is also a judgment call, a dead end where viewers can find no added awareness. PERSONALLY, I would appreciate that all viewers who paid money to see "Zero Dark Thirty" did subscribe to that theory that torture is inhuman and inefficient (which is not the only subject involved in this debate), and if not, that after the film, they did. That has nothing to do with a discussion of the film, but Kathryn Bigelow isn't making the film for me. Clearly I'm not handsome enough.

So Kathryn Bigelow has a right to make a pro-torture film. She does not owe the national discourse a political opinion, nor does financier Megan Ellison or distributor Sony. As successful as "Zero Dark Thirty" might become, it is a big fish in a small pond. And this is because, sadly...

The Public Is Largely In Support Of The Industrial Military Complex
What to make of Times Square, a veritable port for wayward tourists, spotlighting several recent ads for the "Call Of Duty" videogames? I could have researched this further, but upon seeing one of the "CoD" games (the sinister-sounding "Black Ops") generated $1 billion in sales in only two months, I would assume this franchise and its latest installment are landing in a few households. Naturally, this puts the $80 million worldwide take of this spring's forgotten "Act Of Valor" to shame.

The latest game actually has ads that spotlight the use of unmanned drones to do "the dirty work" as a selling point. Never mind the fact that this is a hot button topic amongst some, regarding the use of these weapons and the resulting collateral damage that has occurred, not to mention the moral issues of sending robots called Predators into unconfirmed "war zones" (and never mind the fact that robots called Predators designed for killing suggest the creators have seen far too many sci-fi films). The sales numbers suggest what we already knew: mass audiences openly support flying death robots descending on small villages to kill what they TRUST are "the bad guys." Moreover, they gladly sponsor the raid that entered Bin Laden's compound and placed a bullet in his defenseless head. The idea of a fair trial is straight farce to them.

So, to re-adjust the narrative, you wonder how much responsibility is being laid out at Ms. Bigelow's (and writer Mark Boal's) feet in regards to shifting the narrative. Some might say it's responsible or irresponsible, but it is undeniable that they are feeding the beast. Any reluctance towards this idea should be checked at the gate. Perhaps next to the billboard advertising the new "Call Of Duty" video game.

For A Reference Point, The Movie At Hand

On paper, there is zero suspense to the story of Osama Bin Laden's murder. We searched for years, found him, executed him, and rid ourselves of the body. For government appointed killers, it was a professional task, pushed through with expedience, and a lack of judgment: by the powers that be, Osama Bin Laden had to be killed. Calling it a "procedural," as many critics have, is shorthand for "We have accepted the basic immorality of this premise as commonplace in American film and society as a whole." Dumb. Accurate.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opens with one of several scenes set at an unspecified CIA "black site" where a weary agent (Jason Clarke, creepily believable) tortures a suspect, cruelly forcing him into a small box, and later using brute force. He ends up being the entry point for poker-faced Maya (Jessica Chastain), herself something of a killer robot. Aside from the difficulty in participating in such cruel acts against another human being, she has no moral issue with the mistreatment of only potentially-guilty suspects. She also appears to have no family, and her only casual friend within the Agency dies during a suicide bombing (not long after Maya scoffs at her friendly inquisitions about a potential love life).

The character gains further purpose simply by being denied Bin Laden, whom she believes will be the biggest possible success thus far in the battle against terrorism. Critics, positive or otherwise, have called her crusade “heroic” and “brave,” which is placing labels where it seems as if they do not belong. To the weary agent played by Mr. Clarke, and to Maya, this is a job, presented via Bigelow’s clear-cut cause/effect storytelling. The first moments of the film feature the isolated audio of the September 11th tragedies over a black background. The first scene following this is an isolated black site, where a terrorist suspect is interrogated. There’s no judgment implicit: something happened, and the rest of the film is the reaction by the human bullets put out onto the field, trained to do one job only. In the final moments of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Maya confirms the body, then sits and quietly stares off into the distance, a tear of exhaustion falling from her eye. But her eyes are blank, emotionless, borderline absent. It’s not a rah-rah moment, as much as certain audiences will want to pump their fists. Maya, in essence, is almost like an unmanned drone herself: this is where she powers down.

The Issue Regarding “Facts”

The movie very explicitly states that “enhanced interrogation techniques” aided in the knowledge that led to Osama Bin Laden’s courier. Ms. Bigelow has claimed that she took a “journalistic” approach towards the material while also playing fast and loose with the facts (ill-advised contradictions she should have avoided). But this piece of information was apparently “vetted” by a CIA lackey so in-the-tank for “enhanced interrogation techniques” that he’s been ostracized by colleagues even as he currently pens a pro-torture book. As such, the CIA cooperation received by this production was compromised, according to… the CIA.

So yes, it does appear as if there aren’t many ways to figure out “the truth.” Did torture play a part in locating Osama Bin Laden? The CIA says no, and major voices, from the likes of Senator John McCain, claim that the CIA do not use these, ahem, coercive measures to gain key tactical insight. Writer Mark Boal, like Bigelow, has sounded somewhat like an idiot during the press campaign for this film, but he makes an interesting semantic point, noting that one of the suspects divulges information not during a torture session, but while sitting and eating lunch with interrogators. Boal thinks this to be a defense against those who claim the character is giving information in response to EIT, which is ludicrous given that the character explicitly says he is revealing what he knows to avoid further torture.

Inadvertently, he’s revealing the convenient hole in the logic used by politicians like McCain, a former POW who briefly endorsed EIT in an effort to detain terrorists. Which is, in essence, where this whole situation becomes farce in the first place. Senators like McCain are placing the burden of truth on Bigelow and Boal, instead of the CIA itself, who openly collaborated with the filmmakers in making the film. Of course, the torture issue obscures the thornier, more unsettled issue of the black sites where torture occurs. Guantanamo Bay has yet to close, somehow, while worldwide, the CIA continues to operate unspecified black sites to illegally detain citizens.

A large chunk of this film takes place at these locations. Does anyone want to tackle the fact that we should not be operating these black sites and holding these “enemy combatants” without a conviction or trial? Torture in films is going to be a mainstay, now and forever -- black sites are something we rarely see and, like unmanned drones, represent a topic that few in the mainstream media want to question.

And when they do, they may be speaking to the wrong people: a scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” finds agents casually watching President Obama interviewed on “60 Minutes,” where he disclosed that America did not torture, contrary to… reality, I suppose. The characters are silent when he says this, and a great deal has been read into this silence by commentators. By the manner in which Maya turns away should be most significant. This President, leader of the free world, doesn’t factor in her universe. Her job has little to do with elected officials, television programs, or idealistic mantras. When one agent fumblingly quotes Donald Rumsfeld and is shouted down by another, it’s proof that these people operate in a world where morals are not of anyone’s concern. The reality of “should” is not a part of their job description, and the voices in power have almost nothing to do with their actions.

The Role Of The Viewer

The issue is representation versus lionization -- as was once said, paraphrased, one cannot make an anti-war film. The implication of that train of thought implies that the camera immediately sensationalizes, though I disagree, and I feel it has more negative connotations: That thought process instead reflects the base mentality of filmgoers, who have inherent biases depending on their generation, and who will not see their views challenged by a film even if its main intent is to upset the status quo. People seek validation for their opinions, not opposition.

So yes, people will walk out of “Zero Dark Thirty” endorsing torture as a means to “get the bad guy.” They will accept the existence of black sites as a necessary tool to win the “war” and, in some parts of the country, that third act will feature cheering sections amongst the crowd. But living in the information age, it is their civic responsibility to take something home from the film. “Zero Dark Thirty” deals with a crucial moment in American history, one where much of the actual information is clouded in secrecy (as the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” learned). To let the film do the heavy lifting for you is intellectually dishonest, as much as some would prefer it.

Ideally, audiences will see a film and use their two hour experience to build upon (or even create a base for) a certain type of knowledge. “Zero Dark Thirty” will only be the beginning of the thirst for knowledge. And ideally that thirst for knowledge would be quenched by a government who can be free and clear with the details. At that point, we can have a debate about ethics.

And perhaps one day, that audience member will see fit to tell a more accurate version of the story of how we located Bin Laden. Filmmaking is not a democracy: that’s both the good and bad news.


  1. Gabe, you often make morality quite a key part of your reviews. It's clearly a very important aspect of film criticism for you personally. It's one distinctive element of your approach. It seems to me that this article is mainly about giving Kathryn Bigelow a free pass.

    I don't have a problem with inaccuracies in this movie because my approach is to treat it like "Die Hard" i.e. the same approach I had to "The Hurt Locker". A lot of criticism of "The Hurt Locker" came from people with some experience of military service (and not just US military service). My excuse of the time was that "The Hurt Locker" was about as representative of the military as "Die Hard" was representative of law enforcement. They are both, at their heart, action films.

    I've never liked "Point Break" and I was rather underwhelmed by "Near Dark". I'm not expecting a masterpiece in "Zero Dark Thirty" either. I am realistic enough to recognise that Bigelow is offering us a gung-ho pro-US-foreign-policy representation of the hunt for Bin Laden and that I should expect to be impressed more with the action than I am with the political nuance.

    I'm not sure you've convinced me that you can still worry about morality in your various reviews and yet let "Zero Dark Thirty" off the hook. I know you are a fan of the director, but that doesn't mean she gets a free pass.

  2. Well, again, it's a complex situation, and I'm not very sure that I've made peace with my feelings on the film. But it's exactly what you say when you mention "gung-ho pro-US-foreign-policy" -- that's not that film at all. But it's a film with handsome and beautiful people with guns who are American, catching America's number one enemy... is it forever destined to be "gung-ho" and "pro-US" in principle?

    I feel as if, beyond everything, this is an ugly movie. It's just an issue as to whether you can accept ugly as artistic justification. I think it makes perfect sense if someone can't.

  3. Well clearly the most important decision makers in these situations may not actually carry a gun at all. What's more there are many people who are affected by their decisions who are not American. But exploring those elements is always going to be difficult and isn't necessarily going to make particularly great entertainment.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "ugly as artistic justification". Surely "pretty" and "fast-paced" are more likely to be used as artistic justification? I think if the torture is at least recognised as being "ugly" that's probably the best we can expect from this particular issue as portrayed in this particular movie.

    I suppose I can accept your conclusion in the article to the degree that this is an entertainment film for adults, not an educational film for children. Suggesting that the audience will be morally compromised by watching it feels little different from the mentality behind the video nasties scandal.

    But there's a difference between criticising the film for corrupting the nation and criticising the morality of the film amongst a number of other factors when you review it. If you brushed the torture issue aside in your review of the film, that would be a big problem. Dismissing claims that the moral issues surrounding torture in the film should eclipse everything else is another matter - and I'd probably agree with you on that.