Michael Moynihan objects to the recent trend:
While Zero Dark Thirty might not explicitly endorse “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Concerned Internet Brigades complained, the American people aren’t a particularly clever bunch, and it is therefore irresponsible to produce a work of art that doesn’t spell out, in capital letters, that waterboarding is immoral and didn’t reveal the location of bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout.
That wasn’t the objection. The objection was that the film was purporting to be an act of journalism whilst simultaneously twisting facts, justifying doing so under the umbrella of an ‘artistic licence’. Those two values don’t mix well. If your aim is to reflect reality, presenting one’s art in that way whilst fabricating a morally dubious narrative thread is of course going to be controversial. It will mislead those that are not well-read into thinking something happened that didn’t. To say that objection is rendered invalid by the fact that this is a film seems absurd. It’s a film with an intentional connection to life.
I must say, however, that four days later, I’m still struggling to see the deep artistic evil that has been alleged to ooze out of Zero Dark Thirty. I get that insofar as the story is premised on false claims about the role of torture in capturing Bin Laden, it will necessarily be in some sense bad and defective. And this is a huge criticism. ‘Truth to life’ in these type of films is an essential aesthetic value. And it will aid what many take to be a bad argument for torture.
But what I was expecting and didn’t see was the sort of jingoistic tone and shots of celebratory flag-waving that could have been included. The depiction was far more composed and authentic, in that respect. Trying to arouse the sentiments in that way would surely have helped the charge that the film is tantamount to government hagiography or propaganda, even if the quieter journalistic pretence is still condemnable and harmful.
What does dwell on the mind, though, is the depiction of Maya. She’s the leading character, the film ends with the camera on her face and we’re left contemplating her journey, job and success. There’s a hint of glorification here. And insofar as Maya is involved in torture scenes that help her quest, the film suggests a justification of abhorrent acts predicated once more on falsehoods.
But the film’s big moral plus has been noted by Sullivan:
The first thing I’d say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that’s what we became in our treatment of prisoners.
In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.
Something Steve Coll says is bugging me, though:
Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.
I think this is another plus for the film, albeit an unintentional one. It certainly seems plausible that torture could possibly be effective in helping to extract information that brings people to justice and prevents future harm and deaths. Are the torture absolutists, who apparently want to hear nothing about its potential use in stifling bad consequences, so committed to their purism that no number of saved lives could justify waterboarding? I ask this in a philosophical spirit. In ethics, everything should be on the table. And this does look like an open question to me. If those that are against torture stand by their position irrespective of whether it is effective, why are they so keen to insist that it isn’t effective? I suspect, sadly and perhaps offensively, that part of the answer is that they want to avoid the intellectual challenge of weighing up the possible dilemma. By rewriting history, at least Zero Dark Thirty’s fiction urges us to engage in some necessary moral contemplation.
Update: With regards to this last point, an old post on a Hilary Clinton speech about torture springs to mind.