All My Little Words

Zero Dark Thirty – Tortured Logic

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Politics, Rage by nickchristian on February 19, 2013

After a couple of aborted attempts I finally managed to see Kathyn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty at the weekend. While perhaps not quite the equal of its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Hurt Locker, it’s nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema, deftly depicting an extremely complicated chronology of the real life events which culminated in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

One of the things I love most about Bigelow’s films – certainly these last two – is the way she presents location as a catalyst of tension: taking the focus off character scenes are frequently preluded with gloriously wide shots of the mountainous Khyber or tighter, lingering glances through a bustling Pakistani market; several seconds longer than others might dare and accompanied only by a natural background bustle. It’s not that something will happen, but that anything could; when the audience is so familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story this is quite a feat.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative at the centre of the hunt for America’s most wanted, is extremely plausible – certainly more so than Homeland’s Carrie, supposedly based on the same individual – as she doggedly, and arguably coldly, pursues her quarry. While her superiors might challenge Bin Laden’s strategic significance to the war on terror, Maya goes hard not home and it comes as no surprise when she get what she wants.

Nevertheless, as impressively as Bigelow presents the “where” and the “who”, this is a film driven by the “how”, and it is this “how” that has provoked the shitstorm of controversy. Amongst them Glenn Greenwald has said that Zero Dark Thirty “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” while philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that the film depicts the “normalization” of such methods, analogous with their endorsement. There are numerous others out there like them but these two seem to me to represent the main schools of objection to the film. Falling very much within my wheelhouse, having seen the film – unlike Greenwald before he had his say – I can’t help but engage with the critique.

In my view Zero Dark Thirty does:

Suggest that torture can elicit truthful information that sometimes amounts to useful intelligence.

At the same time however, the film does not:

Depict torture in a morally neutral way.

The first of these forms the basis for Greenwald’s objections. Unfortunately, as difficult and distasteful as it might be for many of its opponents to acknowledge, subjecting someone to torture in order to get them to reveal useful information will – sometimes – do just that. Reduce someone to a powerless, helpless, subhuman state and there’s a fair chance that, if they know something, they’ll give it up.

Sometimes they won’t, of course.

Sometimes, even if they don’t have what’s being demanded of them, they’ll likely want to say something – anything – that might make the pain stop. It might be a lie, deliberately delivered to mislead and misdirect, to waste time for and to buy it. It also might be the truth, but not a new truth as far as the intelligence agents are concerned, rather something that they’ve already picked up, or could pick up, somewhere, or from someone, else, in some other way. Because there is always some other way.

Some other way might require more patience, more energy, more money or more luck but it will not require that someone, as Žižek correctly characterizes it, “forsake his or her soul”. But what Žižek seems to conclude is that either no soul is shown to be sacrificed in the making of this movie or that only one is and that’s okay, because she gets her man in the end.

The truth is torture cannot be depicted in a neutral way and if it is, then what’s being depicted isn’t torture at all. Thankfully the interrogation scenes are brutal as they ought to be: no shot conceals; no cut is premature; every close-up is agony. We are also told nothing of who this man is or what he might have done to find himself in a CIA black site and see him only as helpless, hopeless, and terrified. The worst of the worst? Hardly.

For further evidence of the immoral weight of torture remember that the New York Times for a long while avoided using the term entirely, opting instead for such grim Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced” or “intense” interrogation. Yet Mark Boal’s script twice reaches for the correct term – one instance of which sits atop this post – and does so pointedly enough to tell us what the film’s authors think about it. Make no bones about it, Slavoj, there’s nothing “normal” going on here.

Greenwald’s fear is that by showing torture as even loosely effective, Kathryn Bigelow serves to justify its practical utility. What he and Žižek both seem to forget is that morality is far more robust than that: if they allow the debate to become about the extent to which torture works – implying that it can be justified or supported if it works 100% of the time or a majority, or occasionally – then it’s the left that has made the moral concession, not the right. Just as murder is murder, torture is torture and Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film.

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