How #ZeroDarkThirty seduces viewers into supporting torture

Days after seeing Zero Dark Thirty I’m still thinking about its normalisation of torture. Rolling Stone’s great writer Matt Taibbi concurs in a stinging piece:

Back to the “enhanced interrogation” in the first scene: conducted by chameleonic Australian actor Jason Clarke’s “Dan” character while Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain’s Maya character looks on, it’s shocking, horrific, disgusting, and it was obviously supposed to be all of those things.

By graphically depicting the sexual humiliation (“You don’t mind if my female colleague sees your junk?” Clarke says, ripping the suspect’s pants down as he hangs by his wrists), the walking around of suspects in dog-collars Lynndie-England-style, the putting of people in boxes, the waterboarding and the flat-out punching in the face (which Maya resorts to later, with help from another interrogator), Bigelow made it clear that she wasn’t making any half-assed Rumsfeldian claim that what went on after 9/11, in thousands of grimy rooms around the world with thousands if not tens of thousands of people, somehow wasn’t torture.

No, Bigelow wrapped her arms all the way around that subject, which makes sense now. She has since been praised, almost excessively, for being brave enough to “tell the truth” about torture in Zero Dark Thirty. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it:

“However unprovable the effectiveness of these interrogations, they did take place. To omit them from “Zero Dark Thirty” would have been a reprehensible act of moral cowardice.”

Here’s my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was “honest,” but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was “honest” about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else.

There’s no way to watch Zero Dark Thirty without seeing it as a movie about how torture helped us catch Osama bin Laden. That’s why I was blown away when I read this morning that Bigelow is now going with a line that “depiction is not endorsement,” that simply showing torture does not amount to publicly approving of it.

If Bigelow really means that, I have a rhetorical question for her: Are audiences not supposed to cheer at the end of the film, when we get bin Laden? They cheered in the theater where I watched it. And is Maya a good character or a bad character? Did she cross some dark line in victory like Michael Corrleone, did she lose her moral self and her humanity chasing her goal like Captain Ahab, or is she just a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (or, hell, John McClane) getting his man in the end?

It seemed to me more the latter than anything else. I barely caught a whiff of a “moral journey/descent” storyline in this film – the closest they came to that was in the first scene, where Maya looks a little grossed out by Clarke’s methods. A few minutes later, though, she’s all street and everything, wearing a hijab and getting some henchman to throw fists at her suspects on command. She went from queasy to hardass in about ten seconds and we didn’t linger on the transformation at all.

Bigelow is such a great storyteller that she has to know, deep inside, that the “depiction is not endorsement” line doesn’t wash. You want audiences gripped to the screen, you’ve gotta give them something to root for, or against. This was definitely not a movie about two vicious and murderous groups of people killing and torturing each other in an endless cycle of increasingly brainless revenge. And this was not a movie about how America lost its values en route to a great strategic victory.

No, this was a straight-up “hero catches bad guys” movie, and the idea that audiences weren’t supposed to identify with Maya the torturer is ludicrous. Are we really to believe that viewers aren’t supposed to be shimmering in anticipation for her at the end, as she paces back and forth with set-fans whooshing back her beautiful red hair, waiting for her copter to come in? They might as well have put a cape and a Wonder Woman costume on her, that’s how subtle that was.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal clearly spent a lot of time with sources in the CIA who were peddling a version of history where the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” program, though distasteful, scored us the big prize in the end.

In Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s agonizing and affecting documentary about EIT called Taxi to the Dark Side, he talks about the phenomenon of “force drift” in torture, when interrogators start using harsher methods when the permitted ones don’t work. Well, in journalism, what happened with Boal and Bigelow is what you might call “access drift” – when you really, really love the drama of the story you’re hearing, you start leaning in the direction of your sources even if the truth doesn’t quite cooperate.

14 comments
  • Kevin Herbert

    Great piece Antony.

    You've nailed it one.

  • http://willybachpoeticthoughts.blogspot.com Willy Bach

    Dear Antony

    I have been away and on my return to Australia I discovered that this horrible propaganda film is actually going to be screened in the territory of the loyal puppy state of Australia. I was mortified. I have been reading avidly what people like Glenn Greenwald have been writing and know already how unhappy I feel about Australians soaking this up. I agree with Max, the “depiction is not endorsement” line doesn’t wash.

    Even Fran Kelly on ABC RN discussed ZD30 as though it was just like any Hollywood film. Now I find that SBS, the same station that screened Taxi to the Dark Side is screening the Israeli series, Prisoners of War, sponsored by ZD30. What a coincidence!

    By following Prisoners of War one gets the impression that it is Israelis (rather than Palestinians) who are being disappeared for long periods and tortured. With a little help from the nice people at SBS, they might even pull off this major deception. I am sure the complaints are flooding in. All the while, the big Hollywood number is playing promos in the ad breaks. Yuk!

    I study conflicts and torture is a part of that, so at some time I may have to watch ZD30 for research purposes. I will chose not to pay and reward the so-called artists. Otherwise, I strongly implore Australians not to endorse this propaganda piece and its odious message.

    Oh, and did anyone notice the War of Terror drop off a cliff after the shameful lynching of the former CIA asset, Osama Bin Laden? No, the war and its attendant abuses of civil liberties have intensified, haven't they.