Edelstein on Bigelow’s Defense of Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture

Jason Clarke peers in on a prisoner in Zero Dark Thirty Photo: Jonathan Olley

It seems so long ago that I watched a very early screening of Zero Dark Thirty and chose, after much soul-searching, to dub it the year’s best film in my review — while also querying the accuracy (and morality) of its narrative, in which torture generates intelligence that leads, down the road, to Osama bin Laden’s courier and then Bin Laden himself.

Since then, numerous journalists, politicians, and intelligence experts have weighed in either to denounce or defend the movie, many without having seen it. Among the most credible critics are Manhunt author Peter Bergen, who was a consultant on the film (he gave advice on an early cut); director Alex Gibney, who made the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side; and Senator Diane Feinstein, who claims to have seen the relevant transcripts of CIA interrogations and found nothing to support the movie’s version of events. On the other side, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden (who also wrote The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden) penned an article for the Atlantic in which he vouches for the film’s accuracy. He also disputes the charge that ZDT has a fascist aesthetic, largely on the grounds that Bigelow is, by all reports, a nice person.

My sense is that she is a nice person. And I sympathize with her bewilderment at some of the criticisms, including my own. Because she and Boal face a possible subpoena (some in Congress want to know their CIA sources), they have limited themselves to generalities, but they did break their near silence at the January 7 New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner. “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement,” Bigelow proclaimed when accepting the prize for Best Director. “And if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices. No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”

Fine words, those: Depiction is not endorsement. To which I respond, “Yes — and no.”

It depends on the context, doesn’t it? The torture in Zero Dark Thirty does not take place in a vacuum. For the umpteenth time, it is only through waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc. (as well as a bit of trickery made possible by torture), that the CIA operatives learn of Bin Laden’s courier’s existence — the first mention of the name underscored with portentous low strings to suggest the stirrings of something big. There are still two hours to go in Zero Dark Thirty, but it all leads from that moment.

I’ve read that the CIA knew about the courier before that particular interrogation even took place. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But in terms of the movie’s narrative, there’s no ambiguity here, folks. None whatsoever. “Enhanced interrogation” got results.

And the filmmakers present President Obama only from their characters’ point of view. He’s not the executive who made the hunt for Bin Laden a priority once more, after George W. Bush said he no longer gave much thought to the man. He’s the guy who shut down the black sites where much of the valuable intel was being gathered. Omitted, of course, are the many CIA employees who vigorously argued against torture on the grounds that it didn’t work. Omitted are any depictions of the maimed, the dead — or the innocent.

What’s that, you say? Bigelow makes the torture horrible, sickening, soul-killing? No argument. But that’s not inconsistent with the view of torture’s strongest proponent in the last executive branch. Darth Vader himself, Dick Cheney, didn’t say the coming conflict with al Qaeda would be rockets-red-glare-bombs-bursting-in-air stuff. He said that to win, we would have “to go to the dark side.” It’s no libel on the filmmakers to say that Zero Dark Thirty is a Cheney-ite movie.

But are Bigelow and Boal true Cheney-ites, neocons? I’d be surprised if they voted for Bush. It’s quite possible that while working quickly to assemble Zero Dark Thirty, they didn’t fully understand the message they were sending. It’s even possible — as Dan Froomkin suggests — that they simply made a traditional Hollywood narrative choice: The film’s grueling first act needed a good pay-off, and having Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) use torture as a means of tricking a captured terrorist into revealing the existence of the courier is a damn good one.

That said, I’m nagged by Bigelow’s declaration that “depiction is not endorsement.” Among other things, it raises all kinds of difficult questions about the portrayal of violence in works of art. Bigelow’s armed-robber surfers in Point Break are not quite existential heroes, but they’re almost existential heroes. Their brutal-gonzo bank robberies in masks of U.S. presidents give us a charge that carries over into scenes in which they thrillingly take on the big waves. Bad guy Patrick Swayze nearly seduces straight-laced Keanu Reeves — and is the more charismatic character by a wide margin. In cinema, the adrenaline rush can overwhelm our squeamish objections to violence. That’s what makes the medium so dangerous. All of which is to say that Bigelow doesn’t just depict the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. She puts it into our bloodstream.

There’s another relevant question raised by movies like Zero Dark Thirty, that old ends-versus-means conundrum. Right-wingers who decry Hollywood’s liberal bias clearly haven’t given much thought to America’s most successful cultural export: the vigilante-revenge film, in which payback might take you to the dark side, but what is the alternative? Watching the torture in Zero Dark Thirty, we might well be disturbed, dismayed, disgusted, etc. But the movie says that if it hadn’t gone down like that, we wouldn’t have gotten Bin Laden, which would be worse than disturbing. It would be emasculating — and, for an American audience, intolerable.

NB: I’ve been invited to discuss all this with a panel of astonishingly heavy hitters — Karen Greenberg, Ali Soufan, Alex Gibney, and Jane Mayer — at Fordham Law School (at Lincoln Center) on January 24 at 7 p.m. I know, I know: I’m the incongruous one. But someone has to be able to talk about surfing movies.

And now, as the movie finally opens today in wide release, I refer those who are just now able to see it to my original review.

Edelstein on Zero Dark Thirty’s Controversy