Friday, March 29, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty, Torture, Etc.

I've followed the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture, but only cursorily.

Some people think the film glorifies torture or credits it for the killing of Osama bin Laden (for some people, the film credits it too much, for others crediting it at all would be too much).

Some people think the film's depiction of torture doesn't credit it (or credit it too much), or that its presentation of torture is dispassionate or journalistic.

After finally watching the film the other day, I'm with the latter crowd. Here's why:

  • As best we can tell, the US has used torture in the "war on terror." For a film on this subject to leave that out would just be silly and unrealistic. I don't agree that the film is "journalistic," as the filmmakers call it (more on that below), but it does try to be believable. They couldn't accomplish that by having the US interrogators give the detainees ponies. Some very bad things happened, and the film had to portray them happening.
  • Since the film has to depict torture, it should do so realistically. I am not an expert on torture, but it seemed realistic to me (and the point of film as entertainment is to seem realistic to the viewer -- experts on torture are a very small percentage of the audience, and that's a good thing). It doesn't treat waterboarding, locking people in small boxes, etc. romantically at all. Neither does it go the other way. The treatment is very flat and naturalistic. "This is happening, no comment on whether it's good or not." The main torturer informs the detainee "I am not a good guy," and proceeds to prove it. So far as I can tell, the film leaves the question of whether or not he should have done so to the viewer.
  • If Kathryn Bigelow had wanted to glorify torture or give it undue credit for producing information, she wouldn't have done it this way. The key early break in the case comes not from torture per se, but from convincing a previously tortured detainee that he had already given up important information after sleep deprivation, so why not eat a good meal, smoke some cigarettes, and have a leisurely chat with his captors?
I'm just not seeing the controversy here. It seems to me that if you have a problem with the way Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture, you'd probably have a problem with any film attempting to tell the story in question. Torture is just the low-hanging fruit to complain about.

Now, as to the film itself: I won't say I enjoyed it -- I don't see how anyone could enjoy the topic -- but I couldn't stop watching it and I don't feel like my time was wasted. I'm not sure I believe it in detail, but I think it was a genuine effort to tell a story as truly as the filmmakers could.

Is the film "journalistic?" No. Not because Bigelow didn't want it to be, but because it's impossible for it to be. Many of the details of the operation are still secret, and those which aren't secret have no doubt been released in such order and in such detail as to reflect as flatteringly as possible upon the US government and to accord with that government's narrative.

That narrative, in its bare bones, is that the US intelligence community tracked down Osama bin Laden and that the Navy SEALs killed him. We have no way of knowing if either of those two foundational factual claims are true. For all we know, bin Laden had been dead for years by the time the government announced his assassination. Or maybe he's even still alive (far less likely, I admit -- I doubt the US government would claim to have assassinated him if they believed he was still out there to dispute the claim).

Bigelow accepted that bare-bones narrative and fleshed it out into story, doing the best she could with what information she could get, no doubt constantly weighing the likelihood that this or that piece of information was good. And in my opinion, she did a fine job of it. It does drag a bit in places and weighs in at a thick 2 1/2 hours. I wish it had been tightened to a flat two hours with a little faster pacing, but I don't know that another director could have made that happen while preserving the quality.

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