Zero Dark Thirty and Torture Debate Rages Onward
The critics have come out in force protecting Kathryn Bigelow and the best reviewed film of the year and critics award winner, Zero Dark Thirty, from accusations that it apologizes for and/or condones torture as one of the methods in truth seeking. Glenn Kenny has written an eloquent defense of the film as art rather than history, (“I see it entirely as a fiction”), and a chorus of defenses have followed. Kenneth Turan at the LA Times and Manohla Dargis have both included paragraphs in their reviews that address the torture depicted in the film. But to me, the defense of Bigelow is a little irritating. First, she can defend herself, and second – are they defending their reviews or Bigelow’s film? Is it a matter of most critics being left-leaning? Or is it that they’re afraid the worm will turn and Zero Dark Thirty will be appreciated less BY liberals because of it? A similar strain haunted The Hurt Locker, as liberals called it pro-war and conservatives called it anti-war. But it, like Zero Dark Thirty, stripped away the bullshit and told the truth. Perhaps, with Zero Dark Thirty, it isn’t as palatable, but it is a truth nonetheless. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal told the truth from what they gathered from sources in the military and in the CIA. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman is really only the first critic I’ve read so far that wants to deal less with a defense of Bigelow and more with the reality of the film and the history; after all, why the need to deny what is plainly obvious on screen? People are going to see the movie so they will see for themselves. Gleiberman does not seek to fulfill an agenda but rather, looks carefully at the film and what exactly happens with the torture scenes. You’ll want to read the full piece but the money shot:
If Zero Dark Thirty was a movie that really had demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that torture doesn’t work (and Kathryn Bigelow is now such a virtuoso filmmaker that I have no doubt she could have made that point indelibly if she’d wanted to), it might have been a seamless celebration of true-life spy-game detective know-how. But the picture is rougher, grittier, and more dangerous than that. It shows us how, in the post-9/11 world, even CIA officers operating in their protective bunkers can get blown away by a suicide bomber. And one of the quietly subversive ways that it re-imagines what a contemporary movie heroine can be lies in Maya’s own reaction to witnessing torture. When she first arrives from Washington, she’s dewy and tentative, and we suspect that she’ll be repelled by it. But she’s not. She’s stoically accepting. She combs through grainy videotapes of prisoners who’ve been tortured, searching for clues anywhere she can — and, on several occasions, finding them. To me, that makes Zero Dark Thirty not an apology for torture so much as a powerful acknowledgement that we might never have found and killed Osama bin Laden without the willingness to enter the fog of war.