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Regarding the Torture of Others in "Zero Dark Thirty"

[Jessica Chastain in [Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." Photo by Zero Dark Thirty LLC.]

Much of the hype and controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty centers on the issue of torture. The acting director of the CIA as well as three US senators have criticized the film for exaggerating the role of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the search for Osama bin Laden, while commentators have criticized the film for advocating torture, some going so far as to call the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, an “apologist for evil.” Cinematographically, the film has received rave reviews, garnering five academy award nominations, among them best picture and best actress for Jessica Chastain’s depiction of CIA agent Maya. Yet what is at stake when the torture of others—ambiguously true, historical torture—is displayed in the movie theater for the sake of entertainment?

Bigelow has said in interviews that “what we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,’’ and the first line of the film reminds the audience that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” It would have been inaccurate—if not outright immoral—to exclude torture from the plot entirely. Zero Dark Thirty does not take an explicit moral stance, neither celebrating torture nor condemning it. It deals with torture vaguely enough for the audience to find evidence to support whichever ideology they are searching for, to debate whether the film justifies practices like waterboarding for indirectly leading the CIA to bin Laden, or whether it reveals that torture is ultimately ineffective.

Notably, the film’s torture scenes do not produce reliable evidence, resulting in the brutalized detainee refusing to speak or shouting out useless information. It is during a calm lunch afterwards that Maya tricks Ammar, the detainee (played by Reda Kateb), into revealing evidence that ultimately leads the agency to bin Laden—information that, in fact, the agency already had obtained. Whether or not the film exaggerates the role of torture in the CIA’s search for bin Laden, it stops short of declaring that torture, effective or not, is always immoral—the conclusion that those who stand against torture expect.

At the heart of the accusations against the film lie unspoken fears of how it will contribute to public debate on torture in the United States. Part of that equation is whether the film skews the facts, but the second part is emotional—specifically, how the film structures the viewer’s emotional response with regard to torture. Regardless of whether the film justifies torture, watching the torture scenes is undeniably uncomfortable, more intricately so in a film that is “part narrative feature and part documentary” and where the line between fact and fiction is blurred. It is this confusion between fact and fiction that is so disconcerting when it comes to viewer response. As Steve Coll writes, “the filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy.” Viewing relations are complicated in a film that claims to be both art and journalism, both fiction and documentary.

How are we to view images of suffering—particularly in the context of art? This question was posed memorably in 2004, when a collection of Abu Ghraib torture photographs was exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. One reviewer wrote: “As for surviving detainees, how might they feel about being exhibited like this? Elsewhere, their images have become tools of political resistance, but here the detainees are in a sense twice violated, first as objects of the photographers' derision, then as objects of the audience's detached contemplation.” Unlike the photographs, Zero Dark Thirty is not a record of actual torture, but because it claims to be journalistic representation, it is tantamount to torture reenactment, not simply torture depiction.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that “Certain photographs—emblems of suffering…can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one's sense of reality….But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them.” Just as she believes it is exploitative to look at photographs of other people's pain in an art gallery, if we consider Zero Dark Thirty to be documentary, it is equally exploitative to watch other people’s torture in the movie theater.

Luc Boltanski would argue that the ethics of the situation change when suffering is brought into an artistic register. He addresses the dilemma facing spectators of atrocities in Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics, asking what might be morally acceptable responses to the sight of suffering in the media. A “politics of pity” relegates the spectator to actionless observation; in a “politics of justice,” the viewer seeks justification for suffering, but there is a third possibility in “the aesthetic topic.” Boltanski argues that it is only through an artistic intermediary, such as a painter or a filmmaker, that the viewer of suffering is able to view suffering justly: “This process, and only this process, saves suffering from insignificance.” The aesthetic process is in the end one of legitimation: “by revealing its horror and thereby revealing its truth, [the artist] confers on this suffering the only form of dignity to which to which it can lay claim.”  

Finding an appropriate response to torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty is complicated because the film blurs fact and fiction. Should the viewer respond to it as documentary, or as art? As Sontag and Boltanski show, appropriate responses to each are markedly different. The audience watches Ammar stripped naked, suspended by ropes, waterboarded, sexually humiliated, stuffed into a small wooden box, and led around the room in a dog collar, all while reclining in theater seats and grazing on popcorn. Is this entertainment? Or is the audience bearing witness to the atrocities committed in the name of national security? 

Ultimately, the amount of torture the film presents is not what matters, but rather the context in which it is presented. After all, if Bigelow had exaggerated the amount of torture used in the search for bin Laden to make an argument for its immorality, along the lines of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, we would hardly be hearing the same outcry from critics and commentators. If the audience is looking for compassion, regret, or condemnation of torture that the United States has committed against individuals in the detainee program, they won’t find it in Zero Dark Thirty. Maya’s character steels herself as she watches Ammar being tortured, and when he pleads with her for help, she tells him coldly “You can help yourself by telling the truth.” As Frank Bruni notes, the torture sequences are set up as “payback,” immediately following a chilling audio reenactment of Americans trapped in the burning World Trade Center, in the last moments of their lives. Dana Stevens writes that the film’s depiction of the raid on bin Laden’s house in the last half hour of the film is tantamount to “a collective revenge fantasy” for American audiences. It is these elements of the film, more so than any exaggeration of the amount of torture used, which shape audience understanding and, ultimately, public sensibilities about torture.

If Zero Dark Thirty were a documentary, the audience could feel they were bearing witness to the injustice of torture; if it were a pure fiction, they could confer a sense of dignity to the suffering of those in the detainee program. But in a film that blurs fact with fiction, the audience is unable to adopt either of these positions, and is left applying emotional responses based on art to what they may perceive as documentary—and this is what is most uncomfortable about the film. Objections that the film comes “too soon” after bin Laden’s death—just nineteen months—are cognizant of the fact that entertainment can and does shape public opinion. Nowhere is this more clearly shown that in the research of Amy Zegart, intelligence and national security scholar at Stanford University, who has attributed the significant rise in public support for torture during the last several years in part to the influence of spy-themed entertainment. “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the boundary between fake spies and the real world is blurring in some disconcerting ways.” This is precisely why it is so important to actively and closely question films like Zero Dark Thirty—not necessarily for how closely they come to the truth, but for the ways in which they affect public opinion and change commonsense attitudes about grave moral issues like torture.

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