Walking out of a screening of the compelling and disturbing Zero Dark Thirty a couple of weeks back, two things occurred to me. The first was that I’d just seen my favorite movie of the year and the second was that it was likely going to inspire a great deal of whining and hand-wringing on both the political left and the right. I figured the right would interpret the film’s unflinching, uncompromising and unpleasant look at torture as somehow being critical of the United States and therefore unpatriotic. The left, I assumed meanwhile, would accuse the film of being pro-torture simply because it is not anti-torture. It turns out I was half right and the sad truth is that the only ones to have taken the bait are my fellow liberals exactly along the lines I predicted. The irony is that the very thing that transforms Zero Dark Thirty from being a very good film to being a brilliant one – its unwillingness to take a moral stance on the unfolding events of the hunt for Osama bin Laden as uncomfortable as they may be – is exactly what has led to the moral outcry.

In a negative review of the film in the Christian Science Monitor, critic Peter Rainer complains, “What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story … By showing scenes of torture without taking any kind of moral (as opposed to tactical) stand on what we are seeing, Bigelow has made an amoral movie – which is, I would argue, an unconscionable approach to this material.”

I disagree. Yes, the film is unarguably amoral in that it never tips its hand to tell the audience what to think of the horrors unfolding relentlessly before them, but screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow trust their audience to be properly queasy about what they’re seeing without forcing the point. If you’re not deeply disturbed by what you see in Zero Dark Thirty, there is something wrong with you, not with the film. Zero Dark Thirty is amoral, but that doesn’t make it immoral and Rainer’s outrage is misplaced.

Interestingly, it’s not just people who didn’t like the film who are troubled. Even as he chose Zero Dark Thirty as the number one film of 2012 for Vulture Magazine, David Edelstein opened his positive review of the film calling it “The most neutral-seeming ‘America Fuck Yeah!’ picture ever made.” He goes on to add, “As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic.” Neutral-seeming? Yes, of course, but that doesn’t make it an “America Fuck Yeah!” picture any more than the satire from which that phrase comes (Team America: World Police). A truly fascistic picture would be one that strong arms the audience into a specific point of view. Of course, in this case, what Edelstein means is that the film nearly celebrates fascistic behavior, but this too is wrong-headed. Edelstein says later in the review, “The best theory I’ve heard for the movie’s vantage is that Boal fell in love with his C.I.A. sources and embraced their perspective wholeheartedly.” This is his biggest misread of a film he purports to love. Taking the perspective of the C.I.A. and narrowing the story to that point of view is not “embracing” that perspective. It’s establishing the C.I.A.’s actions as a fact, for better or for worse, and then challenging the audience to decide what to make of it.

What Edelstein and others don’t seem to understand is that the moral quandary they feel is entirely by design. One part of the film that is not explicitly told from the perspective of the film’s hero Maya (the C.I.A. operative wonderfully played by Jessica Chastain) is the pre-title opening sequence consisting of a claustrophobically black screen where all we hear are the panicked voices of the victims of 9/11 calling their loved ones or contacting 911 operators. It’s a disturbing reminder of that day and it instantly recalls our collective horror, sense of violation and yes, eventually, our lust for revenge at any cost. Consumed with that lust, we as a nation mostly turned a blind eye toward a government that systematically stripped its own citizens of rights and committed still-unknown horrors against the citizens of the world in an often ugly decade in which we hunted down the man we held responsible. Has it really been so long that we’ve already forgotten the images of people celebrating in the streets when news came out that our soldiers had found and murdered bin Laden? By showing the questionable torture and the murder itself complete with screaming women and innocent children, Zero Dark Thirty forces you to make a gut check and to ask whether you’re really OK with these things. What’s more, by not wagging its moral finger at the events depicted in the film, we’re not let off the hook for what happened. We don’t get to have the moral high ground by a pointing of fingers and a placement of blame. We too are implicated in the deeply unpleasant and highly morally questionable pursuit of our worst enemy.

Ultimately what’s really bothering the complainers is that they don’t trust the audience to make up its own mind and that Zero Dark Thirty clouds the issue by being exceptionally entertaining. They want a movie that is resolutely anti-torture and Zero Dark Thirty is simply not that movie.  In an op-ed piece for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes the well-documented domestic and international outrage at the C.I.A.’s behavior since 2001 and the controversy around whether torture is even useful. She finds Zero Dark Thirty “falls disturbingly short” by not telling this part of the story. She goes on to say, “Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context.” This is wrong. Bigelow is not milking the drama. To the contrary, with its harrowing depiction of C.I.A. methods, the film is inviting the audience to bring its own moral context.

Where Mayer comes closest to scoring a point is when she says, “The film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.” Thinking about it afterward, I did wonder if the film would’ve benefited from a scene where someone in it questioned whether what they were doing was right or even useful. I’ve since decided that the film’s laser focus on what really happened is more of a benefit than a detriment. Zero Dark Thirty‘s mission is to show you, as best as Boal and Bigelow can determine it, what happened in one of the most important decades in our country’s history. Mayer’s further claim that the movie shows that evidence collected by torture led directly to the eventual capture of bin Laden I’m a little less clear about. I’ve only seen the film once, but my biggest memory about that is that evidence from torture led to a major dead end in the film and not directly to bin Laden. If anything, the source of the ultimate link to bin Laden is much murkier and perhaps not declassified at this point. Indeed, in referring to a piece in the New York Times by Scott Shane, Mayer herself admits that “so little is publicly known about the C.I.A.’s erstwhile interrogation program that it is nearly impossible for outsiders to assess the facts with total confidence.” Exactly. While I don’t believe Zero Dark Thirty is “assessing the facts with total confidence,” I’ll be more comfortable about that when I see the film again.

To my mind, the moral ambiguity that is so bothersome to so many people is exactly what makes Zero Dark Thirty a more powerful film than Bigelow and Boal’s previous triumph The Hurt Locker. The latter film’s message about the excoriating effects of war on the people who fight it was a teeny bit too obvious. By holding its cards much closer to its vest on the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty is a far more challenging and disturbing film. It is designed to encourage debate rather than make a statement. As such, I suppose I should be happy that’s exactly what appears to be happening, whether I agree with the various arguments being made against it or not.

23 Responses to “Taking on critics of the built-in moral ambiguity of Kathryn Bigelow’s remarkable “Zero Dark Thirty””

  1. “Yes, the film is unarguably amoral in that it never tips its hand to tell the audience what to think of the horrors unfolding relentlessly before them, but screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow trust their audience to be properly queasy about what they’re seeing without forcing the point. If you’re not deeply disturbed by what you see in Zero Dark Thirty, there is something wrong with you, not with the film. Zero Dark Thirty is amoral, but that doesn’t make it immoral and Rainer’s outrage is misplaced.”

    Superlative counter-argument here, and what a fabulous commentary! I have not seen the film, presently counting the days until the 19th when this and Haneke’s film will finally be available on screens, but I am most fascinated by this issue and plan to look closely at what you say about the designed moral ambiguity. In this sense I’d say I’d much prefer a film that encourages a debate rather than promulgating a preachy statement. Your trenchant discussion does seem to make this argument more than persuasive.

  2. So if they made an amoral film about the Nazi human experiments and gasing of Jews you would be totally fine with that? Somehow I don’t think so. If Non-Americans are shown torturing in movies it is automatically clearly shown to be immoral. If Americans torture in film then I guess he should leave it morally ambiguous. U.S.A. #1. Rah,Rah,Rah. Go team!

  3. I’d have to see the Nazi film you’re imagining Eva to judge it, but if it was made as Zero Dark Thirty was made, I think there would be value you to it. There are documentaries about the Holocaust that are no less horrifying for the filmmakers trying to keep their opinions to themselves. The main difference here is that ZDT of course is not a documentary. It’s a presentation of facts as best as Boal and Bigelow can determine them, but it’s also – and this is the unnerving part – it’s also entertaining to watch once the torture is done with.

    And it has nothing to do with “USA #1 Rah rah rah” as you put it. The fact is, as an American, I’m appalled by some of the things we’ve done in the name of the war on terror and ZDT is all the more powerful for bringing it to the table and asking viewers to think about it.

    Sam, it’s safe to say that even if you wind up agreeing with my assessment, there is still room not to like the movie. Becuase it emphasizes process over character (much as Lincoln does, but maybe more so), it can seem like a could film.

  4. Eva has a point, one of my primary grudges of American cinema is its repeated insistence that the Nazis campaign of torture, sadism, humiliation, and basically beyond-debate immorality is, somehow, a violation of human existence.

  5. I haven’t seen the film so I can’t speak to the crux of your argument that the interpretation of the scenes is skewed or invalid. But the criticism I’ve read is based on the idea that torture yielded ANY actionable intel on Bin Laden. It’s been said over and over and over again that the Bush/Cheney doctrine of torture utterly failed to get Bin Laden, and that it was mainly a mix of dogged determination, exceptional analytical work, and luck that lead the CIA to Bin Laden.

    Now maybe that’s simply not true, and waterboarding some individual yielded the clue that ultimately lead to Bin Laden, but there’s no evidence to back that up. So unless Boal has access to some new and frankly incendiary information, the film’s premise is built in bullshit. And dangerous bullshit to boot, because the film would seem to be implying that torture works.

    I’m not denying the film might be great and I’m excited to see it, but I’m dismayed by this sort of “dramatization.”

    And just to point a different point of view, here’s Glenn Greenwald’s take. He’s been a very vocal and persistent critic of the war on terror since 9/11, so he’s not just some shrill talking head. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda?fb=optOut

  6. Chuck,
    all you are doing is proving my point. Of course what the Nazis did would never be presented as morally ambiguous because it wasn’t. New Yorker writer Jane Meyer quoted in this article has written about how some of the torture techniques used by the CIA post 9/11 were those used by Chinese officials to elicit false confessions. If an American made film featured the Chinese government using torture on prisoners they would make it clear that it’s immoral and the Chinese are evil to use those practices. It is only when it comes to our government post 911 that we blink from taking a side and judging the morality of their actions. When foreign governments do it we call it torture when the U.S. government does it we call it enhanced interogation techniques. Convenient.

    Bigelow and Boal blinked. They were scared off by the Right Wing attack from the Peter Kings of the Congress as well as wanted to stay in the good graces of the CIA members who gave them valuable information. This “neutral/ambiguous” approach to immoral behavior is cowardly. In 10-20 years like with Vietnam there will be braver filmmakers willing to point the finger at the U.S. government and firmly show what they did post 911 was morally wrong and that torture does not work. No proof it works.

  7. Eva, I just disagree. Have you actually seen Zero Dark Thirty? If you have, you’re misunderstanding it. No one here doubts the questionable nature of the CIA’s interrogation techniques or the usefulness of torture (least of all Boal/Bigelow) but they are a fact. They are a thing that happened. The movie presents them as such and in my opinion challenges the viewer to judge them accordingly.

    Far from “blinking” in my opinion Bigelow and Boal took the reasonable, thoughful and most interesting route. this isn’t a movie about whether what happened was right or wrong, it’s a movie about what happened to the best of the ability of the filmmakers to understand it. Personally I believe Bigelow and Boal are critical of what happened, but they’re smart enough to leave it up the viewers.

  8. And coincidentally have you actually seen the movie? Sounds like you havent.

  9. Dude you say that reviewers don’t trust the audience to make ups its own mind. The whole point of this controversy is that its supposedly the truth of what happened. Don’t muck up whats black and white with gray. So whats wrong with being unambiguously clear that these criminal torture techniques did nothing to help capture Bin laden which is the truth. Why take this ambiguous approach. Get real Boal and Bigelow were given access, the run of the store. You know as well as I that they won’t screw the pooch when Boal has stated he wants to create a production company making more films like these. He’s not going to show the government in a bad light.

  10. Micp, until I get more information, the movie IS the truth of what happened as best as Bigelow/Boal understand it. The movie doesn’t take a stand on whether “these criminal torture techniques did nothing to help capture Bin Laden.” Rather they state these things as facts and force the audience to deal with them. It’s not ambiguous at all.

  11. Joel, the whole point of my piece is that what you have heard about ZDT might be wrong. I pointed out explicitly that the strongest argument against ZDT (if true) was that it makes the case that torture actually worked and I was careful to say that if it really makes that case I’m troubled by it. The point is, I’m not convinced the film actually makes that case. I need to see it again to make sure and I stated that clearly, but my strongest memory of the film is that the information from torture leads to a big fat dead end and that the source of the information leading to bin Laden in the film is murky at best.

    And honestly, whether or not torture leads to actionable intelligence shouldn’t make a difference in anyone’s moral opinion. Torture is either right or it’s wrong. Personally, I think it’s wrong whether it helped us find bin Laden or not, but I still think this is a brilliant movie for showing how things actually happened whether we like them or not. Regardless of what you’ve heard, it is most definitely not a celebration of torture.

    I would point you toward Andrew Sullivan who is a much smarter and wider read person than I and who was initially critical of the film but then changed his mind when he actually saw it.

  12. Eva,

    Have you seen Downfall? Or that Ken Branagh movie about the Nazi meeting where they decided to exterminate Jews? Didn’t see a lot of hand-holding there, which is exactly what you are looking for. I’ve seen ZD30 and I can’t believe the outrage. It’s amazing. And the last scene pretty much provides the moralizing you’re so desperate for (since you obviously haven’t seen the movie).

  13. The article I point you to was written by someone who has seen it. Also, up until this film there was no question of whether or not torture was directly responsible for Bin Laden’s death. I’ll take this from Greenwald’s previous piece on the film, which also has some relevant links:

    “The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency’s torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as “Zero Dark Thirty” regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden. That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA – Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin – to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA’s then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.”

    If this is in question, it’s only because film critics, Mark Boal, and Bigelow are misinformed OR that Mark Boal knows more about this story than Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and Leon Panetta. The third possibility is that all of these high-ranking Democrats are lying and that torture was instrumental.

    Which do you think is the most likely outcome?

  14. As I haven’t seen this film yet, my comments are more general in nature. First – Craig, I think your piece is excellent and that your take on the controversy seems to be on the money. The discussion that’s framed around the continuum of morality/amorality, though, is a semantic choice, I’m thinking.

    Mark Boal, as I understand, is a journalist (as I have been), having worked in a profession where impartiality is the watchword. I like that term better. In the world of news, one of the ideals is that facts are presented as impartially as possible and that the audience takes that information to do with as they choose. In filmmaking, I don’t see where it’s necessary – or even advisable in most instances – for a screenwriter/director/auteur to assume an overt moral position on any issue that’s addressed in a film. In fact, too often, films are damaged – both artistically and conceptually – by attempts to advocate one moral view over another. In other words, less is more.

    From the perspective of a former actor, I repeatedly learned from my teachers (and I’ve studied with the best of them) that, when one approaches a character, the interpretation comes from inside – not from a third-person point of view. For example, if one is playing a so-called “bad” person (e.g., Hitler), one must work from the perspective that bad people don’t think they’re bad. Only then will you get a true portrayal. Somehow I think there’s relevance to the topic in this thread. When you start overlaying judgments onto artistic material during the creative process, you lose impact and risk undermining the value of the finished work.

    In my view, one must trust the audience to decide for themselves. If one were to advocate one view as opposed to another, comprehensive, meaningful discourse would be stifled and valuable discussions such as this one would less likely occur.

  15. “And honestly, whether or not torture leads to actionable intelligence shouldn’t make a difference in anyone’s moral opinion.”

    It’s great that *you* think torture is wrong and that the film does nothing to change your opinion of it, but let’s be real: the danger here is that less thoughtful viewers aren’t going to go any farther than what they see on the screen. It’s your job to review the film and look deeper than the surface, and the fact that many critics haven’t bothered to make this effort regarding ZDT really bothers me. But most viewers have no impetus to do this, and obviously the reality of how we got Bin Laden is not that widely known or well-reported if this is even an issue.

    If the film purports to be an accurate account of what happened, then viewers are likely to accept the film as fact. There is a lot of dramatic license that I can accept and expect from films like this, but validating the Neo-Con policies of the Bush administration is both dangerous and, if inaccurate, morally wrong.

  16. Look, I said in my piece and I repeated in my comments that the film might be at fault for it’s depiction of the efficacy of torture and if so that could be a real problem, but that I wasn’t convinced that’s the case. Greenwald saying it is so is sitll not going to convince me. I want to see it again.

    He’s still wrong about all the other assertions he makes about the film, about the jingoism etc. because he’s hung up on this one issue surrounding his attitude about torture.

  17. And he made his original arguments before seeing the film. He then watched the film. Sullivan took the same course but came away with a different answer. He says flat out that the location of bin Laden did not come from torture:

    “The breakthroughs in the movie come from traditional interrogation and intelligence. In only one instance is torture even remotely connected to a real clue. That’s when a previously tortured suspect – driven to near insanity and oblivion by sleep deprivation – is tricked into believing he had already revealed something when he hadn’t. That’s classic good interrogation: bluffing. Yes, the suspect was more easily coaxed because the premise of the bluff is that he cannot remember what he may or may not have said because of torture. But the trick could have worked in other circumstances. And he gives up information while being outside the torture rooms, and offered food and drink in a restaurant.

    The critical clue comes from traditional intelligence…”

    So who am I going to believe?

  18. I’ll grant you that Greenwald has really popped his cork over this film. He’s mighty pissed over the film and the response from other critics over it, and he goes over the top in some of his comments towards Boal and Bigelow. I won’t defend his hyperbole or his opinions, because I frankly don’t agree with all of his opinions. But he does a solid job of pointing out the history of the issue and he certainly knows a lot more about it than any of the film critics who are responding to him. Some of these critics have embarrassed themselves with their responses, honestly. The Guardian UK isn’t exactly Fox News.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the film as soon as I can and making my own opinion on it. I just wanted to make it clear that any uncertainty on this issue is unwarranted or simply wrong, unless Boal has some bombshell details he wants to lay on us.

  19. No Craig haven’t seen the film yet, didn’t claim to.  Unfortuately I’m not part of that priviledged club that gets to see films before they are released. You will have to wait until the film is released to the public in January if you only want comments from those who have seen the film. I’m assuming this article is not only addressed to those who have seen the film. I’m just giving my general opinion based on the information about the movie so far shared by critics and bloggers such as yourself.  

    This is an abstract discussion about torture and how we portray foreign governments versus our own post 911 where people are quick to be tagged unpatriotic if they question how the war on terror is being fought. I think it would be disingenuous to say that Bigelow and Boal didn’t feel pressure from the Right Wing while making this film.  They were accused of being given access to unclassified documents and making an Obama propaganda film.  This had some influence as they moved the release of the film until after the election, scrubbed the film of Obama’s presence as President and made sure not question the morality of the CIA. The film was not made in a vacum.

  20. P.S.
    I almost never comment on a film before seeing it but this topic is a sensitive one for me and other Americans who never asked our government to torture in our name.

  21. “You will have to wait until the film is released to the public in January if you only want comments from those who have seen the film.”

    The film opens this coming Wednesday, December 19th.

  22. Wide release is January 11 for non-major markets, like mine.

  23. Eva, I wasn’t questioning whether you’d seen the movie in an effort to invalidate our opinion. I was looking for clarity as to where your opinion on it is coming from. Greenwald wrote about the film before he’d even seen it, then watched the film with an agenda then amended what he originally wrote. I think he’s mostly wrong, but I can’t really defend that position to anyone until more people start to see it. I hope when you check it out, you’ll come back and say what you think.

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