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On the domestication of torture: a critical review of Zero Dark Thirty

by David Denny

The critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow has generated a firestorm of commentary and debate surrounding the depiction of torture as the cause of finding Osama bin Laden. The debate can be summed up in the following way: Either the film is A), a brilliant cinematic feat in boldly and unsparingly telling the story of the killing Osama bin Laden in the vein of a detective procedural that takes that genre to a new level of sophistication, especially in terms of the way it utilizes cinema-verite (a documentary, hand held camera) to dramatize the story, or B), the film deploys these same cinematic techniques to captivate the viewer, to keep us on the edge of our seats, for the purpose of not necessarily informing us of ‘what really happened’ but of entertaining us, and therein effectively, even if perhaps unwittingly, endorsing the use of torture as a necessary means to a triumphant end.

In defense of her film Kathryn Bigelow writes the following:

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This begs the question whether or not a work of art can somehow, perhaps by virtue of its inherent value, be deemed neutral, that is, without a political bias or persuasion. One only has to imagine the depiction of rape rendered in an artistically neutral way to know that Bigelow’s claim is problematic. This is not the same as saying rape should be off limits to artistic expression. It is, however, to say that the artistic depiction of rape should properly evoke its horror, the complex and contingent way in which it affects the victim and provides social commentary on the inadequacy of law and restitution, as is done in Jodie Foster’s The Accused.

So let’s put aside the way the questions swirling around Zero Dark Thirty get distorted. It is not about whether it is appropriate or not to depict torture. The question is HOW and WHY torture is depicted, how it relates to the narrative arc that frames that depiction. Bigelow is correct in asserting that she tried to depict torture in a realistic way, no holds barred. But we should ask if this is good enough. After all, the depiction of “reality” has become in high demand in the world of entertainment – from reality TV to the technical use of the hand held camera in commercial cinema and TV all the way to the instantaneous, real-time affect of social media. In a word, “reality” is a prized commodity. Or, put differently, “reality” is the new “authenticity.” However, one only has to watch a reality TV show to know that what we are watching is not some authentic being-in-the-world, but simply bad acting!

My point here is that Bigelow’s use of cinema-verite should not seduce us into thinking that we are somehow engaging in reality. Indeed, isolate the many torture scenes that take place early in the film and the long sequence in which we watch Navy Seals storm bin Laden’s compound and many will remark on the profound horror of these scenes. Again, we can applaud Bigelow’s technical and directorial skill to make these scenes seem so real. Hearing the children wailing in the latter scene was downright heartbreaking, even casting a weird human face on bin Laden as we imagine the horror of his loss to his children and other family members. We see a woman in the house laying on the ground shot dead. We see the understandable feeling of accomplishment of the soldier’s achieving this improbable mission.

So why is my response to the horrors of this scene and the torture scenes one that sides with those who claim this film is ultimately a propaganda piece? Well, for the precise reason that these scenes do not stand in isolation; they are situated within a constellation of many other scenes that essentially tell a story. And this story, contrary to Michael Moore’s endorsement, is how the determination and drive of a single CIA agent named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, perseveres against the red tape of bureaucratic protocols, participating in the undeniable effectiveness of many brutal torture scenes, including obsessively pouring over dozens of taped torture scenes from other black operating sites, to finally discovering the identity of bin Laden’s courier.

You may say – big deal. If torture was used to find the location of bin Laden then this is something that we should not necessarily celebrate but have the stomach to watch. History is ugly; why would anyone want to obstruct looking at it in the face.

Good point. However, what is troubling, to repeat, are not these scenes in isolation; it is the how and the why they are situated among other scenes. Without going into the many scenes in the movie to make this point, suffice it to say here that the film creates the aura that law, protocol, and moral conscience are obstructions to the fidelity to this cause. Here, depiction of torture sends a clear endorsement: it works. Two scenes, among many, to consider: We see one detainee go through extreme torture only to break later in the film, calmly providing information as he casually eats hummus with his torturers. In another scene, we see a detainee telling his torturers that he does not want to be tortured again and is willing to give them what they want. In both scenes, the tortured has this look of conversion to him, more calm and agreeable, less fanatical and determined.

The larger point is that what is being endorsed is not so much torture per se, but the identification of a cause that is exceptional – indeed, a cause that affirms the extra-legal (torture) as a necessary means to a heroic end. We might ask why the sentiment of exceptionality, i.e. suspending the rule of law in the name of a greater good, is the most seductive and, therefore, problematic tropes of our time, one that provides a steady diet of enjoyment at the cinema-plex. And yet herein lies the rub. The hand that feeds us our enjoyment also takes away the rights that potentially make our country a vibrant democracy. In other words, the the state of exception is what defines our post 9/11 world, in the precise sense in which law is suspended in the name of a cause – to fight terror. Zero Dark Thirty does not give us a complex and morally ambiguous account of how things really are; it rather delivers a sleek looking fictional account that reifies the messianic, extra-legal, and anti-terrorist tone of our post 9/11 world. One only has to pause on the obvious here to see the menace of an irony!

It is for this reason, I argue, that the horror of the torture scenes and the raid on bin Laden’s compound, after seeing the results they have yielded, are domesticated and put into the stream of business as usual. What do I mean by domestication? The horror and brutal violence of torture is de-vitalized of its appropriate shock-value due to the way it is justified or explained within a larger narrative arc.

There is precedence for this. From the heroic clichés of Jack Bauer in the critically successful TV show 24, to the pictures of U.S. soldiers exhibiting a perverse air of enjoyment while standing over naked detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, to the public knowledge of Guantanamo Bay and other Black Operative sites, and to the studied depiction of how torture was a necessary means to capturing bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, torture has not only become something domesticated it has become a commodity fetish in the post 9/11 entertainment business. And why not? Like sex, torture has an extra-legal, illicit and transgressive feel to it. The fetish or magical value of its worth is the way something extraordinary becomes more ordinary, and thus something more amenable to public consumption.

Bigelow’s artistic depiction of the hunt for bin Laden cannot simply live in the politically immunized world of fiction and entertainment. Indeed, great art reflects the mood of its time; it has the courage to say the unsayable. Zero Dark Thirty, to the contrary, endorses what we have heard all too often and clearly: torture is a necessary evil but one that should be employed, in exceptional circumstances, for the greater good. Not even considered, of course, is how torture, as a practice of the State and a commodity in the entertainment business, breeds a deepening resistance and enduring hatred by not only those who are tortured but also their neighbors.

Perhaps even more disturbing, when the state of exception becomes the norm a zone of indistinction emerges between good and evil, right and wrong, civility and incivility, and democracy and totalitarianism. From within this gray zone, Zero Dark Thirty is no more than a fantastic detective procedural that plays on the nostalgic sentiment of heroism.

Dr. David Denny is the chair of the Department of Culture & Media at Marylhurst University. His research interests include psychoanalysis, philosophy and film studies.

Photo: Movie poster / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment