Thursday, March 14, 2013

Some (not exactly current, but whatever) thoughts on torture in Zero Dark Thirty

"Zero Dark Thirty," the latest movie from Katheryn Bigelow, begins with white text on a black screen. "Based on first hand accounts of actual events," it reads. After a moment the text fades, leaving us in darkness. The panicked sounds of 9/11 fill the room. It's chilling to be brought so close again to that much desperation and death. Terrifying, even. For a few short minutes, we are Bigelow's detainees, held for torture, forced to conjure the memory of our greatest modern tragedy. So when the torture of captured al-Qaeda operatives begins--in scenes filmed in disgusted, tactile detail--the film has already prepared us, in a way, to see this. 9/11 happened, and America was terrorized and tortured as a nation. Then, as a nation, America terrorized and tortured others. Was it moral? Was it justified? Was it even expedient? ZDT hardly seems interested in these questions.

Torture is at the heart of ZDT, a film in which torture and death are simply real, whether right or wrong. What makes ZDT so terrifying is its belief that its world is ours. The sounds of 9/11 are only the first of many historical images or sounds included in the film, which intersperses the actual stuff of history throughout its fictional world. There's the scene of four CIA operatives, who have done the hard work of torture for their country, pausing to hear candidate Barack Obama opine in a televised interview that the USA must not torture in order to regain its "moral stature." The operatives listen without comment. They seem to regard Obama's sentiment with unspoken dread--these characters are real, their directives are real, and Obama, a million miles away, is only an image on TV.

The movie never endorses torture, though it never suggests that its wholly wrong, either. Maya (played by Jessica Chastain, strangely modulating the tone of her performance from one scene to the next) and the rest of her CIA interrogators never receive meaningful information while torturing a detainee--though they learn much exploiting the threat of torture. If the film says anything about torture at all, its that these CIA operatives truly believe in its worth. No American in the film, Obama aside, seems at all conflicted about the use of torture on captured members of al-Qaeda. No plot lines explore the emotional or psychological effects of torture on Maya, or other American torturers. Somewhere in the long middle of the film, after Obama's administration has ended torture, the pace of incoming information (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the pace of the narrative) slows to a crawl. Maya's frustration is obvious. A CIA executive responds to State Department skepticism of his evidence's veracity by barking, "who am I supposed to ask?," suggesting that the only problem with his evidence is that it could not be confirmed through torture. Through it all Maya, and her cohort, remain sympathetic to the audience. They are beset on all sides by what they perceive as evil, and they're using any means they can to fight against it.

ZDT commits to empathizing with its (American) characters without necessarily condoning their beliefs. In this way the movie has succeeded as art: its made us understand characters who do things we might find reprehensible. Lolita comes to mind as a point of comparison, or Dexter. I'll admit to having read little about the controversy surrounding ZDT and its depiction of torture. I'd venture, however, that ZDT's empathy is what makes the movie so difficult to take. It is neither for nor against torture, but it's certainly for humanizing torturers. A torturer is not only a torturer in ZDT, but a person first. And, perhaps most difficult, torturers are Americans, just like us.

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