"This is a film that portrays torture as a moral necessity "


by Jackie Outka

Amy Pascal, the Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, released a statement concerning the graphic torture scenes in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty. The film, which covers the CIA's "hunt for bin Laden", has received great critical acclaim in the United States, but has also generated a firestorm of controversy. Here's what she said:

"Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture. To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda. This film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an Artist's right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is. While we fully respect everyone's right to express their opinion, this activity is really an affront to the Academy and artistic creative freedom. This attempt to censure one of the great films of our time should be opposed. As Kathryn Bigelow so appropriately said earlier this week, 'depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.' We believe members of the Academy will judge the film on its true merits and will tune out the wrongful and misdirected rhetoric."

Ms. Pascal's words are disingenuous on several levels. For one thing, whatever director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's private views on torture's effectiveness may be, the fact remains that the film they created portrays "enhanced interrogation techniques" as an essential tool that made the capture of Osama bin Laden possible.

Let me reiterate this point a little more strongly. This film is not a debate about torture and its efficacy. This is a film that portrays torture as a moral necessity in the context of the "war on terror". This is a film about operatives so convinced that torture works - though we've had countless studies show it doesn't - that they run scared before Obama's public re-consideration of interrogation policies.

But in Zero Dark Thirty, torture is not merely used for the utilitarian end of gaining information. For the CIA operatives - including Maya, the chilly, pretty cipher on whom the movie is founded - torture is also a just punishment for lying and withholding details. If you comply with our wishes, they seem to be saying, there is no need for such methods. The counter-point to this, of course, is that if you are tortured, it's your own fault.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Bigelow and Boal have realigned moral agency here in a way that's frankly bizarre. In this, our new universe, torturers are absolved from all guilt. They are simply doing their jobs, and Maya's brief glance away from her first interrogation is the film's only concession to the feeling of shame.

Let me now turn to Bigelow's claim that "depiction is not endorsement." Her statement is unobjectionable if taken literally. However, Zero Dark Thirty claims higher honors for itself than that of a mere "depiction". It bills itself as a "journalistic" movie. Since fiction and journalism are opposites by definition, we can only assume that Bigelow and Boal believe their film is largely factual.

But here's the thing, readers (and mark my words closely, since this is something I forgot myself for most of the movie): this movie is not a documentary. It is a partly factual, partly fictionalized account and you, the viewer, do not know which is which.

"So what, Jackie?" you say. "When I watch, say, Titanic, I don't know which parts are true and which are false, and it doesn't matter. Why is this movie any different?"

Zero Dark Thirty is different because it aims to tell a story of great relevance to the United States' self-identity at the present time: the story of September 11th and its aftermath. This film is a work of nationalist self-fashioning, plain and simple, and, as such, it is also a work of propaganda.

Now, I don't use propaganda as a dirty word here. As even Orwell - the great exposer of propaganda - admitted, propaganda has its place in certain situations. The problem, however, is that Zero Dark Thirty is propaganda masquerading as fact. This is the film's great seduction and also its great danger.

For quite a few reviews and comments on the movie make it blindingly obvious that many people are absorbing this movie with a completely unquestioning eye. For example, take Jessica Chastain, the actress who plays Maya, who said in an interview that she sees her character as a role model and a symbol of female empowerment. Ms. Chastain, I found your performance utterly convincing and possibly Oscar-worthy. However, you'll forgive me if I'm not jumping on the bandwagon that encourages women to become more complicit in the US government's many hidden crimes abroad.

However, New York Post movie reviewer Lou Lumenick rivals Chastain in obliviousness when he recommends that mothers take their daughters to this film, apparently to provide them with some sort of a role model. He glibly notes that the torture scenes might be too much for the youngest viewers.

Similarly, EW's Owen Gleiberman lauds the Navy SEALs who play such a prominent part in the final capture of Bin Laden for their "amazing bravery." This is the sort of patriotic comment that would be unthinkable in a review of any other movie. Of course, patriotism in and of itself is not an evil; however, the knee-jerk, unanalyzed judgments it gives rise to are worthy of criticism.

For, at the end of the day, folks, Zero Dark Thirty is just a movie. If we look to it for moral guidance, national uplift, or an unvarnished picture of the truth, we risk falling into the emotional trap it so neatly lays out for us. Let us instead bring to it a questioning mind and spirit, ready to engage with the material rather than blindly imbibe it.