Once Again, You Can’t Have It Both Ways.

Zero-Dark-Thirty__121106175531Zero Dark Thirty is a decent movie whose depiction of torture in the search for Bin Laden has touched off a series of accusations/protests against the film. Here is one such example, a letter from Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin directed to Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures: “With the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.”

This is a flawed argument in a number of ways. First and foremost, movies are under no obligation, moral or otherwise, to get the facts right. This is silly. Movies are at their core, Adam Sandler and otherwise, art, and art knows no obligations save for itself. That’s what makes it art. The marketplace determines whether the movie will sink or swim, critically and commercially, so encouraging filmmakers to censor themselves for the social good is an idea on par with letting Tim Tebow start at quarterback.

Furthermore, to expect someone to behave in a moral way is one thing, but to chastise them for an immoral idea is absurd, since expression by its very nature cannot be immoral. This is the difference between actually torturing somebody, such as the United States Government’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay during the last 10 years, and filming a staged depiction of such activities.

Worse, or perhaps simply more absurd, is the context of the complaint, which is directed at the effectiveness of torture as a question of policy. Consider the parallels of the death penalty argument. It’s easy to pick apart its practical flaws, separate from any moral argument about its worth, since we know innocent men have been sentenced to death, the penalty carries no weight as a deterrent and it’s spectacularly expensive. This makes capital punishment bad policy in a specific sense, but it bogs down the debate to one of implementation, which misses the point completely, the same as the arguments surrounding state-sponsored torture.

Yes, our letter-writing senators are correct, torture is bad policy because it is ineffective and often counter-productive. The same goes for the death penalty. But that argument obscures a more basic and fundamental truth – it is wrong for the government to endorse and utilize torture and murder as public policy because torture and murder are evil. Arguing for why the torture and killing of people is ineffective in accomplishing its stated goals seems absurd enough to be laughed out of a kafkaesque courtroom. It’s wrong, nothing else need be said. Who gives a shit if it works?

What’s even more painfully amusing is that amidst all of the cries that the movie promotes the use of torture is that the movie does no such thing!

Yes, the film absolutely credits torture with finding Osama Bin Laden, which is a fiction created by the filmmakers, and their denials in this regard are painfully awkward, but this is hardly the entire scope of the movie’s perspective on torture, it’s just one part of a wider picture. It’s like criticizing Goodfellas for endorsing murder or Love Actually for promoting infidelity. ZD30’s heroine Maya’s casual use of torture without any qualms, regrets or hesitation speaks not to her character, since the movie barely gives her one, she is effectively only a thin woman with no life, but how can this do anything else but force the viewer to examine his own perspective as a result?

Gee, Maya, you’re casually ordering the beating of a man for information that will be useless to you. How do you feel about that? No? Nothing to say? But it still happened. We watched it. The viewer is not immune to introspection just because the character isn’t allowed to engage with their actions. It’s a cheat, of course, the movie is bathed in ambiguity punctuated by convenient explosions, and is flawed in large part because it never allows the characters to engage in anything they do, let alone the casual abuse they heap upon their perceived enemies, but this failure also makes the film an uncomfortable thing to watch, which makes it simultaneously a measure of a triumph.

When all is said and done, Zero Dark Thirty actually works fairly well as an argument against torture, ironically for the senators anyway, precisely because of the manner in which torture is shown. What else can we do when watching brutal depictions of casual violence other than react to it?

The filmmakers are just as bad as the senators, of course, presenting a similarly flawed argument in their defense of the movie, encapsulated perfectly by writer Boal’s statement in The New Yorker that Zero Dark Thirty , “Is a movie, not a documentary.” Undeniably true. But it’s a movie that opens with the words “The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events” appearing on the screen, followed by several minutes of audio from the victims of 9/11. The movie doesn’t just want to tell a story, it wants to claim factual legitimacy in order to heighten the action unfolding on the screen. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t lay claim to authenticity while deliberately twisting the facts and then hide behind your own obscuration with the half-assed response of ‘it’s only a movie’.

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