Zero Dark Thirty: Is It Pornography?

I’ve been wrestling with myself about whether or not to see Zero Dark Thirty, not only because the violence is up-close, personal and gruesome for some forty-five minutes, but because many reviewers who have seen it say that torture is linked directly to the success of finding and killing Osama bin-Laden.  A filmic argument is being made that torture was effective, without the smallest counter argument being shown, even though in the real world, which the movie aims to depict, there were arguments conducted at high volume and at the highest levels of government.

My mirror neurons are so tightly tuned that I had to walk out of Syriana a few years ago when fingernails started being pulled out.  I was sweating and breathing fast and shallow.  It took me fifteen minutes walking through a chill Marin night to get back to nada nausea, but not enough to want to go back in.  I nursed a beer until my friends came out.  That might have been a five minute scene.  Forty five minutes?  Of a man hanging by his wrists, being sexually humiliated, being shoved into a tiny box?

So I don’t think so.  Meanwhile, here are some reviews to help you make up your own mind;

Dan Froomkin  Zero Dark Thirty Is a Despicable Movie, Even if Bigelow and Boal Didn’t Intend It That Way

Forum on KQED A pretty good discussion with Michael Krasny hosting: Mark Bowden of the Atlantic and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian

Bowden supporting the film; “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Not Pro-Torture” (The Atlantic)

Greenwald condeming it: “Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography, Pernicious Propaganda” (The Guardian)

Naomi Wolf, Guardian. You have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture

G. Roger Denson, HuffPo, rebutting Naomi Wolf.

Matthew Cooper, National Journal Zero Dark Thirty is about more than torture

Ali Soufan, FBI Interrogator, ‘it’s all fiction,’  in an interview at Foreign Policy


Manohla Dargis, NY Times, By Any Means Necessary (Thinks efficacy of torture is made suspect.)

Alex Gibney, maker of Taxi to the Dark Side, Wrong and Dangerous Conclusions

update: Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress makes an interesting argument no one else is making: ” Zero Dark Thirty, quite rightly, makes the argument that whether or not torture is efficacious is not where our debate about its employment should be taking place. Instead, it has a much more radical project. Zero Dark Thirty a shattering, visually stunning argument that we’ve warped our own souls in pursuit of a goal, the killing of Osama bin Laden, that has left us fundamentally empty and dislocated.”  [Don’t know if she’s right but she’s carefully watched and seen something other’s haven’t.]

Zero Dark Thirty is a 157 minute film.  Of that 45 is devoted to the torture scenes — almost 30% of the available time.  Now that’s interesting to me:  30% on torture and 0% on anyone taking issue with it.  It is a measure of what attracts the film maker, if nothing else.  Might two minutes have done?  Might screams behind a closed door done? But she chose to use 45 minutes. Close up, terrible torture.  What is going on here?

There are only a few genres of film that devote themselves to long, close images of flesh, in ecstacy and agony. Sexual pornography is one; snuff films are another.

Bigelow says creating controversy was far from her mind.

Mark and I wanted to present the story as we understood it, based on the extraordinary research that Mark did. … we wanted to illustrate the ambiguities, the contradictions, and complexities of this 10-year search.

Hmmm… ambiguities?  No one in the movie even raises the question of the efficacy of torture, though in reality, many did.  FBI interrogators were taken out of the Guantanamo interrogations because of objections to what was going on.  CIA and their rent-a-gators worried throughout: were our asses covered?  Not included in the film.

Not only did she decide the torture scenes needed 30% of the viewing time –above other things that might have been included–  but, knowing how gruesome they are, she assumed American audiences would stick with her; that they would buy the tickets and sit through it.

If the buzz and initial box office is right, she is right.

‘…depiction is not endorsement.‘ she says.

Depiction is the choice of the artist, or writer, or speaker.  If 45 minutes of a violent rape scene, even of a prostitute, a bad prostitute, were depicted, up close, in such detail that the brain can’t separate image from reality and then linked to events that made the rape seem forgivable, not even Bigelow and Boal would stand by it.  Movies are not simply depictions, they are stories.  Every story has a set of values, sometimes contested, but always a way of looking at the world and the people in it. A way of looking which the author may not personally hold,but which is part of the necessary structure of understanding what is being seen.

She is depicting a cause and effect relation; she might have depicted a different cause; she might have shown different effects.  Would the film be any less gripping if there had been a forty five minute opening of an Ali Soufan interrogator getting closer and closer to a suspect, testing him every which way, without a rope, a box or a dog in sight?  I think not, Yet Ms. Bigelow chose to depict something entirely else. She did not depict torture leading down wrong paths, with innocents dying because of that, which she might have done [See for example the Democracy Now interview with ” Sami al-Hajj, the only journalist held at Guantánamo. The Al Jazeera cameraman was arrested in Pakistan in December of 2001 while traveling to Afghanistan on a work assignment. Held for six years without charge, al-Hajj was repeatedly tortured, hooded, attacked by dogs and hung from a ceiling.]

She made what was on her mind.  She made connections that others say were not there, and she ‘stands by the movie.’ [As does her writer, Mark Boal, who shows he doesn’t get it at all when he jokes, ‘Apparently the French government will be investigating Les Miz.  Uh, Mark, Inspector Javert, the government, who imprisons and guillotines people, does not have a happy ending; nothing implies that his methods lead to beneficent results. ]

I’d be one who’d have to walk even if the point of showing the torture was to show it was a dangerous and stupid means to desired end. My viscera won’t tolerate it. Since apparently (for many) the point actually being made is that torture — and only torture, no other means are shown– did lead to a desirable end, it therefore becomes a) morally allowable, and b) may/must be used in the future. [Of course only if the ‘good guys’ are doing it, not the contractors who did it just for fun.  Or some Muslims.] I have to ask myself, why walk in? The argument can be had without saying to myself for 45 minutes, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.

If I don’t go in, am I then unable to speak?  It’s not true, and obviously so, that one must see something before it may be commented on. Edward Gibbon showed us that about the Roman Empire.  Priests and rabbis have commented upon what they can’t see for centuries.  Think. Observe. Listen to others. Look at analogues. Apply logic, values and belief. That’s a good start and often fully sufficient, even if the object of interest can never be seen. Much can be said about much –without staring into every orifice.

I am starting by asking myself whether I want to pay an entry fee to another festival of fear and blood.


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