Does Zero Dark Thirty endorse torture or not? This is being widely discussed. I think it’s a question well worth investigating. The film is highly popular and profitable; it has received ringing critical acclaim and many award nominations (including a best picture Oscar nomination); and its director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal claim that it presents a neutral and truthful account of historical events.
Time magazine, in its front-page article this week, claims that the film acts as a kind of Rorschach test in which viewers see what they are disposed to see. If true, this would suggest that Zero Dark Thirty achieves the kind of complexity that practitioners of “high art” often strive for, in which different viewers can construct substantially different, but still robust and coherent, meanings from viewing the same work.
I don’t have any aggregate data on how different viewers have perceived Zero Dark Thirty, so I can only speak about my own reading of it. But speaking just for myself, I am almost surprised there is even a debate. To me, the film offers an understated but unambiguous endorsement of torture as an instrument of US foreign policy.
Rather than theorize about the overall implications of this, I’d like to focus narrowly on why it is that I think the film endorses torture. In the process, I hope I can share my understanding of how one reads a film for its political subtexts, in general.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a portrayal of a man being tortured by CIA agents looking for information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Different viewers will decide differently whether this torture is morally justified or reprehensible. But I think they will do so (are doing so) because of their pre-existing beliefs about torture, not because of any ambiguity or complexity in the film’s presentation of torture.
Zero Dark Thirty was filmed in a ‘naturalistic’ or ‘realistic’ style. There is very little use of background music, the camera often stays far away from its subjects, actors’ performances are comparatively low-key and subtle, and so on. But use of a realistic style does not automatically imply that the events portrayed are shown in a historically accurate way or that the story is not employing tropes to construct a singular moral narrative.
One simple test of whether a film or any other story has a single dominant “message” is to take away that message and then see if the story still has as much dramatic substance.
For instance, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, if we take away the assumption that the pursuit and capture of Osama bin Laden was a worthwhile objective, then suddenly the movie loses much of its dramatic interest. If the viewer doesn’t care about whether Osama bin Laden gets found, then most of the film’s events lose their dramatic stakes, and the protagonist’s motives become much less sympathetic. So, by inference, this movie “is saying” that it was really important for Osama bin Laden to be found and captured or killed.
How could a story about the hunt for bin Laden not have made this assumption? By showing us events that distance the viewer from the pursuit of that objective while still maintaining dramatic tension.
For instance, without shifting its focus very much, Zero Dark Thirty could have shown us the negative consequences of that search in terms of the costs to other American security objectives. Or it could have shown us evidence that killing bin Laden would not seriously impair Al-Qaida’s operations. Showing these things would complicate the narrative. Narrative tension would derive not only from the question “will the characters achieve their goals?” but also from the question “should the characters achieve their goals?”, a question that can then be left unanswered. Not asking whether the characters should achieve their goals means that the story assumes they should — in this case, that bin Laden should be killed.
The Causal Link: No Torture = No Victory
Once we accept that the film does have a dominant reading, a “message”, then specific scenes within the film lose their ambiguity or complexity, including the scenes of torture.
- The events of the story unambiguously show torture as instrumental to the finding of Osama bin Laden.
- The protagonist Maya assists the deuteragonist Dan in torturing a man named Ammar who, we are told, has handled money for Al-Quaida. Ammar is beaten, held in painful positions, waterboarded, made to shit himself, locked in a small box, deprived of food and water, and deprived of sleep for extended periods of time. After this treatment, Maya and Dan trick Ammar into giving up the name of a courier working for bin Laden.
- Subsequently, Maya is shown reviewing the testimony of dozens of other “detainess” while video of their being tortured plays on several video screens in front of her. This process enables her to corroborate the lead given by Ammar.
- Maya meets in person with a detainee who gives her further information on the courier after saying that he has no wish to be tortured again.
- It is by pursuing this courier that Maya eventually locates bin Laden.
It’s also worth mentioning that at one point, a secondary character remarks that the abolition of the “detainee program”, i.e. the curtailment of the CIA’s use of torture, has made their job much more difficult — and that this argument gets no rebuttal.
- This causal link between torture and the finding of bin Laden appears not to be factual.
- The film claims to be based on first-hand accounts of factual events. This claim appears in text on the screen at the beginning of the film.
- The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has denied that waterboarding or other torture was instrumental in obtaining intelligence leading to the location of Osama Bin Laden. Senator John McCain has said that torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed actually provided false and misleading information. (Of course these denials could be false, but as far as I’m aware, Bigelow has not rebutted them.)
- Therefore, given the publicly available information it appears that Bigelow and Boal chose not to show torture as generating false leads, nor even to show torture as having an ambiguous impact on the finding of Bin Laden, but to insert, into a film that claims to be realistic and truthful, a fictitious and false claim that torture was crucial to finding Bin Laden.
A trope is a recurring pattern in the telling of stories: “protagonist”, “antagonist”, “plot” are all tropes, as are more specific patterns like “plucky underdog” or “red herring”. Tropes make it easier to tell stories by establishing shared expectations between storyteller and audience. Because tropes are relatively stable throughout a given genre of storytelling, finding them helps us find the elements of a story that are less likely to vary from one individual’s interpretation to another.
Several narrative tropes further reinforce Zero Dark Thirty’s approval of CIA torture in the context of the war on terror.
The first of these is dramatic resolution. Dramatic resolution is a common, almost ubiquitous trope, especially in popular culture. A conflict is established within the frame of the story; the characters pursue a resolution of that conflict; this drives the events of the story; and ultimately the conflict is resolved. Typically the audience is expected to want this resolution; dramatic resolution is one of the big emotional rewards for watching a film. Some stories provide no dramatic resolution, leaving the audience with a feeling of ambiguity or ambivalence, but Zero Dark Thirty is not one of those stories.
In Zero Dark Thirty, the dramatic action of the film, and the protagonist’s motivations, center entirely on the goal of killing Bin Laden. Therefore, showing torture as crucial to that goal makes torture crucial to the dramatic resolution of the film’s central conflict.
If the audience is expected to want dramatic resolution, then by implication it is expected to want the torture to have happened.
This would not be the case if the film in any way questioned the worthwhileness of finding Bin Laden, or if the film left open the question of whether torture helped achieve this end. That is, making torture a necessary step towards the film’s dramatic resolution was one option among other for how to tell this story.
Second, the film uses a sympathetic main protagonist who is also the point-of-view character and therefore is set up as an audience identification figure. This is Maya, of course: her actions drive the plot, and we see the story almost entirely through her eyes, and always in relation to her goals and actions. We see her responses to every event in the story, which allows us to get to know her as a character. Her responses are relatable; we can imagine ourselves responding similarly in similar circumstances. She is shown as having some complexity of character: she can be cruel to detainees but compassionate with her friends, for instance.
The film expects us to care about Maya and, by extension, to want what she wants. I would even suggest that it expects us to identify with Maya, to see her actions as an extension of our own desires; but this is debatable. The more modest point can be seen in the negative: if we didn’t care about the character of Maya or about whether she achieves her goals, then the film would lose much of its interest.
Of course, what Maya wants is to find and kill Bin Laden, by any means necessary.
Third, the film divides sympathetic protagonists from unsympathetic antagonists. Maya’s co-workers and fellow-torturers like Dan and Jessica are also shown in humanizing ways. We see them exhibiting relatable emotions, and we see them exhibiting complexity of character (notable in the scene in which Dan takes a break from torturing people to feed ice cream to some monkeys).
The torture victims, on the other hand, are not given the same treatment. We see a little of Ammar’s responses to being tortured. But this immediately follows a chilling portrayal of the fear and pain of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, so his motives for resisting torture appear perverse; it’s mysterious as to why he shouldn’t he give up everything he knows about Al-Qaida. In conventional storytelling terms, perversity is a sign of evil: a character whose motives we don’t understand is a character with whom we cannot properly sympathize. The film does not even hint that Al-Qaida collaborators may have motives which the protagonists fail to grasp.
In this way, Zero Dark Thirty presents a simple binary conflict between good CIA operates and evil Al-Qaida collaborators. Torture therefore appears as an instrument that, however evil in itself, serves good ends.
Fourth, the film frames Maya as a rebellious underdog who gets the job done. This trope is very common in action films. The Dirty Harry films are a good example; so is James Bond in Quantum of Solace. A member of some organization serving the public good is zealous about their job, above and beyond the call of duty. This puts them in conflict with their superiors who, out of complacency or ignorance or corruption or whatever, try to confine them to more modest goals and to more restricted means for realizing those goals. The character rebels, continuing to serve the organization loyally but refusing to accept its directives. Ultimately they are vindicated when their willingness to use unorthodox means and their sheer determination and force of character bring about the achievement of a goal that nobody expected them to achieve. This is a standard trope through which an audience achieves vicarious self-fulfillment. This is Maya’s character arc exactly.
Fifth, the film uses the trope of attractiveness=good, ugliness=evil to reinforce the other tropes. This might seem trivial and subjective, but I’m willing to stand by it. The CIA interrogators are all attractive people to look at (because this is a “realistic” film, some of them are “Hollywood homely”, which is to say, not supermodels but still attractive by everyday standards). The antagonists, including Ammar the torture victim, are less attractive (we can imagine how different the scenes of Ammar’s torture might feel if Ammar had been shown as a physically beautiful man). The one detainee who volunteers to corroborate Ammar’s information (because, as he says, “I have no wish to be tortured again”), is shown as a relatively handsome older man. Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, looks like a supermodel. Film is a visual medium in which people we like looking at automatically command more of our sympathy.
To sum up, the narrative structure of the film encourage and relies on audience identification and sympathy with the protagonists and a lack of sympathy for the antagonists. It encourages and expects us to support the protagonists’ desires, their goals, and by extension their actions in pursuit of those goals. And in this case the goal is killing Osama Bin Laden, and the action in pursuit of goals is presented, fictitiously, as necessarily involving torture.
Realism is Always Political
Every work of art, every text of any kind, generates political connotations, whether its author means it to or not. This is because every work of art, like every other human creation, is embedded in social relations, and all social relations have a political dimension.
Of course, some works of art are polysemous – they can be interpreted as having multiple meanings, even quite different and incompatible meanings. In some films for instance, differing viewers may easily make differing ethical judgments about the actions of the film’s characters, and still find the film engaging. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal might have been trying to make Zero Dark Thirty polysemous. If so, then I think they failed.
A work of art that hides its political message under the appearance of neutrality is more thoroughly political than one in which the message is blatant. This is because the most effective way to establish a political relation is to make it seem like a natural part of reality. That which is natural becomes invisible, and therefore incontestable.
Beware of artists who say they’re not political. What that means is, they’re more political. Much more.