Zero Dark Thirty: Final Thoughts

I wanted to see it again, for two reasons. First, the first time you see an exceptional film, it’s not so much the element of surprise as it is the onrush of temporal flow that comes from never having confronted this particular sequence of events before, which creates certain impressions, but on a second viewing, you can “spatialize” the temporal parts, classify them, analyze them. Second, I wanted to give the “torture endorsement” interpreters more of a run for their money.

Several things jumped out at me. The impression I had that by the time we reach the mission, torture is long forgotten, is an artifact of the length and a first viewing. Perhaps this is overcorrection, but detention and torture shadow every scene in some fashion, and whether or not it is fair to assert that the film is strongly committed to a specific thesis about the necessity for  torture to obtain the specific information that leads to the successful kill (that strikes me as a prosecutorial approach to the film rather than an art-critical one), it is fair to say that the protagonists seem to regard torture as propelling them forward and attempts to stop it as thwarting them. For me personally, the most painful instance of this was a remark made at one point that it is futile to re-interrogate detainees now (after torture has been restricted) because the detainees have “lawyered up” and their lawyers will presumably use the contents of the questions they will learn from participating in proper interrogations as a means of tipping off Bin Laden. This cynical equation of lawyers and due process with treason, and of course the implication that things were better before, is hard to construe as anything but dismay that torture has been ended. Similarly the comment made by Dan that Maya has to be careful now that the politicians are starting to close in, that she “doesn’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar” clearly pits the CIA’s team against the political order that would hamper, obstruct and penalize them. On a second viewing, I could not agree with, say, Andrew Sullivan’s account, that torture is shown not to work and when it is abandoned the investigation is more successful. Rather, we are shown the teams’ frustration at the loss of availability of torture. To the extent that the audience identifies with Maya, it will be offered an opportunity to view torture similarly.

The second issue is the role that revenge plays. I still think the film serves as a kind of critique of revenge, but in my first viewing, I think my sympathy for Maya made me downplay the extent to which a desire for revenge animates her after Jessica’s death. The only trace of a personal connection Maya is shown to have to anyone is after the death: Jessica’s face (next to Maya’s own) is the desktop wallpaper on Maya’s computer. I had on the first viewing not recognized the face except as a family member, possibly even a child, and had thought that this indicated an object of Maya’s solicitude. Instead, it is an object of Maya’s grief, and taken with the scene in which she announces that she (as if she herself, personally) will kill Bin Laden, well, the revenge motive is hard to discount.

None of that precludes something like the account I gave previously, for revenge itself is a futile attempt to master nothingness, and the note of calm emptiness the film ends on remains haunting even when inflected in this way.

I have resisted addressing the political response to the film, except, like Glenn Kenny or Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, to push against it to make a space for the film as an end in itself, but this response is not going away, and needs to be addressed. First, the irony: the film is unusual in being condemned by so many people before seeing it. First, Republicans wrongly assumed that it would function as a kind of pro-Obama propaganda film and help him win the election. We now know how misguided a reaction that was: the film was never seen before the election, and the shadowy, mostly absent role Obama plays (by implication) is to thwart the team by ending torture, to delay a response once made aware of Bin Laden’s location (all those wonderful shots of Maya writing the number of days no action has been taken, in red magic marker, on her boss’ window, day after day, underscore that and accuse, if anyone, the president and his advisers) and then in the end to be the one who authorizes the killing. In short, he is mostly absent, mostly ambiguous. But when the film appeared, it was Democrats’ turn to be upset, for the film seemed to indicate that Obama’s lauded success was due to Bush’s reviled torture policy (I’m using these proper names to make sure we don’t take the eye off the ball here, which is who shall win elections, control government, and shape the perceptions of posterity). Apparently some Republicans have said as much out loud. This in turn leads Democrats to denounce the film as fascist propaganda. The bill of particulars is: torture is shown to lead to a clue that leads to the killing (I keep calling it a killing for a reason, bear with me), this showing is “patently false” (as one put it), and the overall tone of Bigelow’s aesthetic celebrates efficiency and cruelty (Vishnevetsky is perhaps most valuable about the film’s portrayal of technological optimization).

Now, to be propaganda, a thing has to leave you with some greater propensity to approve of something, yes? But I ask you, who would be encouraged to learn that torture, the infliction of pain, can facilitate killing, the infliction of death? Will the film change the minds of any radical Islamists, dissuading them from their perception of the US as infinitely cruel and unjust? (That’s a joke, albeit an unfunny one.) Will the film change the minds of radical Christian pacifists, dissuading them from their conviction that nothing can justify torturing and killing people? Will the film change the minds of conservatives who had argued in favor of torture as a necessary means to an end? Will the film change the mind of a hypothetical Marxist who sees the US as nothing but the imperialist police state of late capitalism? Who might be led to change their minds about anything here? All these audiences would presumably nod at and appreciate the “truths” the film reveals, the manner in which the film seems to validate the perceptions of (deep breath now) radical Islamists, Christian pacifists, Marxist anti-imperialists and neoconservative Republicans. Only Democrats who were previously admiring their bloody end result while vehemently criticizing the preceding administration’s cruelty and lawlessness could possibly be affected. If the film forges a link between Bush and Obama, between torture and killing, what is at stake? Nothing less than the whole “restoration of human decency” narrative which is one of the central rationales of the Obama administration. So one would hope that the link doesn’t exist, and if the film asserts that it does, one would hope that the film is “patently false.”

But is it?  Consider the following quote from Steve Coll:

The record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions. An estimate of how large the chasm is between what the public knows and what still-secret records describe can be drawn from accounts of a recently completed Senate Intelligence Committee staff report about the CIA program. The staff report is said to run to six thousand pages, based upon a review of about six million CIA documents and cables to and from “black sites” where just fewer than one hundred al-Qaeda suspects were held and where at least some of them were interrogated brutally, as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. The Senate report remains highly classified, however, and is unlikely to be released in full anytime soon. The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.

There have been some remarkably confident assertions that that is the case, based almost entirely on the contents of a Senate investigation report whose contents are largely classified, and in turn based on information furnished by, you guessed it, the CIA itself. A Democratic administration in private dialogue with a Democrat-controlled Senate, in other words. It must be true, because the government tells us so! We have it on good authority that the current administration does not torture because it knows that torture does not work and did not help produce the current administration’s current success. Whose authority? Why, the current administration’s, that’s whose! Accusations of patent falsehood should be made of sterner stuff. One looks forward to progressives falling out of power again, if only so that their hermeneutics of suspicion can overcome its current bout of narcolepsy.

The claim is ridiculous on its face anyway. “Patent falsehood” means here that it is provably false that information from torture interrogations in any way assisted in the finding of Bin Laden. Not only do pundits who lack access to classified information not know that: in all likelihood, the CIA itself doesn’t know that. One has to show that in the possible world in which no torture occurred, Bin Laden is still found and killed. God alone knows that.

Thus I think that Bigelow’s seemingly evasive way of putting things is actually exactly right: torture was “part of the story we couldn’t ignore.” It was indeed, no matter how desperately we might wish that it hadn’t been. Within the confines of the simplifications needed to transform a mass of information (the product of Mark Boal’s own investigative journalist skills) into a coherent story while doing justice to the broad themes of that information, and specifically the story Bigelow chose to tell, that of an individual CIA analyst as the personification of the CIA’s experience in the hunting of Bin Laden, well, I’d be very surprised if the truth wasn’t something along these lines. There are other stories that can be told, indefinitely many, but they chose to tell this one.

The pundits’ easy rejection of Bigelow’s assertion that depiction isn’t endorsement founders on one simple fact: showing that torture was believed by the CIA to help get us to Bin Laden and kill him, and that that may very well have been the case, only amounts to endorsement if you take the CIA’s perspective as your own, if you want Bin Laden killed yourself. The pundits may very well think that it is simply inconceivable for any viewer to not take the perspective of the CIA, of US national security, of American passions for revenge, to not regard this killing as a great achievement. I would say, “speak for yourselves,” were it not for the fact that you obviously already have.

A great work of art has held up a mirror to our nation, and to our souls. Like Maya, I weep for what I see. The response of some is the moral equivalent of suing the artist for libel. This is what passes for self-examination among our minders and scolds, in this new empire we have built on the ashes of three thousand dead.

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