Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was one of the most accomplished films of 2012, which is why the excoriating moral critique of Bigelow’s film, from the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, was such a compelling read. I was one among the many who were floored last week when Bigelow was passed over for a Best Director Academy Award nomination, along with Ben Affleck, who deserved a nod for Argo that he did not receive (though he won both the Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Awards for his direction of that film). Davidson was not surprised — or, at least, not disappointed. For Davidson, Bigelow’s masterpiece is a moral, and therefore directorial, failure, a supposition I couldn’t disagree with more — which is why I put together this piece on Arguing Torture and Zero Dark Thirty with Amy Davidson, even if she isn’t arguing back.
Film — and narrative in general — is not meant to be polemic. It is not meant to take a moral position on an issue; rather, it is meant to illumine the human condition, giving us the rare opportunity to stand in another’s moccasins, and see the world through their eyes. In so doing, we gain the rare gift of insight into how the world looks through the eyes of someone so very different from us. When we stand in the shoes of a gambling-addicted law firm fixer with a string of morally questionable accomplishments behind him (Michael Clayton), or CIA operatives who torture subjects in the name of noble aims (Zero Dark Thirty), it becomes possible for us to understand, if just for a couple hours, how it is that a person could do “such a thing.” It’s a kind of compassion that it’s difficult for most of us to muster, especially when we’re faced with what appear to us to be heinous acts — and all the more so with acts that “anyone” would judge heinous. I put the word “anyone” in quotes because I’m not convinced that there are acts that we’d all consider heinous. Always, an act is acceptable (and therefore not heinous) to he or she who commits it. And, too, there are acts that whole nations judge heinous that still remain justifiable in pockets of the world — however small or remote or cut off from the world they may be — where the act is practiced as a matter of course. Here I think of acts like honor killing and torture, the subject of Bigelow’s film.
The great accomplishment of Bigelow’s film is that she causes us to stand in the shoes of torturers, and to understand how they could do “such a thing.” It’s the kind of insight we must be willing to gain if we are to understand why torture occurs and how we might make a world in which torture does not exist and need not exist, even in the eyes of those who have wielded that sword.
You can read the full Amy Davidson piece at newyorker.com. I’ve also taken the liberty of reprinting the portions that are relevant to this post here:
When the Academy Award nominations were announced on Thursday morning, Kathryn Bigelow was not on the list for Best Director. That surprised some people; maybe it shouldn’t have. The film she made…was nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, and she’s won in the past, for “The Hurt Locker.” The problem appears to have been torture [and] the way it was depicted in the movie.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” in contrast, torture is something that steady professionals do in quiet rooms, and that only cowardly politicians question. Many discussions of the film suggest that torture only appears in its opening sequence; but it runs through the film. Maya, the agent played by Jessica Chastain, is seen studying videos of detainees being questioned under torture. They give her epiphanies, not compunctions. And Maya, the character we are meant to identify with, becomes a torturer herself. She mimics the lines she’s heard her colleague Dan use before he hurts people. She questions detainees with a large man sitting next to her, and has him strike them when she doesn’t like an answer. She talks about directing the use of every measure available on a prisoner. As I’ve written before, what is left out in all of this is the wrenching debate within (and beyond) the intelligence community about whether what they were doing was effective or moral or American. In one of the worst lines in the movie, a C.I.A. official complains that new, Obama-era rules have tied his hands: he can’t interrogate the prisoners at Guantánamo at all, because their lawyers will run to tell Al Qaeda what they were asked. That is a profound insult to the many lawyers who worked tirelessly not to help Al Qaeda, but to defend our values and our Constitution. (Jose Rodriguez, a former C.I.A. agent who was involved in the torture program and destroyed videotapes like the ones Maya watched, wrote that, when he heard the line about the lawyers, “I had to smile.”)
The problems people have with “Zero Dark Thirty” and torture are about directorial choices, and it is more than reasonable that Bigelow be judged on them. Directors are rewarded when they do brave things, and for what they have to say—it could just be about love or aging or children’s toys, but she chose to speak about torture. Awards are not only for lighting, or the performances they coax out, or for aesthetics in a vacuum. A didactic film that is garish or woodenly acted shouldn’t be rewarded just for its message either; you need both, which is why great directing is hard, and why only a few people get nominated.
And here is my response as posted on The New Yorker site:
As an Ivy League educated lawyer turned screenwriter, I have to take issue with Amy Davidson’s characterization in this piece. The purpose of a film (at least one with serious artistic ambitions) is not to take a moral stance on what is right or wrong (I’d bet my eyeteeth that Kathryn Bigelow thinks torture is wrong), but to edify the human condition. What Bigelow did brilliantly (and what should have garnered the Academy Award nomination she did not receive) is provide us everyday Americans — and particularly those of us who stand most firmly on the side of the Rule Of Law — the opportunity to understand the very human realities that permit torture to occur in a country (whether it takes place on our soil or not) that, prior to 9/11, understood the cost of freedom and was willing to pay it. By letting me stand in the shoes of torturers, Bigelow gave me the rare gift of understanding how people who are not trained to uphold the Rule Of Law but to do whatever it takes to achieve geopolitical goals that, most of the time, we don’t even know about, could walk down such a morally precariously road. The willingness to engage the tough questions — including the question of how, under the right circumstances, torture could seem like the right thing to do — is the hallmark of a great artist and a great citizen. All of us who oppose torture but who retain our capacity to see the other as the self are well-served by Bigelow’s depiction. She gives us the keys the kingdom. If we want to end torture, we have to begin by understanding the real reasons that torture occurs so that we can shape policies that will effectively root it out. What I learned from Zero Dark Thirty is that this journey must begin with a reframing (if we choose to do so) of what the CIA is all about — and also what we are all about, as a nation committed to our own interests (which any nation will be), and also to higher ideals that, in the next century, must surely encompass an awareness that our humanity and our national security can best be assured not by violating the rule of law, but by upholding it and going one step further until we understand that, until or national policy decisions accord with human dignity and geopolitical fairness, we will always be in the position of Bigelow’s characters: that of trying to figure out what happened after the fact when, with a bit of vision, foresight and integrity, we might have prevented violence before it even hatched in the human mind.
Finally, I leave you with Bigelow’s own words as reported in the Los Angeles Times and other sources this week:
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.
What do you think? Are you Team Davidson or Team Bigelow?
PHOTOGRAPHY via The New Yorker
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