Boycotting ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow falsifies an American tragedy.

Stormclouds x

That’s too strong a word, boycott. It’s more like deep ambivalence that has kept me away. And today I’ve failed yet again to get myself out the door to see Zero Dark Thirty, despite being between semesters and having my classes pretty well planned. And despite having loved Kathryn Bigelow’s previous movie, The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, which captures both war’s horror and its addictive quality for some combatants.

Zero Dark Thirty reportedly shows, in sickening scenes, what the Bush administration’s pro-torture policy led to: the brutalizing of helpless prisoners. But widespread criticism of the movie concerns the way Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, portray that torture as having led directly to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That is false, all knowledgeable experts claim. America’s locating Bin Laden resulted from sustained inquiry of and small kindnesses offered to a particular captive.

Apparently Bigelow and Boal wanted so show the human cost, in prisoners’ agony and torturers’ depravity, and to rub our noses in what our government did on our behalf to find Bin Laden. But it’s so much worse than that! The torture and degradation were worthless in this case, as far as we know from experts and insiders. I cannot imagine a work of nonfiction or a literary novel falsifying this matter because the moral ambiguity here is so rich, the sins against others and ourselves so tragic. Maybe this is “just” Hollywood, a topic too complex for Hollywood and too expensive for indie producers to tackle? For me, though, part of the effect of Zero Dark Thirty’s lie based on a grievous moral and artistic error is to make movies in their execution seem, once again, a lesser art form than literature.

The real story, the real issue.

The real story, the real issue.

For a great book—really a long essay, at only 189 pages—about American policy as revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal during the Iraq war see A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith (reviewed). Griffith’s book is a brave inquiry into America’s grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals and a meditation upon the larger problem of human evil. A Good War deals a lot with film. Griffith shows himself enjoying violence, becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately grasping a felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to what he views as Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.

Griffith has just published a new essay at Image Journal about writing as a devout Catholic in an age of unbelief.


Filed under film/photography, honesty, MY LIFE, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality

12 responses to “Boycotting ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

  1. I too will probably not see “Zero Dark Thirty.” I know one “should,” in order to come up with an unbiased opinion (though there really is no such thing in the world as an “unbiased” opinion), but my bias seems to be to avoid watching atrocities in order to express my indignation. I feel the indignation anyway, and watching acted atrocities is unlikely to improve my frame of mind about something that I have already been adequately informed on by the news services anyway.

  2. As she put it in an interview: she’s boiling down a decade of intelligence to two hours. She didn’t falsify anything. She made a movie she thought was a close representation of events.

    The only movies I boycott are those made by anti-Semites. But I’m not going to see this film because I hated The Hurt Locker and couldn’t see anything that film did that the greats before it did not, except feature a female director.

    It’s just not my kind of movie. Now Argo—that’s another matter!

    • I disagree, of course, Leslie. She did falsify the essential fact: torture did not lead us to Bin Laden. We learned the inefficacy of torture once and for all, it seemed, in WWII, with the result that not only the Geneva Conventions but our own Army Field Manual outlawed it. But even forgetting what we know historically about torture, to to say it worked this time is an outrageous falsehood.

  3. Jennifer S

    I suppose what I wouldn’t enjoy about this movie is the falsification mixed with oversimplification of complex moral issues. As a historian, I feel the only good stories of this sort are the ones where you come out more informed about the way evil unspools and yet somehow more able to understand the motivations. My favorite example of this is “In the Garden of Beasts.” Why cheat to propel a factual story forward? It feels like a cheap move that can take an audience out of what should be a compelling and educational experience that packs a true emotional punch.

    • You said it better than I did, Jennifer. I appreciate the historian’s perspective as well, since I could be accused of being journalistic here. I don’t think my view is colored by having been a journalist, but how could it not, to an extent? Yet to me the movie does cheat, as you put it, cheapening by oversimplifying a truly complex and tragic affair.

  4. You spoke my thoughts exactly about this film, Richard. I shy away from violent films in general. I did see The Hurt Locker because it can be read as anti-war even as it shows the addictive power of violence.

    As a pacifist, I don’t believe in America’s deepest myth: regeneration through violence (an idea dissected by Richard Slotkin in the 1970’s). I know I hold a tiny minority perspective.

    The Tea Party is using this regeneration myth to suggest, and not always subtly, that it’s time for another American Revolution. Our president used to be described in their rhetoric as a Kenyan Muslim Socialist. Not so much any more. Now the analogy is to King George III. If we had not been born in blood and rebellion through the use of guns in 1775, this myth would have much less appeal. The enormous stockpiling of guns in this country cannot be a positive sign.

    When a film portrays torture as productive (a tool used to confront evil effectively), I will stay away. I don’t mind the word boycott at all.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I was and am self conscious about “going negative,” because I want this blog to be a positive space for art, overall, but I could not ignore my feelings—intellectualized in my post but really deeply visceral and troubled, a sense of injustice, every time I thought about going to see the movie. I realize that even when our nation has a policy against torture, there will be torture at some level, in some places and circumstances, especially when there is war. But I believe that when we condone it and even encourage it, as the Bush administration did, that we open the gates of hell. So to say a fruit of hell was helpful in achieving a rough form of justice, or just revenge, is a major claim, to me, and it had better be true.

  5. I’m intrigued by your description of David Griffith’s work. I saw a mention of him earlier in a Brevity post. I will definitely go check him out.

  6. I just saw Zero Dark Thirty Saturday night. The film did not have great acting or superior dialogue, but that’s not why I went to see it, really. I believe that we must stand up for ourselves and fight back, in some way other than lilly-livered false diplomacy that is contrived. In the “You pat my back, I pat yours” world, truth is rarely spoken. Manuevers happen, and back stabbing can be plentiful. No, as long as other countries pull our men and women apart, chop off heads, remove appendages, remove nails and do all sorts of horrendous torture, we cannot take the high road and exclaim to the world – “We have a problem with torture, so we’ll not fight too hard to break your captured people. Yeah, right. We will get nothing and other countries, and terrorists will laugh openly at the unfair, unrewarding playing field we build for ourselves. The torture shown was not excessive. It did not result in success, but torture takes far longer than the 40 minutes shown on screen. What was shown pales in comparison to what is being done to our citizens. Do you think Israel tiptoes around prisoners. No, they are feared. Do Russians? No. They are also feared. We are laughed at, and rightly so, if you think our tactics were too tough. Does Turkey, China or Mexico tiptoe? No, they do not. If we sit back and whine about the toughness and believe that war or interregation is fair, we might as well sign over the country to terrorists and lie down for torture ourselves.

    I went to see the movie as well as Argo. Argo was much better, and more entertaining. They were different types of films. Argo was meant to be more magical, more farsical. I wanted to see her representation in ZDT, and to see what all the fuss was about, over the so-called unwarranted torture. Torture is necessary in a time of war, and terrorism is a war on us all. A person is not permanently harmed when dunked or while having water poured on their heads. Is it frightening? Yes. Do some cave under its pressure? Yes, and some don’t. Does permanent harm come from chopping off hands, heads or feet? Yes, and we don’t do that. Prisoners do not willingly give information we need. They must be convinced it is in their best interests to do so. I hope Osama Bin Laden is truly dead. I went to see the movie in part to convince myself, since we have no body and no pictures, just words.