Grappling with Zero Dark Thirty: Torture Works and the CIA Is Nothing But Awesome, Part 2:
Yesterday, the Rude Pundit wrote about the film Zero Dark Thirty's fucked-up attitude towards torture: it's bad, but, hey, we got bin Laden, motherfuckers. Today, with news that the Obama administration has now given up on even the illusion that it's closing Gitmo by shutting down the office that dealt with that possibility and with the military court trials of tortured detainees at Gitmo moving ploddingly towards their inevitable death penalty decisions, we can see that right now the nation, for the most part, has the same attitude as the film towards our American inhumanity.
Another aspect of Zero Dark Thirty that is connected to its attitude towards torture hasn't gotten as much attention. The movie is essentially a hagiography of the CIA, which gave Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal access to documents and agents, which allows the film to say that it's based on "first-hand accounts" of the events. It would have been more honest to say that it's a film about the CIA's perspective on the events, like The Green Berets for intelligence officers, devoted to making the CIA look as good as possible and to allay any fears that it did anything wrong in order to kill bin Laden.
Still, though, the agents are afraid that someone might disapprove of their tactics in the future. When Dan tells Maya, the agent protagonist, he is going back to DC because he's exhausted after torturing over 100 men over the years, he warns Maya that she needs to be careful because at some point someone might be held accountable for torture: "You gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes." Of course, we know now that his fears of prosecution are unfounded, unless he's a hillbilly doing cruel things at Abu Ghraib.
The opposition between the cruel-but-necessary work done by the CIA and the limitations of the rule of law is driven home a couple of times: we see our CIA heroes watching uncomfortably as President Obama declares that "America does not torture," and, later, when Maya says that they could ask detainees at Guantanamo Bay if they know the name of bin Laden's courier, she is told by an angry official, "Who the hell am I supposed to ask, some guy in Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?" and he asserts that the defense lawyer for tortured detainees would merely pass on the information to bin Laden. You want to know where the movie stands? That moment, more than nearly any other in the film, is about as clear as can be: due process, habeas corpus, defense lawyers, all are impediments to the goal of killing Osama bin Laden. The movie scoffs at them with no counterpoint, just like it presents torture with no context other than "Man, that sucks for that guy." The movie sets us up to root for the CIA, unquestioningly, so simplistically that it leaves out things like the CIA agents who were against torture, who wanted to follow the rule of law, as it was understood for nearly the entire history of the nation.
In doing so, it unequivocally comes down on the side of the most hawkish elements of the war on terror, whether Bigelow and Boal intended that or not. Of course, an artist doesn't have an obligation to show all sides. And we as an audience don't have an obligation to trust the artist or even like what she's doing. So fuck their intentions. They don't matter. It's like Edvard Munch saying he didn't intend his famous work to be a scream of horror or pain, but that it was the perspective of a dude delighted at a cute kitten, which is just out of the frame. "Well, you might have wanted to paint that, Eddy," you might respond, "but all I see is existential agony, not LOLcats." To accept the filmmakers view of the movie now that it's been criticized for its depiction of torture is to think that it's possible to make an apolitical film that shows torture gives only good information and civil rights get in the way. Shit, Dirty Harry was more honest about saying the same things.
The point here is not whether or not torture works. Obviously, some nuggets of truth will come out from some who are tortured. However, we know that the courier's real name wasn't gotten through torture, and those in the know say that we got his nickname from a detainee before he was tortured. But even if we take as a possibility that torture played a role, the real question is whether or not we could get information without torture, as we have in every other war. Zero Dark Thirty dismisses this when Dan says that Islamic radicals can't be bought off.
The more important questions are ones that the movie ignores, unless you want to overinterpret Maya's tears at the end: Is torture worth it? Isn't it just wrong, no matter what the goal? And, despite all the fucked up things the United States has done in its history, wasn't there some moral high ground in being a country that didn't believe in torturing prisoners and in keeping prisoners indefinitely detained? Torture may no longer be policy, but, sadly, the indefinite detention goes on, with no end in sight, no matter who is in power.
Zero Dark Thirty asks us to ignore all of this and admire everyone, from the weary torturer to the dogged CIA agent to the lovable lugs in Seal Team Six, as if they are all equal in reaching the ultimate goal.