Zero Dark Thirty, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is weathering a storm of criticism. Critics overwhelmingly give the film positive reviews, but activists claim that it approves of and even glorifies the use of torture against suspected al-Qaida terrorists held in secret CIA prisons and “black” sites.
The accusation is ludicrous. Nothing in Zero Dark Thirty suggests that either Boal or Bigelow approves of torture. So many have accused Bigelow of torture advocacy that she took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times and answered the charges directly. “As a lifelong pacifist,” she wrote, “I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.” Not only is she against torture—she’s a pacifist.
The reason she’s being called out for the opposite—David Edelstein at Vulture.com even calls the film “borderline fascistic” and “barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture”—is that she set her own opinions aside and depicted the hunt for bin Laden journalistically and objectively. The film’s electrifying final third dramatizes the raid on the al-Qaida leader’s compound in Pakistan, while the middle third shows the painstaking detective work that went into tracking him down. The film’s first third—the portion catching all the flak—takes place in secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland, where terrorist suspects are ruthlessly interrogated for intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Anti-torture activists are picketing theaters in cities around the country and handing out leaflets. They seem to be confusing activism with journalism and art, which I suppose makes sense, since they’re the activists and Bigelow is the artist. But someone needs to explain to them how journalism and art work.
“Those of us who work in the arts,” Bigelow writes, “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.”
But Bigelow’s critics didn’t want art, nor were they interested in a journalistic account. They wanted a cinematic op-ed piece and didn’t get it. True, neither the writer nor filmmaker articulate an anti-torture message, but those trained in the arts know this sort of thing is not always necessary or even desirable. Good novelists and filmmakers can manipulate the emotions and even opinions of their audience, but they also know that the strongest emotions and opinions are self-generated. One of the first things a student of creative writing hears from a good teacher is “show, don’t tell.” If you want the audience to think something is horrible, you don’t tell them something is horrible. You show them something that’s horrible and let them come to a conclusion about it themselves.
The first third of Zero Dark Thirty not only depicts scenes of prisoner abuse; it also includes gut-wrenching scenes of mass murder and terrorism. No character waltzes in front of the camera later to tell the audience that terrorism and suicide bombings are wrong. That would be gratuitous and insulting, as if the audience were made up of four-year olds.
The scenes depicting prisoner abuse are trickier, because the film’s protagonists are committing violence against helpless captives. It’s less obvious how we’re supposed to feel about that. American public opinion is divided. Speaking for myself, I sank in my seat and cringed during those scenes. I saw the movie twice, and I was no more comfortable the second time around.
My feelings of revulsion were entirely self-generated. Neither Boal nor Bigelow told me to feel that way. If the film had lectured the audience, or if one character lectured another, my own natural reaction to what I had seen would have been somewhat diminished. That’s why calling a book or film “preachy” isn’t a compliment.
There is no getting around it: What took place in those CIA black sites was a nasty business. If you abhor what went on there, you should appreciate the fact that Zero Dark Thirty portrays it unflinchingly. If, on the other hand, you approve of the rough methods used to extract information from captured al-Qaida members, if you think the results were justified by the means—rest assured that none of the film’s characters will step in front of the camera and call you a monster. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell anyone what to think. Its shows us what we should think about.
Journalists and consumers of quality journalism should be thankful for this; artists and consumers of quality art should be thankful, too. Activists, and those with an activist way of thinking, are the ones who have a problem with the neutral and balanced approach—not because they want to be lectured themselves, but because they want to sit in a room where everyone else is being lectured.