Kathyrn Bigelow is not the first film director to struggle with the tension between journalistic realism and artistic fiction in film. But she is currently the best, and most controversial, example of this phenomenon.
What I’m really referring to here is the “realistic” and/or “artistic” treatment of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. The film clearly shows that torture, though clearly a bad thing, was effective in leading to the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Bigelow, and her co-scriptwriter, the journalist Mark Boal, have repeatedly made the claim that Zero Dark Thirty is realistic, objective, and journalistic in its representation of torture. This is also the way they justify themselves as artists. For them, verisimilitude is equivalent to artistic treatment.
Many critics vociferously disagree that the film is realistic, or can be considered journalism, on the subject of torture.
At The New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes that
the director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi also addresses the subject of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. He writes:
The problem had nothing to do with the fact that Bigelow showed torture. It was the way she depicted it – without perspective, and in the context of a pulse-pounding thriller where the audience is clearly supposed to root for the big treasure find.
It’s a cliché but it’s true: Bin Laden wanted us to make this mistake. He wanted America to respond to him by throwing off our carefully-crafted blanket of global respectability to reveal a brutal, repressive hypocrite underneath. He wanted us to stop pretending that we’re the country that handcuffs you and reads you your rights instead of extralegally drone-bombing you from the stratosphere, or putting one in your brain in an Egyptian basement somewhere.
Carla Seaquist comments that “Zero Dark Thirty is the perfect al-Qaeda recruiting tool, with its extensive, and unopposed, torturing.”
Adrian Chen writes that “Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden revenge-porn flick Zero Dark Thirty was the biggest publicity coup for the CIA this century outside of the actual killing of Osama bin Laden.” [Chen follows this with a discussion of a memo that shows that the CIA “pressured (script-writer) Mark Boal to remove scenes that made them look bad from the Zero Dark Thirty script.”]
Not all the critics of Zero Dark Thirty are film reviewers. Some are political commentators like Naomi Wolf, or journalists like Glen Greenwald (well known now for his reporting on WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden).
Wolf claims that
in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race.
Greenwald, writing of the death of Osama bin Laden and Zero Dark Thirty, says that:
This event [killing of bin Laden] has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. . . . For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That’s why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step – the first, indispensable step – in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America’s most hated public enemy.
Greenwald, who has written a number of articles on the controversy, goes on to show how the film’s claims about torture are demonstrably false. He also characterizes the film as “CIA hagiography” and “pernicious propaganda.”
Mayer’s beat is national and international affairs, not film. But she makes a strong case for the falsity of the representation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty.
During a week in which the European Court decided that the CIA was involved in torture during the War on Terror, Mayer writes that
the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces.
As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain [who publicly objected to the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty], clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”
Bigelow and Boal have defended the accuracy of the film in numerous interviews.
Bigelow told Dexter Filkins, in The New Yorker, that “the film doesn’t have an agenda and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” Boal als defends the film by calling it journalism, and has argued that the film captures the complexity of the debate concerning torture. Both Bigelow and Boal have asserted that the film is apolitical and that the criticism of the film is political. They contend that “depiction [of torture] is not endorsement.”
Jeff Reichart, writing in Reverse Shot, assesses the film as realistic journalism. He claims that
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty operates fully within that specific register of realism that has been defined over the last few decades of contemporary cinema. Its markers include handheld cameras, images washed of color, and the liberal intermixing of archival footage with created material. As such, it’s obsessed with achieving journalistic accuracy, which seems to have become the loftiest goal in current cinema.
Then Reichart gets into specifics:
The film begins with a solemn title card announcing that what follows will be “based on first hand accounts” before moving into its most ghoulish segment, in which Bigelow plays, over a darkened screen, the recordings of cell phone calls made from the Twin Towers September 11, 2001, as the planes struck. As Maya’s manhunt continues and the casualties from terror attacks around the world mount, Bigelow pulls in footage from the aftermath of the July 2005 London public transport bombings, and the September 2008 attack on the Islamabad Marriott. This footage is skillfully interwoven with Maya’s search so as to minimize audience disruption – we’re not supposed to feel the shift in registers between scripted Zero Dark Thirty material and the images taken from the news (the protagonist herself is depicted as having just missed being killed in the Marriott explosion). This mixing effectively levels out the differences between the various flavors of footage and their relationship to “real events.” It’s one of the ways in which Zero Dark Thirty successfully overlays the collection of suppositions, condensations, and outright fabrications that is Maya’s narrative on top of our own understanding of the decade-long War on Terror.
Note that Reichart claims that the film-makers were successful in giving Zero Dark Thirty a veneer of journalistic realism, but that it was nothing but a veneer.
Neither Bigelow nor writer Boal, in interviews, ever acknowledge that the realism they traffic in on the way to building their new master narrative about the War on Terror is actually a studious construction. Though it may focus on one of the central global narratives of the past decade and be sourced to the gills, Zero Dark Thirty is still made of the same stuff that all movies, no matter how “realistic” are made of; that this artifice needs to be noted every time a film in this vein rolls around remains a central failure of our culture’s relationship to the moving image (the seductiveness of verisimilitude suggests some of the reasons for film’s ability to captivate and convince on a larger scale than other arts).
Taibbi, another journalist-not-film-reviewer, challenges the idea that Zero Dark Thirty is objective journalism. He writes that Bigelow has
been praised, almost excessively, for being brave enough to “tell the truth” about torture in Zero Dark Thirty. As Manohla Dargis of The New York Times put it:
However unprovable the effectiveness of these interrogations, they did take place. To omit them from “Zero Dark Thirty” would have been a reprehensible act of moral cowardice.
Here’s my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts?
Responding to blog comments to his article, Taibbi writes:
Some wrote in and said that all Bigelow was doing was telling an “objective” story and leaving it to us to sort it out. That’s bullshit. All storytelling is a series of editorial decisions. You decide what to leave in, what to leave out. In doing so you reveal a point of view. They kept to a very narrow storyline that ended in the triumphant capture of bin Laden. The posters don’t say, “WE SOLD OUR SOULS TO GET HIM,” they read, “THE GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY.”
One of the more potent critiques of the claim of journalistic realism in Zero Dark Thirty is that, despite the claims of the film-makers, it is not balanced. Carla Seaquist writes that
from the opening scene – a gruesome extended sequence showing a half-dozen techniques on how to break a detainee – and continuing throughout the entire film, Bigelow and Boal show only one side: intelligence agents engaging in torture, with every other agent on-station, and their controllers in Washington, onboard with the program, no dissent registered, none.
Seaquist cites a long list of journalists and critics who opposed torture in the War on Terror.
Mayer (one of those journalists) also notes that Zero Dark Thirty
doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue. . . . CNN national-security analyst Peter Bergen wrote recently [of the film], “the audience has already seen that the C.I.A. has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama’s opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.”
Taibbi says that
A more accurate movie about the torture program would have been a grotesque comedy that shown grown men resorting to puppet shows and dance routines and fourth-rate sexual indignities dreamed up after spending too much time reading spank mags and BDSM sites – and doing this thousands of times to thousands of people, all over the world, “accidentally” murdering hundreds of people in the process, going to war by mistake at least once as a result of it, and having no clue half the time who they’re interrogating (less than 10 percent of “terror suspects” at places like Bagram were arrested by American forces; most of the rest were brought in by Afghanis or other foreigners in exchange for bounties).
Wolf directly challenges Bigelow’s journalistic claims in her “open letter” article on Zero Dark Thirty:
You claim that your film is “based on real events”, and in interviews, you insist that it is a mixture of fact and fiction, “part documentary”. “Real”, “true”, and even “documentary”, are big and important words. By claiming such terms, you generate media and sales traction – on a mendacious basis.
Wolf, a well-known feminist, can barely contain her feelings of betrayal. Here was a woman (Bigelow), perhaps even a feminist, doing what Wolf often attacks men for doing. She writes:
In a time of darkness in America, at you are being feted by Hollywood, and hailed by major media. But to me, the path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will, which glorified Nazi military power, was a massive hit in Germany. Riefenstahl was the first female film director to be hailed worldwide.
Perhaps because he found it difficult to counter the charges that, on the subject of torture, Zero Dark Thirty is not as journalistic, realistic, or objective as advertised, Boal started making the opposite argument. He said that the film is not a documentary, it is fiction. That is, it is art, not journalism. Boal and Bigelow, then, are only guilty of “artistic licence.”
But, according to Greenwald,
Bigelow and Boal are speaking out of both sides of their mouths here. As noted, she is going around praising herself for taking “almost a journalistic approach to film”. But when confronted by factual falsehoods she propagates on critical questions, her screenwriting partner resorts to the excuse that “it’s a movie, not a documentary.”
Some critics say the film is a actually a subtle criticism of torture. They see in the film a subtle, thematic questioning of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, and claim that the film dramatizes the “moral descent” of the United States during the War on Terror, by showing a country that would stop at nothing, including the most brutal forms of torture, to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.
I barely caught a whiff of a “moral journey/descent” storyline in this film – the closest they came to that was in the first scene, where Maya looks a little grossed out by Clarke’s methods. A few minutes later, though, she’s all street and everything, wearing a hijab and getting some henchman to throw fists at her suspects on command. She went from queasy to hardass in about ten seconds and we didn’t linger on the transformation at all.
For Reichart, it is not just the film-makers who are factitious: film critics – especially those who claim Bigelow as an auteur – have helped to “whitewash” Bigelow and downplay the pro-torture position in Zero Dark Thirty. Reichart writes:
It’s become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable (a replaying of the old Leni Riefenstahl debate again), but is this l’art pour l’art [art for art’s sake] stance any way to watch movies? Isn’t this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn’t we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes? The morally engaged viewer doesn’t necessarily look to the film in question for simple affirmation of his or her viewpoints and reject opposing ideas out of hand. Rather, the moral viewer looks to cinema to encounter a host of perspectives, and can find pleasure in a variety of them so long as the art itself is well reasoned and internally sound. Especially in light of how the filmmakers have spoken about their work, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty becomes less that it ends up making a forceful case for the efficacy of torturing human beings for national security – it’s that one can easily walk away from the film doubting whether Bigelow and Boal have even realized that this is what they’ve done.
Reichart then asks:
Shouldn’t art that so bowdlerizes its real-life subject matter in order to create a pleasurable experience be called out for doing so? The actual quest for bin Laden surely rested more on gradations of tedium as opposed to one manufactured mini-climax after another – why don’t we desire that a “realistic” representation of that hunt fall far closer to that truth? Zero Dark Thirty is just another incredibly well-fashioned product of the same morbid culture that considers weaponry sexy and art featuring evisceration and tales of war fascinating – which is to say, pretty much all of Western culture ever.
Seaquist also faults film critics for abdicating their critical role, in the name of “moral ambiguity”:
“Moral ambiguity” has become a standard artistic choice today, for filmmakers as well as playwrights and novelists, meaning: Rather than put the thumb on the scales for or against an action depicted, the artist professes to leave the moral judging to the audience. Moral questions being by definition about right and wrong, the artist presuming to treat such questions in an ambiguous manner must then show at least two sides (or more) of the question under review.
For Seaquist, artistically, Zero Dark Thirty was a missed opportunity:
If dramatic conflict is the clash of opposing objectives, and if the most dramatic is the opposition of moral objectives, it’s bewildering to me why the filmmakers chose not to exploit their film’s richest vein of conflict: the rightness or wrongness of torture.
It might seem hypocritical for the film-makers to claim that Zero Dark Thirty is both realistic journalism and a work of art, but critics often make this claim for film-makers (see, for instance, reviews of Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years of Slave, that make exactly this claim). Film-makers make this claim for themselves. It can be a productive tension for films, and for directors, if it’s not definitively resolved in favor of one or the other.
In this sense, Bigelow shows herself to be an auteur according to the definition of Andrew Sarris: this is the “interior meaning,” or an underlying tension between the director/s vision and the subject matter. It is the tension between journalistic and creative exposition.
My criticism of Zero Dark Thirty is that instead of holding journalism and art in tension in the film, Bigelow uses journalism as a cover for falsity, and art as a cover for inaccuracy. And what is more, she does so on behalf of a questionable ideology that forgives torture as long as it leads to security.
Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (supposedly) put it: “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” In the case of Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty, we might paraphrase it as: those who sacrifice truth for art, and vice versa, will lose sight of both.
[Some critics have questioned the accuracy of the film’s version of the actual killing of Osama bin Laden, dramatized in the raid that concludes the film. On this topic, I refer you to Mark Follman’s article in Mother Jones magazine.]
University of Maryland
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Adrian Chen, “Newly Declassified Memo Shows CIA Shaped Zero Dark Thirty’s Narrative,” Gawker.com (posted May 6, 2013).
Mark Follman. “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the Mysterious Killing of Osama bin Laden,” Mother Jones (February 22, 2013).
Glenn Greenwald, “Zero Dark Thirty: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda,” The Guardian (December 14, 2012).
Jane Mayer. “Zero Conscience in ‘Zero Dark Thirty,'” The New Yorker (December 14, 2012).
Jeff Reichart, “Desert of the real,” Reverse Shot.
Carla Seaquist, “Society Instructs Hollywood on ‘Moral Ambiguity’ of Torture: Or, What the Zero Dark Thirty Controversy Means,” Huffington Post (September 30, 2013).
Matt Taibbi. “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America, Rolling Stone (January 16, 2013).
Naomi Wolf. “A letter to Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty‘s apology for torture,” The Guardian (January 4, 2013).