I held my peace during the controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty because I was working on an extended consideration of the film and preferred to make my case fully in that venue. Suffice it to say as brief introduction that I think the criticisms of the film, those that accused it of justifying or endorsing torture, or even of misrepresenting the factual record regarding the role of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, to have been grossly wrong. I did not think ZDT to have been the best of the high profile films of 2012 – I give that title to Michael Haneke’s Amour, a very great film – but Bigelow and Mark Boal produced an exceptional work of art. It was an honest and rigorous work chewed up by the political mill and abandoned by a weak-minded and cowardly Hollywood establishment. Here is how I begin at The Fortnightly Review, in “Zero Dark Uncertainty.”
On December 21, 1817, John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas that “at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The capacity to be in uncertainty, without any – how apt the adjective– irritable reaching after fact and reason: how best to describe that penumbral sphere of presence reaching toward meaning that is the realm of art. How not to describe the world of politics. How not to describe GOP members of Congress over many months insisting upon the certain nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. How not to describe the irritable John McCain, the irritable Lindsey Graham, irritable others insisting that there were facts that the Obama administration was obscuring, facts different from any facts to which the administration itself laid claim, even damning facts, such as that the President had watched the attack in real time from the White House situation room and done nothing. The point is made still clearer: the dominion of politics is a far land from the realm of art, one in which facts are irritably asserted and reasons reached at, even if they need to be manufactured. So, then, the response of some, the purely political response, to Zero Dark Thirty.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have produced a depiction of modern intelligence and war craft that is austere, tense, and riveting in its power and sense of reality. In its restraint neither a glorification nor a facile critique of the national security danger zone, its mission is to tell an essential story of perhaps history’s greatest manhunt and to depict the concentrated focus of those professionals who dedicate themselves to such tasks in their lives at a level approached by few. It does not champion or excoriate them, though it does at times honor their dedication and expose – for the viewer to judge – their excesses.
Politicians and ideologues cannot have this complexity.
There is a quite extraordinary article on Huffington Post today by G. Roger Denson. It addresses the controversy over director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal‘s film Zero Dark Thirty and the matter of torture. It is somewhat extraordinary for its length, by HufPo standards, but truly for for the quality of its perceptions and the depth, rigor, and range of its arguments. It raises time-honored issues about the nature and role of art, particularly, explicitly and implicitly, in relation to what I shorthand here partly as journalism, but which I use also to stand in for all the avowedly objective modes of knowledge – including official and unofficial government dissemination of information.
Did torture play a role in extracting information that led, finally, to the killing of Osam bin Laden? Writes Denson,
It is time that U.S. officials do more than admit that the parties responsible for the discrepancies between the film Zero Dark Thirty and the facts of the real interrogations are not the film’s screenwriter and director. The discrepancies are the direct result of the contradictory messages sent by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the Department of Defense, the CIA and FBI, and successive Senate Intelligence Committees to the American public. In short, the film reflects the changing face of politics precisely as the best art should. And as for the debate ensuing over the use of torture by U.S. interrogators, that too is a positive effect of the film, especially as it may yet bring to the surface the shadowy officials past and present who advocated waterboarding and other physically coercive means of intelligence gathering throughout the War on Terror.
It is the severe deficiency of public knowledge concerning the everyday workings of the War on Terror that makes the fictionalization in Zero Dark Thirty not only defensible but necessary for filling the voids in the public’s knowledge required to follow a story about intelligence gathering. Intelligence gathering has always been the filler for fictions involving espionage and military maneuvers.
Current governmental and journalistic critics of the film pretend that there exists and is available, settled knowledge about the role of torture and information extracted by it in the War on Terror. It is the nature of governments, however, to pretend to such knowledge, and of journalists, in thinking they have fulfilled their own mission, to believe they have determined it. Not so for art.
Since Gibney proclaims Bigelow and Boal to be “irresponsible,” he might benefit from considering what responsibility during wartime requires — for instance, that human responsibility must be conditioned on the knowledge of one’s own limits. We have to know our limits to know what we as individuals can and can’t do, in essence what we are and aren’t responsible for, and thereby free to act on. It follows that in not knowing the limits imposed on interrogators with regard to their recourse to torture, Bigelow and Boal as artists are not only acting responsibly in resorting to fictitiously shading in the empty spaces between known CIA activities and the fragmented information released officially by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. The filmmakers are also made more responsible by representing the Bush and Obama administrations precisely as those administrations had represented themselves at the times of their press conferences. Which translates to the American policy on coercive interrogation methods being decidedly pro-waterboarding under Bush-Cheney, and famously anti-waterboarding under Obama-Biden.
But even if Bigelow and Boal were the ones responsible for the discrepancies between the intelligence community’s activities and their depictions of that community in their film, their responsibility as artists is only to their art, not to the intelligence community or the government. The confusion lies within the journalists and the Senators who see the responsibility of artists to be the same as their own responsibilities. But the artist’s responsibility is not akin to those of the journalist or the Senator, whose commitment to the public is to report, or to legislate, morally. Yes, it would be good if the artist were morally and politically on the high road — and Bigelow and Boal are. But there is no requirement that art be honest, which is why Plato banishes the poets from his republic.
The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has challenged the filmmaker’s with this question: “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” Responds Denson,
That’s not to say that Zero Dark Thirty is without moral and political implications. It is filled with them at every step and turn — including the scenes of waterboarding and other coercive methods of interrogation. What the filmmakers decline to do — yet what their critics demand of them — is deduce for the viewer what the final judgments regarding torture should be. … But that is what the art of democracies are supposed to do — allow us our diverse opinions even when they lead to discord. And that is the reason that both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty avoid the pitfalls of propaganda that the film’s critics and the Senate Intelligence Committee seem to be calling for.
Government officials and legislators, seeking the certification in art of their official version, and journalists desiring ratification by art of the fruits of their own work, wish to shape knowledge as objectively determined and settled. But what we claim to know – and where more so than in particle physics and clandestine warfare – is riddled with interstices. Beware of those who, without acknowledging doubt, seek to fill those interstices for us.
Bigelow in 2009 went on record in an interview with the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis concerning her aim as a filmmaker of exposing how “fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time,” not merely on the extreme right or left. It is Bigelow’s curtailment of her own manipulative impulses that resonates with the restraint that we read throughout Zero Dark Thirty.
Denson concludes by challenging, at the very least in principle, if not necessarily in fact, even the received version and reality of bin Laden’s death, which some many journalists, many of whom proved so uncritical and susceptible to official versions regarding Iraq and the War on Terror, nonetheless once again accept on so little evidence.
For the life of the sad red earth until now, I have resisted use of that favored bloggers’ shorthand, which I now employ for the first time.