Zero Dark Art vs Journalism


Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

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.

Read the whole thing.


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2 thoughts on “Zero Dark Art vs Journalism

  1. Thank you for talking about this article–it was fantastic to read, certainly one of the best things that the Huffington Post has put up lately.

    I hope to see ZDT, because I would like to watch it for myself and not rely on the blather from people who already have an axe to grind with the film without even seeing it–like Glen Greenwald, for instance.

    1. According to his Greenwaldness, he did finally see it. But the man’s axe has grown duller and duller. Not that it was ever sharp to begin with.

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