Zero Dark Thirty and Torture


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.

Read the rest here.


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