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Society Instructs Hollywood on 'Moral Ambiguity' of Torture: Or, What the Zero Dark Thirty Controversy Means

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Is Hollywood, which prides itself on instructing Society on things moral---about bad wars like Vietnam and Iraq, about civil rights, about corruption in business and politics---now taking instruction from Society?

In the matter of the film Zero Dark Thirty and the moral issue of torture, it seems so---and what an encouraging development this is.

So great was the pushback from the conscientious public against the film's apparent assertion that torture was key to finding Osama bin Laden that, while controversy is not unwelcome in Hollywood, this time it was so negative---and morally compelling---that the film was shut out from the industry's biggest prize, the Oscars. The filmmakers' earlier film, The Hurt Locker, won Oscars in 2010 for Kathryn Bigelow for directing, Mark Boal for best original screenplay, and the film for best picture.

Forced in the firestorm over their new film's tacit approval of torture to enunciate their artistic precepts, Bigelow and Boal stated that, on the morality of torture, "The film doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge"; their stated intent, then, was moral ambiguity. Moreover, they approached their content "journalistically"; the film's opening note states the film is based on "first-hand accounts." (See also here.)

"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.

But, 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. In short, the filmmakers left the "ambi" out of ambiguity. This unanimity includes the central character, a CIA agent named Maya, who, though squeamish observing her first torture session, quickly adapts. With the obsessive Maya as the point-of-view character, shown continuously studying computer screens in a ten-year search for bin Laden, we get not a whiff of the public protest outside her bubble that was mounted by commentators, politicians, clergy, conscientious citizens, and, importantly, other intelligence agents, all railing at the crimes against humanity and America's ideals being committed by Maya and her ilk. Didn't she ever click her mouse on "News"?

Even the passage from the pro-torture Bush administration to that of Barack Obama, who abolished torture, barely impinges, raising no moral comment other than a departing agent's counsel to those remaining behind not to be the last one holding "the dog collar" when the new oversight committee comes in---a reference to a particularly revolting torture technique exposed when Abu Ghraib broke. Tellingly, rather than show Obama in active campaign mode inveighing against torture, the filmmakers show him on a background monitor, in professorial mode, speaking in an interview of the need to recover America's moral stature. If I tracked right, that was the only mention in the film of the word "moral," nearly inaudible as it was.

So: Contrary to the filmmakers' stated intent of moral ambiguity, the film is so un-ambiguously pro-torture, and so free of moral conflict, that The New York Times' Frank Bruni opened a column with this: "I'm betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty," an allusion to the former vice-president of the United States who, after 9/11, girded the country for the need to operate on "the dark side."

But: There were many of us, heartsick as the Bush-Cheney administration blindly dragged this country to the dark side, descending to torture, who railed all the way---at the immorality, the criminality, the unconstitutionality, the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of detainees, the destruction of America's reputation as moral beacon.

Protesting torture, in an avalanche of commentary after Abu Ghraib broke in May 2004, were leading journalists like Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, whose book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, is considered definitive. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, famous for exposing My Lai, was early in exposing Abu Ghraib. Other journalists who were early to the subject and kept at it included reporters Douglas Jehl, James Risen, Eric Schmitt, Scott Shane, Thom Shanker, Kate Zernike and columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times; and Mark Danner of The New York Review of Books, author of the book, Torture and Truth. For my part, I contributed commentary to The Christian Science Monitor (including here and here); in addition to the shame, I feared that, if captured, our troops could be tortured in revenge---a downside to torturing that never occurs to Maya and her colleagues or, for that matter, to the filmmakers.

But none of this anti-torture opposition is reflected in Zero Dark Thirty, not even as background chatter. Nor are the politicians who objected, notably Republican senator John McCain who broke with his party to decry what torture says about us as a country and whose views bear extra weight, McCain having endured years of torture in Vietnam. Nor is dissent from figures inside the government reflected, such as from lawyers Alberto J. Mora (also here) and Matthew Waxman at the Defense Department and Jack Goldsmith at Justice. Nor does the film note any reaction in the public at large to the shame of torture, for one example, the emergence of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). Society mounted substantial moral resistance, but the film takes no notice, thus failing in its "journalistic" approach. Like the intelligence unit it focuses on, the film is itself confined to a bubble.

But even within that bubble there was moral pushback---from fellow agents who read the riot act and left the room when the "rough stuff" got underway. In her book Mayer tells of FBI agents calling a halt to their cooperation with the CIA's interrogation program when it crossed into torture, with one agent declaring, "We don't do that. It's what our enemies do!" She describes FBI agent Jim Clemente's heroic efforts to steer interrogations at Guantanamo away from torture, and tells of shouting matches between agents and military officers over their varying interpretations of the Constitution, with agents flinging accusations of criminal behavior. Another internal dissenter is former FBI agent Ali Soufan (also here). Though Soufan objects to torture not on moral but efficacy grounds, insisting "rapport-building" techniques work better, in his book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, he tells of a CIA agent who commiserated with him, saying, "There are the Geneva Conventions on torture. It's not worth losing myself for this."

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. Imagine it: A fellow agent, CIA or FBI, storms out of a torture session, then out in the corridor confronts Maya post-torture, and challenges her on any number of grounds---Constitution, Geneva Conventions, or, territory completely unexplored, her soul---conflict which plants the worm of doubt in her obsessive mind. Then, finally, we'd have a proper antagonist, along with a morally interesting protagonist.

As it is, instead of dramatic conflict the film settles for bureaucratic tension, of the Washington-doesn't-get-us kind, and for cheesy cinematic effects, as when, post-torture, Maya pulls off her mask and her long red hair tumbles out. It matters not if Maya's moral antagonists are in the minority; in fact, it's all the more dramatic if they are.

Moreover, these moral antagonists, whether agents or ordinary citizens, are more than a match in motivation to the driven Maya. It all starts with one's basal reaction to torture; for many of us, the test was Abu Ghraib and its images. First comes the nausea, instantaneous, that America could fall this low; then the rage; then molding the rage into conviction, so as to be coherent, functional, push back effectively, not get ill physically or emotionally. But always, there's the rage at the moral shame.

Quite beyond the filmmakers' frame and quite beyond their control, it's this moral rage in the public that greeted their product and forced a defensive crouch.

A powerful line of attack came from Capitol Hill (here and here), fired by Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who with senators Carl Levin and John McCain wrote a letter to Sony Pictures Entertainment, protesting that the film's emphasis on torture in finding bin Laden is "grossly inaccurate and misleading" to public opinion, and making the moral point that having engaged in torture remains "a stain on our national conscience." By coincidence, Feinstein's committee has just completed a three-year, 6,000-page report of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. (Feinstein and McCain say they hope this report will be declassified and made public, once a review is completed. Certainly the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty shows that torture's morality as well as utility are very much live issues, thus meriting the report's release.)

Leading the media attack on the film were voices that, importantly, were heard when it mattered---when torture was official U.S. policy promoted and defended by the pugnacious Cheney (here, here, and here)---as well as others (here, here, and here). The title of Mayer's blast---"Zero Conscience for Zero Dark Thirty"---states it for much of the criticism. Noting the filmmakers' intent of ambiguity, Mayer asks the ultimate question: "Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?" (emphasis mine). Steve Coll writing for The New York Review of Books calls the film's emphasis on torture "disturbing" and "misleading" and notes that, while a bare majority still opposes torture, polls show public support for it has been rising, a change attributed in part to "entertainment"---which is why "It's only a movie" isn't a defense. David Bromwich of The Huffington Post also calls out the filmmakers' claim of neutrality:

"If you depict actions once thought to be monstrous, and you do so in a manner that renders them thinkable and even justified, you are going a long way to endorse what you have depicted."

And legal scholar Karen J. Greenberg, author of two books on torture, makes a crucial point about President Obama's decision not to prosecute those holding the dog collar, but instead "turn the page" and "not look back":

"The sad truth is that Zero Dark Thirty could not have been produced in its present form if any of the officials who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it. With...no public record of accountability, Bigelow feels free to leave out even a scintilla of criticism of that torture program. Her film is thus one more example of the fact that without accountability, the pernicious narrative continues, possibly gaining traction as it does."

Which brings us to the core point: It's because this film's "pernicious narrative"---of America engaging in torture without any internal opposition---could gain traction, could become accepted as historical fact that I go on at this length and at this pitch: It implies we were all morally complicit in the crime. As one reporter noted about the director "getting hammered" for her film: "Most important---in her unflinching willingness to make us, as viewers, feel every ounce of the pain inflicted on the detainees, every sting of the lash, so to speak---she makes all of us accomplices in the act."

To which I say: Like hell we were all complicit! Watch who you call "we," Hollywood. Masses of Americans never succumbed to the fear that permits others to cross the line into criminal or inhumane behavior. Despite fierce pressure, we never bought the message that to "fight the terrorists" you had to lose your soul.

No, the complicit parties here are the filmmakers, who in their research entered the belly of the beast---and got stuck there, without compass. Hints of this complicity were signaled in news reports (here and here) of the filmmakers' extensive interviews with, and unprecedented access to, intelligence operatives involved in the torture program. Cliché aside, Zero Dark Thirty is the perfect al-Qaeda recruiting tool, with its extensive, and unopposed, torturing.

Signs are not good that Bigelow and Boal have learned much from their hammering. Both were quoted recently saying they believe the criticism of Zero Dark Thirty is "political" (here and here). No, the criticism---like the public opposition to torture when it was happening---is moral: Torture, most of us believe, is wrong, unambiguously. Had the filmmakers dramatized the moral conflict, they might have created Art. As it is, how else to describe them---as well as other "artists" working today who can't distinguish a moral question when they see it and in their blindness go on to mangle or trivialize the result---as anything other than hacks? As craftsmen, Bigelow and Boal are superb (I almost couldn't breathe during the film's last sequence, the SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound), but as moral artists, no---although America does believe in redemption.

As for torture, we await a deeper, more morally rounded examination from Hollywood. How about a film that shows how torture can lead to bad information, as in the lie about weapons of mass destruction, extracted under torture, that led directly to the Iraq war?

It can be argued---would that there were more argument!---that most of America's problems are moral in nature. In addition to torture, the list includes bad wars; gun violence; income inequality; corruption in politics, in business, even in the church, a moral institution. There's no end of material for the moral artist.

It can also be argued that today's Hollywood has lost the moral voice that, once upon a time, it had, when it produced thought-provoking movies like The Lost Weekend, Gentleman's Agreement, High Noon, 12 Angry Men, Paths of Glory, Judgment at Nuremberg, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, and recent anti-war films like Platoon. But today, Hollywood goes for buff bodies and "edgy" premises and visceral experience, not so much for dramas of conscience. It's good to remember that, once upon a time, in Casablanca, every refugee biding time in Rick's café wanted to get to America---because America was a moral beacon.

The encouraging development in all the controversy about Zero Dark Thirty is this: that Society instructed Hollywood on a vital moral matter, torture. Film, whether big-screen or TV, is a powerful medium of representation; it has the power to define. And with this controversy, Society pushed back and said we do not like how this film represents or defines us---as a morally vacant people---especially in this post-9/11 era of national testing. While our main problems are moral, we have the antidote: a conscientious public. But that public needs more of a voice, a bigger role in film.

So: The moral beacon still flickers in America. Analyze that, Hollywood.

For my critique of Bigelow and Boal's film, "The Hurt Locker, as "apolitical," see here.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."