Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

The debate is clearly a classic example of how “experts” in other areas leap onto a film for something that appears to be “content” and therefore easily extracted and abstracted as if it were a policy statement or essay.  This move typically happens around sex and violence and the torture debate fits right in.  The film aids and abets it by avoiding any clear cut pov on torture.  But this is itself where some more attention to form comes in handy.

My sense is that torture is as big a focal point as it is in the film because Bigelow and Boal didn’t really have a plot to develop otherwise!  It doesn’t really condone or condemn it and our hero’s (Jessica Chastain’s) grimaces are neatly counterbalanced by her presence at the moments of torture, and they tilt toward acceptance when she more actively goes along with it, rejecting an appeal from a prisoner [why are they called “detainees” other than to legitimate their pseudo-legal status as suspects when they are individuals deprived of any and all of their rightst?].  Her sense of human decency gets trumped by her urgent desire for information, at any cost, and now.

The film then accepts torture [and thankfully doesn’t use that hideous euphemism of “enhanced interogation”] as government policy under Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld/Rice, et. al., but Zero Dark Thrity also makes clear that waterboarding etc. didn’t produce miracles at all and that the real info was under the CIA agents’ noses all along and would have been “actionable” sooner if they had sifted through things with greater care, esp in terms of knowing people in their specificity.

Confusions about names and identities are cruclal to allowing vital information that could have led to Bin Laden go overlooked for six years! (a hard point to turn into narrative since the very thing that could drive the story is taken off the table).  All the complexities of an person’s individuality, including his family ties, name, appearance, and so on, are the very thing torture denies as it tries to dehumanize the person and extract “information” from them as if from a truth-speaking machine.  The CIA doesn’t seem to ever learn that but they adapt to a new policy by President Obama and go back to sifting through their existing information; that is what sets the real plot, which starts about an hour into the film–an underdeveloped but also overblown account of how the decision to “take out” Bin Laden was made and how the raid itself was planned, rehearsed and staged. Try to count the number and whereabouts of the helicopters involved in the mission and you can begin to get a sense of how sloppy the film is on detail and how bloated it is on torture, largely, I suggest, to use that “content” to cover over some serious narrative deficiencies in the actual form of the film.



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