Zero Dark Thirty and the value of ambiguity

Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatization of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, is up for five Academy Awards, but the movie has hardly been universally adored. While most critics swooned, political pundits in particular have taken the picture to task over its handling of the topic of torture.

The debate began in early December when The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald – before having seen the film – denounced it for fabricating history and glorifying torture as an effective military tool. Those sentiments have been echoed in op-ed pieces since. According to this line of thinking, even suggesting that torture is effective as an information-gathering method is in essence an endorsement of the practice. And by allowing torture to be depicted without explicit comment, the argument goes, Zero Dark Thirty supports it.

There is a reason the fault line on this picture is so defined, with political columnists on one side and film critics on the other. Movies are wily creations, a fact reviewers are more comfortable with than pundits. If you expect them to always project a clear and cohesive message, you’re going to be disappointed (this can happen, but generally only in bad movies). Most often – and at their best – films are messy works of art that mutate depending on the cultural climate and the subjective nature of the audience.

In reading the complaints about Zero Dark Thirty, I get the sense that its opponents feel there is only one way to handle torture onscreen: with flashing text stating, “Torture is wrong. It is not effective. It did not lead to bin Laden. Torture is wrong.” As someone whose Christian principles lead me to believe that torture is an imago dei-damaging act that has no place in a Christ-like pursuit of justice, I agree that torture is always wrong. I also wish that we lived in a society in which it was commonly understood that torture is ineffective. But we don’t, and so we are forced to confront this terrible question: if torture was effective, would it be morally acceptable to employ it in the hunt for someone like bin Laden and in the hope of saving innocent lives?

Zero Dark Thirty’s detractors have exaggerated the connection the movie makes between torture and capturing bin Laden (although we see information being gleaned via heinous acts of violence, I never had the impression that this directly led to the terrorist’s capture). Nevertheless, the movie’s ambiguity on this point did put my theoretical stance on torture to a “real-world” test. It forced me to answer that tough question in a way that a preachy denouncement of torture would not have done. 

In other words, Zero Dark Thirty respected and provoked me as an audience member. Writing about the movie in Books & Culture, Paul D. Miller—notably not a film critic—applauded the picture for being willing to challenge its audience. “[Director Kathryn] Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves,” he wrote.

All of this leaves the open question as to what Zero Dark Thirty itself thinks about torture. As I’ve noted above, this depends entirely on how you read the film. Greenwald’s reading—he later did go and see the movie—is that the film is misleading on torture in general and on its use in the hunt for bin Laden in particular. I, in turn, find the movie deeply mournful, especially the final moments, which detail bin Laden’s death with nothing remotely resembling a jingoistic flourish (Elijah Davidson offers an especially eloquent detailing of this at Reel Spirituality).

We must allow movies to be read so differently, and to use narrative tools that will make room for such varied readings. Otherwise, in our rush to demand that a picture says the right thing about a topic in the right way, we come perilously close to something not nearly as troublesome as torture, but still worrisome: the shadow of artistic censorship.

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Great column. I could have used these eloquent words when I was stumbling over my own just last night on this topic with friends.
In the end I think it’s a good thing that we are talking about it, and if it takes a movie to get us to do that, at the conversation is happening.

Very well said.  Thank you!

I completely agree with this, and would add that moral ambiguity - in a deeply broken world - doesn’t have to be the relativist “there is no truth” hallmark Christians sometimes make it out to be.

Zero Dark Thirty is a great example of this - yes, an evil man was killed, but the world that necessitated that killing in the first place is broken and flawed and barely better off with bin Laden dead. Whatever hope there is in life, doesn’t come through military victories or “enemies” being punished.

This is a message we as followers of Jesus should resonate with, I think.

I think this review oversimplifies the concerns and objections of the various objections to the film. For example, Greenwald doesn’t believe that the effectiveness of torture counts as an endorsement of it, he worries about the practical effects of presenting as fact (Bigelow proclaimed an “almost journalistic approach”) something that is not true. But setting all that aside, the review irks me because it lashes out at its critics in the same erroneous way that Bigelow did in her own defense in the LA Times, i.e., by accusing critics of wanting to deny Bigelow her first amendment rights.  Larsen argues “Otherwise, in our rush to demand that a picture says the right thing about a topic in the right way, we come perilously close to something not nearly as troublesome as torture, but still worrisome: the shadow of artistic censorship.”

There’s all the difference in the world between strong disagreement and even condemnation and censorship.

Thanks for your comment, Mike. I understand your concern over my raising the issue of censorship; indeed, that’s why I hedge my bets a bit by using the phrase “shadow of artistic censorship.” Certainly Bigelow’s freedom of speech has not been restricted in any way. Yet I would argue that the response by some to Zero Dark Thirty has gone far beyond “strong disagreement” and, indeed, taken the tone of “condemnation,” to use your words. Part of this has been the phenomenon of denouncing the film before seeing it (something others besides Greenwald have felt comfortable doing). That casts a shadow to me.

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