16 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: the moral responsibility of artists revisited

Some people who may not have considered it their business to question whether the complaisant attitude of Chinese author Mo Yan toward his country's government made him worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature may fell more comfortable questioning whether the American film director Kathryn Bigelow deserves another Academy Award. Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director award in 2009, for The Hurt Locker, and was considered a front-runner for another Oscar until last Thursday, when her new film, Zero Dark Thirty, was nominated for Best Picture, but she was denied a nomination for direction. Since then, people have wondered whether her exclusion was an aesthetic or a political judgment. Zero Dark Thirty portrays the torture of accused terrorists during the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. As I wrote on my Mondo 70 blog, the film portrays torture as arguably necessary but certainly not sufficient to the discovery of bin Laden, and observes torture with the same ambivalence with which it contemplates the entire hunt for the arch-terrorist. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal aspire to objectivity in their portrayal of torture, but any inferred refusal to take a stand on the subject will fail to satisfy those who expect or require everyone to take a stand. The severest critics act on the assumption that everyone has taken a stand, whether they say so, think so, or not. If you're not with them in explicitly condemning torture, you're against them and a champion of it.

Bigelow has written an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times clarifying her own position as a filmmaker. On the question of fact, she writes: "I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore." On the question of art:

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

Critics question whether Bigelow has shone adequate light on America's dark deeds. For them, setting aside the historical debate over whether torture was even as necessary as the film appears to show, "shining light" in the merely observational manner of Zero Dark Thirty is an insufficient response to a self-evident dark deed. By coincidence, the newest New York Review of Books just reached me, and in its pages is a representative statement of the critical position from the bestselling journalist Steve Coll. He notes fairly enough that Bigelow and Boal ask for trouble immediately by identifying their film in a title card as "Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events." Having done that, Coll argues, they can't dodge the historical question of torture's role in the hunt for bin Laden. Beyond that, Coll contends that the historical and moral questions are really inseparable; that people questioned the use and efficacy of torture while the enhanced-interrogation regime was in effect; that any truthfully dramatic account of the story should include this extensive and often impassioned questioning. In his own words:

There is no secret about this strain of dissent within the government about the CIA program ... None of this sort of argument is available to viewers of Zero Dark Thirty. It would hardly have undermined the film’s drama to have included such strong dissents, even in passing, in the interest of journalism that was more complete.

Dramatic license, in Coll's opinion, gives Bigelow and Boal no excuse to evade moral questions about torture. He holds their film to a journalistic standard they supposedly aspire to themselves, but in saying "It would hardly have undermined the film's drama," Coll also holds art to a moral standard. Is it a different standard from Bigelow's? She says "depiction is not endorsement," but Coll or other critics might argue that selective depiction -- a failure to depict the moral objections Coll considers essential to the story -- becomes implicit endorsement. By insisting that moral objections were part of the objective history Bigelow partially portrays, Coll seems to be saying something different from those critics who apparently believe that not to condemn is to condone. He, at least, is not complaining that Bigelow failed to editorialize the torture scenes so that everyone would see that torture is wrong. But would Coll  have any complaint against the film if it didn't boast of its basis in fact in that opening card? His closing comments suggest that he'd still condemn the movie. As if tiring of the objective debate over torture's role, he writes that Zero Dark Thirty perpetuates a "timid tautology that justifies torture by coincidence: if terrorist attacks were prevented while enhanced interrogations were used, torture must be essential to preventing terrorist attacks. Coll is finally intolerant of "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture" that he equates with the debate over climate change. Bigelow is guilty of "enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate." Here he is saying that not to condemn is to condone. Is such a position compatible with "depiction is not endorsement?" Is a middle ground between alleged complacency and obligatory commitment possible for artists addressing controversial subjects? The answer should be yes, but that answer doesn't exempt artists from criticism in a free society for perceived moral failings. If Kathryn Bigelow has been judged and found wanting by some, that didn't stop her film from winning the box-office race in its first weekend of wide release. What that judgment means is another story.

Update: Matt Taibbi has joined the debate in Rolling Stone, claiming to be "blown away," and not in a good way, by the "depiction is not endorsement" argument, He questions Bigelow's sincerity with this argument: "If Bigelow really means that, I have a rhetorical question for her: Are audiences not supposed to cheer at the end of the film, when we get bin Laden? They cheered in the theater where I watched it." I cite this so I can offer a counterexample. I watched the film in a fairly crowded theater on a Saturday afternoon. No one cheered the killing of bin Laden. Audience cheering has been mentioned elsewhere as a reason to deplore Zero Dark Thirty. But whether audiences cheer or not has less to do with the director's intentions than Taibbi suggests. I've seen people laugh at some of the grimmest films because some people can't help laughing about anything. Their laughter wouldn't prove that the director of the film they're watching believes that life's a joke. If people cheer when Bigelow shows bin Laden's death, it probably has a lot to do with the opinion people had of him before they entered the theater.


Anonymous said...

To answer the question on the morality of torture first requires a proof of morality to begin with. We can defend torture as moral under the same terms that bin Laden can claim his actions as moral.

Until we all agree to a "morality" that everyone follows - good guys as well as bad guys - we have no true basis for judging the morality of anything.

Anonymous said...

I think my position on this subject is this: given the old "hidden nuclear bomb" scenario, I would say there can be a justification for torture, but only with the understanding that if it is proven the victim holds no credible information regarding the basis for his torture, the torturer[s] and whomever may have authorized the torture must forfeit their lives.