We watched Zero Dark Thirty on pay-per-view the other night because we'd heard so much about it and because I like to see Ms Chastain tighten her jawline, which she does often in this film. This movie had become a talking point about whether it was proper to toy with the facts when making a fictional presentation about some thing that had actually happened, in this case the hunt for and execution of Osama bin Laden by US forces. The toying involved the implication that data extracted via torture had aided in locating the target, a claim that had been refuted by many in the know about those events. Karen Bigelow, the film's director, had used the familiar "it's fiction" excuse, which I use all the time myself, which is why I decided to break my rule about not witnessing any fictional violence any more and watch the film. I wanted to see how torture was presented in a modern American movie.
The torture scene is, of course, an action movie staple. We may recall the constant elements. The victim is invariably the hero or the hero's best friend or girlfriend, and the setting is some grim warehouse, or government cellar, or secret mountain retreat. The torturer is always the villain--and boy, is he ever cruel! He smiles, he is clearly enjoying his power over the victim, he is clearly very wicked indeed, and the underlying message is that only minions of wicked governments--the Nazis! the Japs! the Commies!--or criminal thugs use torture. This sense was implanted in me as a child watching movies about World War II and I suppose this is true of most members of my generation.
Thus I had a clear sense of the world turned upside down when I saw an actor, Jason Clarke, playing an American CIA agent, torture a man in order to get information that might lead to the whereabouts of Bin Laden. Quite aside from whether torture is justified, or was justified in this case, or if it actually took place in the hunt for bin Laden, the presentation of torture in this film was immensely shocking because of the style with which it was portrayed. The actor was not shown as a brute or a sadist. He was a typical genial American with the affect of a high school soccer coach, and not then or thereafter in the film did he or anyone else suggest that doing torture was anything but a kind of frat boy prank, a little tasteless perhaps, but no biggie.
Remember Kiss of the Spider Woman? Two prisoners in a cell under an oppressive regime in Latin America, and the one brilliantly played by William Hurt has been placed there to wheedle information out of the other one, a dissident, and much of the action consists in Hurt telling the dissident about the plot of his favorite movie, also called Kiss of the Spider Woman. This film, it turned out, was a Nazi propaganda film, in which heroic Gestapo agents foil a plot by wicked Jews, the point being that one can make a compelling and aesthetically pleasing film based on evil assumptions and that such a film may entrance idiots, that is, those with no historical comprehension or moral sense. The dissident actually rails at the William Hurt character for liking a film based on an evil premise.
Zero Dark Thirty is our version of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Nazi film, not the one with William Hurt. It tells us that torture is kind of okay in defense of what we are now asked to call the Homeland (and doesn't that have a fascist ring to it? It used to be "our country" or just “America.” Can “Fatherland” be far off?). No one in the film regrets the torture, no one experiences any psychological effects from doing it, it's all cool because we got bin Laden, just like what the Gestapo did was cool because, you know, those Bolshevik Jews were undermining everything decent in Western civilization.
In real life, not so cool. The good news, if you can call it that, is that so many of our people are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. We don't really know what causes PTSD or why some people have it and others don't. It may be that PTSD comes from unbearable experiences--you get blown up, you see your friends killed, and the rest of the horrors. But it also must come from the things our soldiers do to others in a war where the other side does not wear uniforms and combat takes place among civilian populations. If you do atrocities (and does anyone believe that the few that get prosecuted are the only one that happened?) you're supposed to get PTSD. That's what distinguishes us from those war-movie Nazis, or from the real Wehrmacht for that matter. True, our guys now wear Wehrmacht-style helmets, but unlike the actual Wehrmacht we dont shoot hostages, or routinely impose collective punishment, and writing this I realize what a thin line now divides our country from the worst regime in human history. We don't shoot hostages or routinely impose collective punishment! What a proud boast, America!
Which is why Zero Dark Thirty is a lie, no matter how excellent an action film or the obsessive loving detail in which it renders the assassination of our national enemy; and, by the way, that single tear that Jessica Chastain sheds in the last scene just doesn't cut it.