I haven’t yet seen Kathryn Bigelow’s film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the successful hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but I’ve been keeping at least half an ear to the conversation swirling about the internet about the portrayal of torture in the film. The film opens, apparently, with a graphic scene of brutal interrogation by American CIA officers. And it at least suggests that torture produced useful results (whether that was Bigelow’s intent or not, it’s certainly the impression the film made on many viewers, both critics and fans). If you’re interested in the substance of that debate, Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman are good places to start for opposing views of what the film is up to (both are resolutely anti-torture, but disagree on where the film comes down on the question).
Reflecting on the question, though, I wondered how one could effectively incorporate the subject of torture into a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty” without appearing to condone or at least excuse it. I tend to think that the laws of good storytelling are the ultimate culprits if critics of the film are right.
A good story typically has a clear arc, with either a comic or a tragic ending. In a well-told story with a comic arc, discordant notes that cut against the comic grain can serve any number of specific purposes, but if the story holds together those purposes will ultimately be subordinated to the overall arc of the story. A hero may have profound flaws – but those flaws actually make us like him even more, because they humanize him. If the flaws are integral enough to the hero’s personality, the heroic arc of the story may even appear to justify those flaws. And people who pride themselves on their taste and sophistication are particularly likely to prefer stories with “complex” and “flawed” heroes over the kinds of stories where the hero, as part of her journey, “overcomes” or “triumphs over” her flaws.
In this case, the ending is comic – the hunt for Bin Laden is successful. The filmmakers were committed to writing a serious and complex story, though, not a patriotic fable. They wanted to show the “dark side” of the war on terror. But what is the function of that “dark side” in the story? Well, there are only so many choices. The dark side could be the preserve of cardboard villains – people who have no genuine patriotic motives, or who, even if they are well-intentioned, need to be explicitly overcome in order for the hero (America) to achieve its goal (hunting down Bin Laden). But this would make for an emotionally simpler story, a fictional world in which the good things all go together – we can achieve our goal without compromising our morals. That probably wouldn’t have satisfied the filmmakers.
Alternatively, the dark side could be shown to be integral to victory. Without torture, we’d never have gotten Bin Laden. That’s the kind of message that comes across from the television show, “24,” that routinely shows torture to be effective. That’s what some people are accusing “Zero Dark Thirty” of doing, but I doubt that’s the case, because this is another kind of simplified storytelling – this is the easy kind of “hard truth” that some people find emotionally reassuring in times of crisis. I found a version of it reassuring myself in times past.
The third, most sophisticated way to use the “dark side” is as counterpoint. So: it’s not that we had to banish the dark side to win, nor is it that the dark side was necessary to victory, but that the dark side is just that: the dark side. An unpleasant side effect of an effort that, overall, was just and worthy. We didn’t need to torture in order to get Bin Laden. But it was, on some level, predictable that we would torture.
I suspect this is what Bigelow and Mark Boal, the screenwriter, were after. But the thing is, if the comic thrust of the story is clear enough (comic in the sense of having an upbeat ending, not in the sense of being amusing), the story itself is going to produce a great deal of pressure to justify the dark side. If the quest itself was necessary and just, and the dark side, while neither necessary nor just in and of itself was an inevitable consequence of the quest, then, we will conclude, it was, in some sense, justified. Because the only way to be sure to avoid it was not to go on the just and necessary quest.
Now, one might object: why are these the only choices? Why do I have to depict torture either as an obstacle to the quest, or as contributing to the success of the quest, or as an inevitable side-effect of the quest? Why can’t it just be a terrible thing that we did, with no particular implications for the quest? Because, I answer, if it’s not in the story for a reason, then why is it in the story you are telling? There has to be an answer for that question – the audience will look for one if you don’t provide one. And if your point is to say “this has nothing to do with the story” then I’m afraid that point is going to become your story, and will eclipse the story of the quest. So long as you are telling a story fundamentally about the quest, everything else is going to be understood in relation to that story.
Take a look, by way of comparison, at Shakespeare’s Henry V. The play appears to be a patriotic fable – the story of how a once-wayward prince comes into his own as a heroic king. But there are a variety of discordant notes – beginning right at the top of the play, with the transparent sophistry used to justify the war with France, the material motives of the clergy in advancing that sophistry, and the determination of King Henry to make the clergy who provide him with that justification formally responsible for the war, thereby absolving his own conscience. All of this, along with subsequent incidents with Hal’s old Eastcheap companions, provides an ironic counterpoint to the patriotic surface. The effect, though, is to draw us closer to King Henry. We are not repelled by his decision to hang Bardolph – we feel his pain as he chooses his role as king over his role as friend – and even the fact that the war is basically without justification throws a positive light on King Henry. The cause will do nothing for him; he himself must move his soldiers to fight. And he does.
And then, late in the battle, the king gives an order that is hard to justify. Fearing the French are regrouping for a counter-attack, he orders the slaughter of the prisoners, an clear war-crime in Henry’s day as well as ours. Shakespeare’s text is a bit muddled on whether the order was carried out – the king orders the slaughter a second time as part of the “I was not angry since I came to France/ Until this instant” speech, and then after the battle he asks for an accounting of how many prisoners the English took, as if unaware that only minutes before he had ordered their murder. (There’s a good account of the muddle in the title essay of Henry V, War Criminal? And Other Shakespeare Puzzles.) But the order is given, and if you stage the play you have to figure out what to do with it. What are your choices?
Well, if you are Lawrence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh, you cut it. Problem solved – at the price of, arguably, whitewashing the record. You can show no consequence of the order – in which case, the audience is likely to forget it ever happened, since it serves no clear purpose (or, if you cut the first order but leave the second, it’ll read as moral fury over the slaughter of the boys with the baggage, and win the audience over to Henry’s side emotionally while avoiding tarring him with the consequences of his words – again, a whitewash). Or you can stage the slaughter. What then?
In my experience, “what then” depends greatly on how the end of the play is staged. If it is staged as a comic triumph – which is how it is written, up until the epilogue that ironically (and wonderfully) undoes the whole effect of the play by reminding us of the futility of the entire enterprise – then the slaughter of the prisoners becomes assimilated to our largely positive view of King Henry. We make excuses for him. We justify it as the “dark side” of a noble quest – if not the quest to conquer France, then the quest to become a heroic king. If, on the other hand, we are given a “dark Henry” in which even the king’s attempts at French do not amuse his destined bride, then they won’t amuse us much either, and the story becomes an ironic tragedy dressed up in the tatters of comedy, and no longer the story of a noble quest of any kind.
Shakespeare, like reality, is too complex to be reduced to one or another interpretation, but any one production will give us one version, hopefully a strong one that keeps our interest, and if it is strong then the discordant elements of the play will come together by the end. So, too, with the distinction between film and reality with respect to torture. Inasmuch as the film is a strong one, and inasmuch as it has an overall comic arc, and inasmuch as it didn’t want to resort to the kind of moral tidiness that we associate with children’s fables, I would be very surprised if it managed to avoid appearing to justify torture. No matter how awful the actions of the hero are, if the story makes it clear that he is the hero, we’ll find a way to justify them.