Alleva & Zizek on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, which appears in the February 8 issue of Commonweal, Richard Alleva defends the film’s controversial treatment of torture:
[Kathryn] Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal have been accused of justifying torture because, in their film, the threat of torture to a man already disenchanted with Al Qaeda leads to information about a courier who, in turn, leads the CIA to bin Laden. Understandably, many of those who make this accusation want to hear that torture never works and so can be forsworn without cost. But what if torture had led to bin Laden’s death? Would that mean it must be defended? Shouldn’t we reject a successful abomination?
Rather than telling us that the end justifies the means, Boal and Bigelow create the character of Maya (based on several CIA agents, male and female), who will use any means necessary to kill bin Laden. Maya begins her tour of duty in Pakistan, sickened by the torture she witnesses. But she refuses to distance herself from it; she insists on being in the room where it’s happening rather than watching it on a monitor, as the head interrogator recommends. Her honesty about what she’s getting into keeps her close to the victim’s agony. More than close—it makes her complicit: she carries over the water used to half-drown the suspect.[...]
There is nothing jaunty, swashbuckling, or comical in its treatment of the mission to kill bin Laden. It soon becomes clear that this mission is such a wearying, soul-scarring process that it requires a kind of fanaticism to see it through. Mere ambition and devotion to duty aren’t enough. Maya’s initial collaborator, Dan, is efficient at brutal interrogation, but he’s also drained by it and finally seeks a transfer. It’s the perpetually wound-up, unsmiling Maya who’s right for the job.
Slavoj Zizek disagrees. In an article posted at Religion and Ethics, Zizek insists that to depict torture “neutrally” is a kind of obscenity, if not a tacit endorsement. He asks us to imagine a “neutral” depiction of the Nazi death camps, one “focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators.” Zizek thinks it’s pretty clear that Bigelow does not count on her film’s stylistic neutrality to engender dismay and horror. At most, she wants to show viewers the implications of the war on terror so that they can coolly consider whether the death of bin Laden—or the defeat of Al Qaeda more generally—is worth the suffering caused by what the U.S. government has called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Zizek thinks we’re in bad shape if we even have to ask such a question.
The most obscene defence of the film is the claim that Bigelow rejects cheap moralism and soberly presents the reality of the anti-terrorist struggle, raising difficult questions and thus compelling us to think (plus, some critics add, she “deconstructs” feminine cliches: Maya displays no sentimentality, and is as tough and dedicated to her task as men). But with torture, one should not “think.” A parallel with rape imposes itself here: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our instincts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here—I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument.
So what about the “realist” argument: torture has always existed, so is it not better at least to talk publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem. If torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalise it, to lower our ethical standards.