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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 Ladens death? Would that mean it must be defended? Shouldnt 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 its happening rather than watching it on a monitor, as the head interrogator recommends. Her honesty about what shes getting into keeps her close to the victims agony. More than closeit 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 arent enough. Mayas initial collaborator, Dan, is efficient at brutal interrogation, but hes also drained by it and finally seeks a transfer. Its the perpetually wound-up, unsmiling Maya whos 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 Ladenor the defeat of Al Qaeda more generallyis 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 hereI 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.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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I agree with Zizek. A post at Amnesty International UK about the movie .... ... points out the ways torture seems to be subtly affirmed in the film rather than shown as morally neutral.

For once the errative Zizek is spot on. But this moral battle has been lost. America has knowingly gone the torture road. Here in France people still agonize about what they did in Algeria many decades ago, but America seems immune even to such moral headaches. And the fanaticism about "killing Bin Laden" among US presidents and presidential candidates did not create a healthy moral climate.

I guess I'll have to see this after all.

Zero Dark Thirty simply tells the story based on the evidence it obtained. In that sense, there is some historical accuracy to the fact that enhanced interrogation techniques did lead to the death of bin Laden. It is an inconvenient truth and Americans will have to wrestle with it.I respect Bigelow as an artist for not trying to moralize this issue. In this she stands in the tradition of Tolstoy, who in Anna Karenina passed no judgement on Anna who abandoned her child to take up with her lover. It would have been easy to cast her as irresponsible, spoiled, etc. But he simply told the story and this, in part, is why it remains one of the great novels of literature. It is not for storytellers to moralize. It is for them to tell the story. It is for us to reflect on the implications of that story and think about who we are, question if ends justify means, ask questions....Personally, I am tired of preachy movies whether left or right. War is a very difficult subject to treat effectively. It seems to me Bigelow, as an artist, is hitting exactly the right pitch.

DIGRESSION, BUT MOST WILL BE GLAD TO HEAR ITFrom Archb. Gomez of L. A.: "Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry has also publicly apologized for his decisions while serving as Vicar for Clergy. I have accepted his request to be relieved of his responsibility as the Regional Bishop of Santa Barbara."

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).We don't need to imagine. Such films have been made. "Conspiracy" was a quite neutral dramatization of the Wannsee Conference where the "final solution" to the Jewish question was adopted. "The Man Who Captured Eichmann" does indeed depict the "banality" of evil, with Eichmann, played by Robert Duvall, focusing on the mundane technical issues. Same with many scenes in "Judgment at Nuremburg."To be sure, most serious films about the Nazi regime present events in such a "neutral" fashion, rather than treating the Nazis like cartoon characters. It is in that very neutrality that the real evil comes shining through.You don't even need to go so far as the Nazis. Just look at any movie where lethal injection is shown, either the type involving capital punishment or that species of medicalized death known as physician assisted suicide. All very clean, all very antiseptic and neutrally depicted. And all very chilling, much like the emptiness of the abyss is chilling.

Ann, that is great news! Amazing! But how can that be: is it possible for an archbishop to accept the resignation of a bishop in his region? I thought that accepting an episcopal resignation was up to the Pope. Certainly, that's how it went in Ireland.

AnnDepressing indeed but perhaps part of the necessary renewal. It is one thing to desire it in principle and sentiment. It is another thing altogether to go through the purgation required.The Vatican can and will go through a similar purgation eventually. Maybe under this pope and maybe not. But all will come to light in time and hopefully we will all learn something about this.This experience needs to inform our understanding of sexuality, how powerful it is and how when exercised in exploitive ways creates long lasting damage.Personally, I think that part of the reason for this whole coverup was a combination of an unhealthy clericalism, a paternalistic clerical culture, and a minimizing or lack of understanding of the damage that sins of the flesh can actually create for people. The latter is not restricted to church prelates of course.

Claire --I think you're right that the Pope has to accept a bishop's resignation. But even if the Vatican continues to support Bishop Curry, at least there has been one bishop who has called the bishops' actions "evil" publicly, and he has tried to take action against the enablers.Matthew --How about starting another thread on this topic? Didn't mean to hi-jack yours.

Katheryn Bigelow's obsession with emotionless tough-guys is becoming a social hazard. Yes, the lead in this latest film is (for the first time) a woman, albeit a woman who remains robotically on-mission for a decade without a hint of developing personal relations.I mean, even Johnny Utah had more depth of character ("whoa, brah!)". I agree with Joseph O'Leary, US society is beyond repair by way of moral battle. The fact that Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker' could be praised by the "liberal elites" as a great film is another example: a bomb-squad thriller exploiting crimes "ripped from the headlines", yet unlike Law & Order, there's never a conclusion in a court of justice. On the contrary, the staus quo continues without question. Anyone remembering/reading headlines of the dozens routinely murdered in Iraq by marketplace bombs, a direct result of the criminal American invasion of that country, ought to realize that The Hurt Locker is ghastly and treats current world events at the same remove that James Cameron used the sinking of Titanic.

Ann,Did you see this update to the story, though ..."An archdiocese spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said that beyond cancelling his confirmation schedule, Mahony's day-to-day life as a retired priest would be largely unchanged. He resides at a North Hollywood parish, and Tamberg said he would remain a priest in good standing and continue to celebrate Mass there.]"And he'll probably still get to vote for the next pope :(

Crystal --I'm sure you're right about his status as a priest. What I think is so interesting is that a bishop, Gomez, has labelled a Cardinal's behavior "evil" and deprived the Cardinal of whatever authority he had left in the diocese. If I were a victim I think I would be very impressed by this public action. Because this was announced with no mention of the Vatican, I have to wonder if it was done without consultation with and approval from the Vatican. If there was no consultation and approval, it sounds like highly irregular behavior in a Catholic bishop. Might this possibly be the beginning of an effort by the bishops to regain their proper authority?If there was no consultation, it should be interesting to see how the Vatican reacts to these moves, or, rather, removals. What a complex situation.

"accuracy to the fact that enhanced interrogation techniques did lead to the death of bin Laden. It is an inconvenient truth and Americans will have to wrestle with it."I respect Bigelow as an artist for not trying to moralize this issue. In this she stands in the tradition of Tolstoy, who in Anna Karenina passed no judgement on Anna who abandoned her child to take up with her lover."If a moral judgment or even deep reflection on the evil of torture and of American practice and approval thereof comes shining through in this movie, as profound moral insight does in Tolstoy's great novel, that is wonderful."It is not for storytellers to moralize. It is for them to tell the story." That's not quite what the novel as a genre is about. True, it makes morality much more complex and secular, but the greatest novelists are full of moral passion -- not only the most obvious ones such as Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Conrad, Lawrence, but also James and Proust."It is for us to reflect on the implications of that story and think about who we are, question if ends justify means, ask questions." The story of torture is well known to Americans and has not produced questions but a summary ends-justify-means amorality. The story has to be told more subtly and probingly by a cinematic artist.

Joseph:i have not seen the film but it seems to me that this debate is an aesthetic one. While Tolstoy was full of moral passion, you do not see that reflected so much in Anna Karenina anyway. The only implicit condemnation that you might see is the problem of divorce laws in Russia. I don't want to be tagged with a pro-torture label but the definition of what constitutes torture is a bit gray. Is sleep deprivation torture? Use of drugs injected involuntarily to coerce information? Slapping, hitting? I realize this whole conversation is distasteful but living as we do in a fallen world where war is a reality, we have to have some clear parameters around behaviours used against prisoners in war or people who have information that might help preserve safety.These issues, like all issues, are complex and it seems to me that Bigelow is treating them carefully and not in caricature which would be easy to do.

Tolstoy did not need to condemn adultery. Like Flaubert he shows it condemning itself. His novel has tons of moral reflection on the sacred mystery of Marriage, in the Levin sections, and a general ethics of forgiveness as the cement of loving relationships. His novel is a riposte to the nihilistic bleakness of Madame Bovary and as such represents a massive achievement of Christian ethical vision.Twice in a row I missed the Zero movie (bad timing last night, all places full today). Instead I saw Django Unchained and relished the mayhem, revenge, and torture. Not sure Tolstoy would have been pleased.

"Is sleep deprivation torture? Use of drugs injected involuntarily to coerce information? Slapping, hitting?"As actually practiced, yes. You can be sure that US torture is not confined to gentle slaps on the wrist or pleasant spankings.

Tolstoy does not condemn Anna whereas Flaubert portrays Emma's death scene as one of damnation. Tolstoy in this is the true Christian moralist. But Tolstoy condemns evil behavior and would undoubtedly condemn torture.

Ah, I see that Tolstoy does condemn torture explicitly. "Again war. Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for. Again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men. Men who are separated from each other by thousands of miles ... are seeking out one another, in order to kill, TORTURE, and mutilate each other in the cruelest way possible. What can this be? Is it a dream or a reality? Something is taking place which should not, cannot be; one longs to believe that it is a dream and to wake from it."Elsewhere: "And yet is assumed necessary to make this class submit to the disgusting, coarse, and stupid TORTURE of flogging." Of course many Americans would not consider flogging torture and would consider Tolstoy a religious sentimentalist. So with Tolstoy I say:

One of Tolstoy's ancestors was a hated torturer: Catholics we are all spiritual descendants of torturers.

I saw the movie. It presents torture as loathsome and shows it disappearing as Obama insists that "America does not torture". I hope it really HAS disappeared.

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