Movie Torture

Zero Dark ThirtyThere is a bit of buzz about the upcoming blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty. It is already getting rave reviews, which goes to the heart of my problem with film “critics”: they aren’t critics, they are ombudsmen. But it is a big mistake to listen to them. They tend to be too pretentious for most moviegoers and too stupid for real movie fans. This movie is the newest from the team that brought you The Hurt Locker. And it looks to be the same kind of film: brilliantly constructed and morally abhorrent. I have no intention of seeing it, but I don’t doubt that it is great filmmaking.

Although the film is not yet released, it is getting attention because of its depiction of torture as being instrumental in the hunt for bin Laden. Glenn Greenwald takes the writer and director to task on this point. He notes that the director,Kathryn Bigelow, has been going around the country saying that they took “almost a journalistic approach to film.” But when presented with the fact that numerous sources have claimed that torture played no role in finding bin Laden, she hides under claims of artistic license, “It’s a movie, not a documentary.”

It is all a mush and this is one of many reasons to hate movies “based on a true story.” You are either telling the truth or you are making up a story. If you’re going to introduce torture that wasn’t part of the true story, then you are creating fiction. Worse actually, because the truth that is in your film implies that the fictions are just as true. But Bigelow continues to play both sides by claiming she is depicting, not advocating. But as Greenwald notes, saying that torture was critical to doing the only thing that most Americans feel really good about, is the same as endorsing torture. In fact, he compares Bigelow to Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl:

But, says Bigelow, that is not her responsibility: she is merely depicting, not advocating. Without comparing the crimes involved, that was always the controversy surrounding German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, widely hailed as one of the most brilliant and innovative filmmakers of the 20th Century, yet also widely despised for producing films that glorified Nazism and excluded all of its crimes. One of her principal defenses—I was simply showing what was taking place, not judging—has been rather vehemently rejected by most commentators, because it (at best) naively ignores the obvious effects of what she produced, and because she had a responsibility to judge those crimes.

One of the things that has bothered me for the last 11 years is our cultural acceptance of torture. I know that we have always tortured. But we were publicly against it. In films, torturing was almost what defined a villain. James Bond was tortured; he was never the torturer. And then came 9/11 and Dick Cheney’s “dark side” and 24. And now Zero Dark Thirty: torture got bin Laden! Torture is great!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Movie Torture

  1. A friend went into a morally based depression when our government-affirmed torture became public. "We used to be the good guys," he said, or at least the bad we did was secret or denied.

  2. @JoyfulA – Yeah. This is perhaps my biggest political outrage. When I was a kid, I was a true believer. I believed all the stuff they taught me in school. And a big part of it was that [i]we did not torture![/i] Other countries did that. They did it to us! But that was one of the things that made us special. Today, "American Exceptionalism" is seen as nothing more than the politicians way of chanting, "We’re number one!"

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