To present is not to condone – the moral dilemma of Zero Dark Thirty

Burnt out and alone - Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Burnt out and alone – Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty seems likely to go down in history as the movie that condones torture. I’ve seen it now, and frankly I don’t agree. To present something is not to condone it. That’s not to say that there aren’t some awkward moral issues preesnted by the exercise of semi-fictionalising the hunt for Bin Laden, and like Mary Ann Johanson I would probably be more comfortable about the movie in general if it had been presented as a fictional account of a hypothetical situation. The barriers between fiction and documentary are easily blurred and I’m uncomfortable with the difficulty of verifying the accuracy of this particular cinematic account.

Would it be a better movie if it had just been the story of an imaginary female CIA agent’s obsessive manhunt for the ultimate enemy, and the ensuing emptiness once she succeeded? It would certainly be less bankable, and therein lies the problem. Significant Hollywood backing obviously gives you the chance to reach a worldwide audience; it can also become a juggernaut that grinds your ideals to a pulp, spits them out and leaves the lions to pick over your carcass.

Let’s get one thing straight – like it or not, Zero Dark Thirty is a damn good movie. Despite its considerable length, it grips like a vice and earns every minute in both plot and character development. It doesn’t fall back on tired cliches just to tick the right boxes, such as giving the main character a Pakistani boyfriend to challenge her narrative or walk out on her when it turns out there’s no room in her life for any kind of relationship. There are people who would probably feel more comfortable with the movie if it did, but Bigelow credits the audience with the intelligence to weigh up the moral dilemmas presented to them and try to figure out where they stand. She doesn’t deal in trite solutions. We can’t say, with any degree of certainty, that she tells it like it is, because the truth about a story such as this one is unlikely to emerge. But if we view this movie as a study in obsession, isolation and the personal cost of severe moral compromise, it succeeds brilliantly.

Slavoj Zizek has drawn the analogy with the Holocaust, and seems to be arguing that any movie that dared to present that particular example of absolute evil in a morally neutral way should, by definition, never get made. I’m not sure about that. As soon as we start declaring difficult subjects off-limits, we’re stepping into Orwellian territory. I’d much rather see someone tackle them and not entirely succeed, than for them to be left unexplored. As for a hypothetical movie that presented the perpetrators of, say, the Final Solution in a sympathetic light, there’s a world of difference between that being made by a Nazi director and a more critical one who decides to tell it straight and let the story speak for itself.

The unpalatable truth is that the people who invented waterboarding, and implemented the Final Solution, were human beings, just like us. By declaring any account of these crimes against humanity off-limits, we create the dark corners where such abuses fester and thrive. To seek to understand is not to forgive, or even to condone. There is a danger that the ultra-liberal stance can create a worldview where we simply don’t open these unpleasant issues up to public discussion, for fear of provoking revulsion and being accused of complicity. That cannot be healthy.

Certainly there are moral issues with this particular movie. The SEALS who blast into Bin Laden’s compound aren’t presented entirely unsympathetically, but if they were wouldn’t that be as morally compromised and simplistic as presenting every Muslim character as a paragon of saintliness and the voice of reason? I don’t have any doubt in my mind that if Bigelow’s aim was to show us the hideous cost of living in a climate of violence, evasion, paranoia and fear, she succeeded. We see Maia, the main character, sprayed with bullets as she leaves her heavily guarded home, losing the nearest thing she has to a friend to a suicide bomber, living in constant fear of her life and, ultimately, a completely isolated, burnt-out emotional wreck. In this story, there are no winners.

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