PRINT March 2013



I wish to respond to Artforum’s coverage of Kathryn Bigelow’s recent work [“1000 Words,” introduction by Amy Taubin, January 2013].

Zero Dark Thirty represents torture as a path to truth. Its director questions whether these truths are worth it. She thereby sidesteps a more pressing question. Why does the movie suspend the audience’s sense of disbelief—by way of aggressively naturalistic directing and a rhetoric of “real events”—to establish a causal relationship between torture and fact? According to Bigelow’s chain of “real events,” bribery leads to deceit, but waterboarding leads to reality. There may be some dead ends here and there. But ultimately, it’s as clear-cut as a crossword puzzle.

Within the moral syntax of the contemporary mainstream, including even the famously bellophilic New York Times, Zero Dark Thirty stands out. Obama’s preference for assassinations over torture isn’t viable because of its moral superiority. But because drones are seen as efficient. While the veracity of torture has yet to be proved.

The Artforum platform for Zero Dark Thirty omits the above entirely. Perhaps this is Artforum’s idea of an editorial division of labor. Perhaps it’s a naughty provocation. Be that as it may, it’s telling that the critical acumen of Artforum, outstanding in many respects, proves so primitive when it comes to the most basic ingredients of US imperialism.

Admittedly, critical reactions to Bige­low’s recent work have been loud but very ineffective. This is due to a principal advantage of siding with power: You can afford to be as archaic as you like, while your critics need to be creative and spritely if they wish to be heard.

Bigelow draws on obvious tricks of the trade. For one, the film sparks a deep sympathy for the interrogator-heroine via countless subtle markers—from the stylistic to the linguistic to the historical and beyond—that override the neutrality Bige­low lays claim to. These emotionalized, subliminal pointers are what have conjured loud applause in American venues, from the upstate movie theater I sat in last night to the standing ovation in Artforum.

For another, Bigelow repeatedly re­minds us that filmmakers don’t support what they depict. Fair enough. Does Spielberg like great white sharks? No, he don’t! Then again, imagine that Jaws chewed up some bad guy. Some really bad guy. Now imagine Spielberg saying: “Behold the frightful moral dilemma I place before you. Are sharks worth it?” In other words, Bigelow resorts to a ruse that she may have learned during her days in the art world: To peddle her film she talks “real events”; to defend it she says she’s just a storyteller. A ruse that is as widespread—you will find it in many a curatorial statement and artist’s talk—as it is effective.

A third factor is (equally) particular to contemporary art. What runs through both the field at large and the pages of your magazine is the supposition that, at the end of the day, art cannot do wrong. As a matter of fact, on some level art is always already a critical force per se. Even when we are silent, therefore, ours is a silence that does not spell complicity.

Unfortunately, art is a political creature through and through, and Artforum’s acquiescence illuminates that with exceptional clarity. When the lights go on, art looks no more critical, innocent, or inconsequential than a press conference in the White House Rose Garden.

Torture is a craft, and like every craft, it has an outcome in mind. Victims are played like musical instruments, every note as predictable as the next. Maybe some cases of torture have saved lives. I’m sure you’ll find cases of cluster bombs doing the same. And if you believe the telos of cluster bombs is life, then you will enjoy Zero Dark Thirty.

The telos of torture, as it has been practiced for millennia, is the victim’s political, emotional, and moral disintegration. Broken, pathetic, and eager, torture victims can be recruited or showcased, on TV or at the stake. In most places, every child knows the reality of TV confessions, and interrogators know that they know. In America, by contrast, even the adults, including the officials and the culturati, have been eager to believe in the veracity of torture.

Happily, there’s light at the end of this particular tunnel, and I’m delighted to see that things are changing within the US mainstream at last. With any luck, Artforum will be one of the last arenas to happily disseminate the most repulsive mythologies of our recent past.

Tirdad Zolghadr
New York

Amy Taubin responds:

Tirdad Zolghadr asserts in the opening words of his letter that “ Zero Dark Thirty represents torture as a path to truth.” He produces no evidence to support that assertion or the one he makes a few sentences later, that in the film “bribery leads to deceit, but waterboarding leads to reality.” I have to wonder what movie he watched.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a sound collage of 911 calls made by people trapped in the Twin Towers, played over a black screen. The sound revives the trauma; the black screen encourages viewers to project their own memories and emotions. It’s the setup for a direct, personal involvement with the entire movie. Immediately after, we find ourselves in a black site where a prisoner is being tortured by a male CIA operative, assisted by a female CIA operative new to the job (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain). The ensuing sequence of interrogation sessions is brutal, ugly, and long. Every filmmaking choice is calibrated to show us abjection at its most extreme, thereby to implicitly question the morality of the action portrayed. Indeed, this sequence may be the most anti-seductive depiction of torture ever filmed—even to hard-core sadists, I’d imagine. It also taints the torturers, one of whom emerges as the movie’s protagonist, although not its hero. There are no heroes in Zero Dark Thirty. Certainly not Maya, who, for all her dedication to the mission of finding and killing bin Laden, is morally bankrupted by her participation in this torture session and subsequent ones—and she is explicitly shown to be so at the end of the picture. How could anyone looking at the final image of Maya sitting alone on that plane, confused and weeping, interpret the “victory” to which she devoted a decade of her life to be anything more than Pyrrhic?

While the morality of torture is never explicitly addressed in the movie, its lack of efficacy certainly is. In that harrowing first torture sequence, the prisoner is grilled about when the next terrorist attack is scheduled to take place. Under extreme duress, he gives multiple answers. Bigelow cuts to a shot in which that attack is now successfully under way. And by the end of the movie’s long first act, in which Maya and her colleagues have tortured several prisoners or threatened them with torture, they are no closer to finding bin Laden than they were in 2001. And then the rules of the game change: President-Elect Obama is shown on TV stating that “America doesn’t torture.” It is only after that moment—after which no one is ever again shown being tortured—that the first piece of evidence is found that leads directly to the raid on the compound in Abbottabad. It had been languishing in some file drawer during all those years in which the investigators were fixated on waterboarding prisoners in black sites. Later, another crucial lead is secured by bribing a guy with the gift of a Lamborghini. Again, I wonder what movie Zolghadr was watching.

I also wonder why Zolghadr’s focus—like that of many critics of Zero Dark Thirty—is on the issue of morality only in relation to the torture scenes and not in relation to the Navy SEAL raid with which the picture concludes. Shown unequivocally as a kill mission, the sequence depicts the fatal shooting not only of bin Laden but also of several other occupants of the compound, including an unarmed woman, who, as the movie explicitly shows and tells, was left to “bleed out” on the floor. Surely the moral questions raised by such actions—despite any admiration we may feel for the proficiency of the SEALs—is at least as relevant to the era of death by drones as torture was or is.

Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, might have taken steps to save themselves from the kind of attack leveled by Zolghadr and less crudely by others. The documentarian Alex Gibney argued, for example, that the movie should have included a scene in which factions within the CIA and the FBI debate the morality of torture. But the effect of such a scene would be to let us off the hook. We wouldn’t need to come to grips with our own moral position, because the film would have done it for us. I believe that the rage Zolghadr and others feel toward the movie and the moviemakers is primarily the result of Zero Dark Thirty’s demanding that the audience assume responsibility for taking a stand on crucial moral and political issues of our time. To the degree that Bigelow’s film has stirred up such controversy, it is a success, unprecedented in twenty-first-century Hollywood. It is unfortunate that so much of the outrage is directed at the movie rather than at the real-life events that gave rise to it. That, however, is a fault not of Zero Dark Thirty, but of its viewers.