So America finally got to see the film that Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, Dianne Feinstein, and other reactionaries don't want anyone to watch: Zero Dark Thirty, which racked up $24 million in its first weekend of national release. Although the relentless criticism of the film's depiction of torture appears to be poisoning its Oscar chances—director Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed for a nod, and last night's Golden Globe for best drama went to the faux-political film Argo—the groupthink clearly hasn't deterred audiences, whom Zero Dark Thirty is for, after all. Indeed, the film grippingly reminds American viewers of what the U.S. government has done in our names—but without our consent—in the "war on terror": torture, yes, but also the illegal extraterritorial "black site" detainee program that undergirded it. Why, then, are the film's critics in denial about what it shows?
Emphasis on "shows": visual media is uniquely able to represent for our eyes to see what otherwise can only be conjured by words. This is a fact that the film's critics, who apparently don't think about aesthetics much, constantly miss. And there's been plenty written about the indefensible tactics of post-9/11 superpower warfare, such as Mayer's invaluable 2008 book The Dark Side, not to mention the 6,000 pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture—that is, if it ever sees the light of day. In contrast, what Zero Dark Thirty shows, as Manohla Dargis puts it, is the "dark side" itself—or, at least, as best as it can be imagined "based on first-hand accounts," as the film's preface states.
That proviso, of course, has also been attacked, as if no aesthetic work had ever utilized journalistic or insider knowledge. Nevertheless, the film—a docudrama—has primarily been faulted for not being journalistic enough—for the ways it "distorts" history, as Mayer asserted in her condemnation of the film. But that's exactly what aesthetic work, at its best, does: it distorts received facts into affective experiences impossible to achieve for strictly evidentiary narratives.
And the affective experience of Zero Dark Thirty is profound: because the film corresponds to a certain reality—that is, it's not completely made up—we are in effect seeing torture, and we must reckon with the affects of such witnessing. The brutal interrogation scenes are representations of torture and not documentations of it, yes, but failing a leak of CIA footage, we're never going to see exactly what happened in the black sites of the war on terrorism. (It bears reminding here of the important service provided by the original incarnation of WikiLeaks: revealing the secrets governments desperately want to keep.)
How else are we to witness waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" if not aesthetically? How else are we to feel whatever it is we feel—rage, nausea, indifference—as we watch the first detainee in the film, Ammar, beaten, nearly drowned, or shoved into a box? The character may be a composite, but real detainees were subjected to such suffering—and aside from the Abu Ghraib photos, we have few images of what these prisoners went through.
This is the great power of Zero Dark Thirty: it shows us what we haven't seen. It's a uniquely aesthetic contribution to the multi-dimensional debate about torture that the film has reignited, itself a salutary effect. Bigelow and her partner Mark Boal have people talking about the ethics of U.S. military power again, at a time when the lightning rod for that topic, however unconductive, has been drones, whose use has greatly expanded under Obama. And let's remember, the Guantánamo detention facility remains open, with 166 "enemy combatants" illegally and indefinitely detained there. It's been four years since our president promised to close the site, and yet no one seems to care.
Indeed, in their zeal for whether Zero Dark Thirty promulgates the efficacy of torture (which it doesn't, as a careful reading of the film, such as Dargis's, makes clear), the film's critics have failed to consider the larger contours of extraterritoriality that allowed the torture to happen in the first place. Precisely because torture is illegal under federal law, it had to occur outside U.S. jurisdiction, as the film plainly shows.
And though torture has supposedly stopped (one never knows with the CIA), the extraterritorial precedent lives on, not only at Gitmo but also in the drone program. Instead of besmirching the film, its critics should be lauding it for its complete and total exposure, to use Andrew Sullivan's word, of Bush's—and Obama's—unethical prosecution of terrorism. It reveals the "unethics" of U.S. government decisions in the way that only a film can.
Of course, in addition to visceral representations, film also offers the benefit of much wider reach than a book or op-ed, as Zero Dark Thirty's box office this weekend confirms. Part of the appeal of Zero Dark Thirty, after all, is the chase for and eventual killing of "UBL," and Bigelow and Boal adroitly deploy suspense to marshal their exposé forward. That's what draws viewers, especially those who might otherwise shy away from brutal scenes of torture.
Altogether, the affective impact of watching those scenes combined with the pull of suspense made me feel complicit in the torture, which, of course, I am—or was. That's a complicated feeling that no American can easily resolve, as Jessica Chastain's character indicates when she bursts into sobs after her mission is complete. Displacing it on to the filmmakers, as the film's critics seem to do, only prevents the individual affective work that could, maybe, begin to remediate the unethics of U.S. foreign policy. Far from ratifying our government's tactics against terrorism, then, Zero Dark Thirty powerfully challenges them.