The Ethical Arts

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I’ve just read Matt Taibbi’s piece on Zero Dark Thirty, two days after seeing the movie next door at Nighthawk. With his usual clarity he dismantles not only the film’s lazy enjambment of thrills, immorality and patriotism and its radical attenuation of the long pursuit’s real costs, but his own pop desire for action, justice and some kind of authentically shared historical reckoning. He starts off like most fanboys raised in the squinting HMI radiance of Spielberg, Lucas and McTiernan:

…when they dragged the big prize with its blood-soaked beard back into the copter and flew off, well – the triumph the characters felt at that moment exploded into the theater, there were gasps and patriotic applause, and even I got caught up in it. The only thing I can compare it to was seeing Rocky or Star Wars in theaters as a kid, the way the crowds went wild over the ass-kicking ending.

On his way home, excitement receding, the picture starts to crumble and the contradictory moral and emotional engines start looking leveraged, piggy-backed Master-Blaster-style in forced and deceptive ways that consistently obscure whole catalogs of contrary moral indices.

Here’s my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was “honest,” but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was “honest” about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else.

I think what’s most important to point out about Matt’s reaction, which I share, isn’t that these twisted enjambments and ellisions weren’t already being presented by ‘CIA interrogators’, the DOD, the White House Briefing Room, Fox News and the Infotainment Industrial Complex at large – they were – but that Bigelow, rather than unraveling the twine and opening the box to us in the ordered and coherent way a great popular filmmaker can (see: Mann, “The Insider”; Pakula, “All The President’s Men”; and Meirelles, “City of God”, for example), merely repackages it in different ribbon but with the same essential content: in the end, the torture scenes, like so much of what passes for irony in Hollywood now, are merely a couple spoonfuls of medicine to help all the sugar go down. “Yeah, I feel sort of shitty about that perverted fucking torture, but now I’ve got the right to really enjoy it when we invade Pakistan and execute those wicked-accurate-head-shots on UBL, his son and his daughter-in-law.”

Matt goes on to provide some important alternate scenes you probably won’t find among the DVD extras:

1)      Mohammed Al-Qatani, the so-called “20th hijacker,” who may have been some part of the inspiration for the “Ammar” character who was tortured in the opening scene, might have been the first detainee to mention the name of bin Laden’s courier. But as Gibney points out, al-Qatani gave that information up to the FBI, in legit, torture-free interrogations, before he was whisked away to Gitmo for 49 days of torture that included such insanities as forcing him to urinate on himself (by force-feeding him liquids while in restraints), making him watch a puppet show of him and bin Laden having sex, making him take dance lessons, making him wear panties on his head, and making him wear a “smiley-face” mask, along with the usual sleep and sensory deprivation, arm-hanging, etc. In other words, the key info may have come before they chucked our supposed standards for human decency.

2)      The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this “enhanced interrogation,” the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a “magic bullet,” as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden’s capture.

3)      The CIA took another detainee, Ibn al-Sheik al Libi, and duct-taped his head, put him in a wooden box, shipped him off to Cairo to be waterboarded, and got him to admit under torture that there were links between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. This “intel” became part of Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. on the need to invade Iraq. So while torture might have found us bin Laden, maybe, it also very well might have sent us on one of history’s all-time pointlessly bloody wild goose chases, invading Iraq in search of WMDs.

So for all the screenwriter’s out there considering revisiting the material in a decade, here’s a fix: open the film with a half dozen operatives in a half dozen of our national intelligence agencies (we have sixteen, btw [that we know of] it’d be edifying to get a shot of a few of them that aren’t Langley), and at least one on the ground in Iraq (maybe throw in a DOD spokesperson too). In the first twelve minutes we’re cross cutting: shitty interrogations, biased surveillance, dubious air-strikes, colossal exchanges of cash and chummy senior briefings (“it’s a home run, Mr. Secretary”); suspects die, detainees are held in secret by the dozens, collateral populations including children are crushed, radicalized and brought into the fight.

Filter these out as they each fail to provide actionable intelligence, subjects are killed, and operations are abandoned until that last agent standing is Jessica Chastain and her unique, improbable lead. Now you’ve got your movie. Play everything else as it lays until the last scene, then bring back a few of the worst offenders from your opening – the one who radicalized that village maybe with the errant drone strike and the dead kids, and the one with that fat bag of cash. Let them congratulate her, maybe with a fraternal toast and a long embrace – congratulations she graciously accepts, not realizing in the moment the vast and horrific dimensions of all the collateral damage we have wrought.

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