Pride In Question: A Conversation About Zero Dark Thirty

Much has been said about the movie Zero Dark Thirty, in the world at large as well as by this blog. My reaction to it, which I posted, has attracted an amount of attention through comments and emails that, though modest, is sizable for this blog. Most have been complimentary, but the most interesting one was not.I follow Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish at The Daily Beast – which is the last remaining partition of the former Newsweek empire – on a regular basis, and a few days ago I came across a conversation he was having with his readers about the movie and its use of torture. The conversation was prompted by what Sullivan saw as a softball interview Jon Stewart had with the film’s star Jessica Chastain, and his opinion that Stewart should have taken the opportunity to press her about the films depiction of and –  to him – apparent condoning of torture.I emailed Sullivan my take on the movie (verbatim):

I wrote my opinion/review about this movie for my blog (found here) that I think and hope is relevant to your’s and your readers’ comments on the subject. I’ve gotten some positive feedback on it, so if you have a chance please give it a read.

I should also mention that this is the first time I’ve written but I’m a huge fan of the blog and keep up with it daily.

To his immense credit, Sullivan – or at least someone who works at the blog – read my post and responded to me by email (also verbatim):

thank you. i just want to point out, though, is that the torture as depicted is illegal and the perpetrators war criminals under the geneva conventions. to hail war criminals as heroes as you do strikes me as unwise. if iranian revolutionary guards were torturing american suspects in a similar movie, would you have the same attituide? my concern is the notion that when america tortures, it isn’t torture. when others do, it is. but torture is torture. it’s against the law – something the movie never mentions or even indicates. it has never before been approved by a US president.

A completely reasonable opinion, but one whose characterization I don’t necessarily agree with. I responded (verbatim):

Thanks for giving it a read and responding, I very much appreciate that.

Of course I would not have the same attitude if Iranian guards were torturing Americans in a similar movie, but that would be due to my subjectivity as an American myself, and my affiliation with American interests. Naturally, seeing that would be somewhat disturbing. I don’t think my reaction of discomfort would say or mean anything objective about what I was seeing though.
My point, I suppose, is that very many people are pulling out the parts of this movie depicting torture to focus on – and everyone of course is entitled to their opinion and can focus on what they think is important – but in my opinion those scenes were not the crux of or crucial to the movie. They were important, but ultimately incidental, and I thought there were many more redeeming values to the movie, of much greater importance. Jessica Chastain’s character’s perseverance over the course of ten years, for example, or the tragic sacrifice of the CIA agents killed in the car bombing, or the resourcefulness and professionalism of the SEALs. These were the parts that jumped out at me, a lot more than the torture did. It was unsettling but I don’t think it was meant to define the movie, and for me, it didn’t.
In the same way, the perpetrators of torture in the movie, such as Jason Clarke’s character, portray many other positive and redeeming traits, such as perseverance, fortitude, intelligence, commitment, loyalty, ect. They don’t revel in torture, or hold it up as the end-all of their existence. The don’t define themselves by it, and I don’t define them by it. Their other actions are sufficiently virtuous that I do believe they are heroes, and that the more disturbing things they do to get the job done do not detract enough from that to call them anything else.My feelings about the movie mirror my feelings about the real-life operation, or at least what I know of it from the handful of books I’ve read on the subject. Whether or not torture was used, or whether or not it ended up being a key link in the chain of evidence that led to bin Laden, though important, I just don’t think is as important as many other factors that went in to the operation, in much the same way as the movie depicts it. There are so many other redeeming qualities to what was accomplished with bin Laden’s death – what some would argue is the single greatest thing Obama’s gotten right in his first term – that, for me, the use of torture just doesn’t tarnish it that much. I understand, though, if it does for other people.
This may seem antithetical, but I am not in favor of torture as a general means of interrogation. I am glad the program was supposedly shut down. But considering what was gained in this instance, it just doesn’t trouble me all that much.

I agree that torture is torture, and I don’t mean to make excuses for America, or claim that it’s something different for us to do it. It should be against the law, and if people should go to jail or be punished for committing torturous acts, so be it.  But for the movie to have commented on it would have made a bigger deal of it, brought more attention to it, and I think that would have been a mistake. This was not supposed to be a movie about torture, it was about something really great and incredible that our government and military did.

Thanks again, for the response and the lively discussion.

It’s been a few days and I haven’t heard anything back. Which I think is understandable.

I wanted to bring this discussion into the public light as I thought it brought up some interesting points. Anyone who agrees or disagrees, with either of us, feel free to post below.


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