By A. G. Moore 3/14/2013
In 1774 a small Romantic novel by an anonymous author created a sensation in Europe. The Sorrows of Young Werther was infused with the emotional extravagance of its age: a passionate young man is dissapointed in love and kills himself. A wave of suicides swept across the continent in the wake of this book’s publication. Though The Sorrows of Young Werther was hardly a masterpiece–its author, Johann von Goethe, would eventually come to regret having written it–the book nonetheless effectively conveyed a message, so effectively that today psychologists have a term for copy-cat suicides: The Werther Effect. And so it is, with Werther’s unintended consequences in mind, that I turn to Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty.
“One does long for the day when it’s only about the work,” she once said in an interview. Well, Ms. Bigelow is getting her wish–for as much as people may speculate about this director’s motives in making Zero Dark Thirty, in the end it is about the work. It’s about the impact this film has had on a highly controversial subject: torture. And it’s about the message conveyed by the film, that torture is an effective means of interrogation. Endorsing this message may not have been Ms. Bigelow’s intention, but endorse the message she did.
Mark Boal, screenwriter for Zero Dark Thirty, once stated that the film is “just a movie“. But, as Ms. Bigelow surely knows, a film is never “just a movie”, especially if the film is made by award-winning artists. Many are the artists who have suffered censorship, and worse, because their work conveyed the “wrong” message.
Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal are not naive. They are aware of the power of art. Ms. Bigelow especially, as a student of semiotics, must be sensitive to the signals her movie sends out and the way these signals are received.
I’ve no idea what the intention of these two artists was in suggesting that torture was effectively applied in the hunt for Bin Laden. Although both artists say they abhor torture, neither has openly disavowed its effectiveness. Mr. Boal actually stated in one interview that “Interrogations were clearly part of how this lead developed.”
Of course, my discussion here is about more than Ms. Bigelow or Zero Dark Thirty. It’s about information–the way we elicit it, the way it is kept secret, the way it is mined and collected relentlessly for a purpose none of us clearly understands.
The Information Age was supposed to revolutionize social and economic commerce. And so it did. But just as the Industrial Revolution had its dark side, the Information Age has begun to lose its luster. Increasingly, the right to know is appropriated by those in power– and jealousy guarded by those who can appropriate it.
So the conversation Ms. Bigelow waded into with her movie about information extraction is not innocent or inconsequential. If information were less zealously protected, we would all know what happened in the hunt for Bin Laden. The transcripts would be public. There would be no argument about whether torture worked–or didn’t work.
Which is what makes the Bigelow film so important. We don’t know what really happened in those interrogations. We don’t know because vested interests don’t want us to know. When respected artists offer a version of the hidden truth, “based on fact”, we lap it up, and it becomes part of the dialogue about torture.
If Ms. Bigelow did not intend with her movie to suggest that torture is an effective interrogation technique, she should say so. She should say that, somehow, inadvertently, the story got distorted and torture had nothing to do with Bin Laden’s apprehension.
I know that Goethe, given time to consider his emotionally hyperbolic novella, came to regret the book and he expressed that regret. I think Kathryn Bigelow ought to likewise recant, if she does not believe torture was instrumental in finding Bin Laden. But if she believes that torture “worked”–as her film implies–then she ought to let the film speak for itself and she should remain neutral on the issue.
And that is exactly what she has done.
For Further Reading:
Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology
Los Angeles Times
18 USC 2340- Definitions (Torture)
Cornell University Law School
New Torture Glorifying Film Wins Rave Reviews
Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian