Saturday, December 22, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty, Torture, Art, and Our Cruel Nature

I don't waste a lot of time complaining about historical inaccuracy in movies. The need to tell a compelling story has always overridden mere fact, from Homer's time to ours. The best historical fiction gets at deeper truths, creating symbols that mean something more than accurate details. And the less great can still be entertaining.

What I am thinking about today is the way filmmakers keep falling back on certain simple and violent stories, whether they happened or not. Like the motifs the recur in folk tales, these elements come up again and again, even where they are, historically, completely inappropriate. For example, the revenge tale. Writers and directors like to turn complex political events into fables about wronged people getting revenge. The Patriot did this with the American Revolution, subverting the narrative of growing interest in democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, and an increasingly strong American identity, with a tale of giving some evil bastards what they had coming to them. I do understand that many people who fight in ideological wars do so from petty motivations, but, really, that is not what the Revolution was about.

Another narrative element that Hollywood and television can't resist is the torture scene. The tough guy hero captures a bad guy and threatens or beats him into giving up the crucial piece of information, in thirty seconds to three minutes of screen time. The new movie about the hunt for Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, seems to do this. I haven't seen it, but lots of people have complained that it shows an al Qaeda operative tortured until he gives up a crucial piece of information, the name of the courier who takes messages to Bin Laden:
senior senators who received advance copies of the movie this week have reacted angrily, saying that the movie may lead viewers to believe inaccurately that coercive CIA interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, led to the eventual death of bin Laden.
This week the Director of the CIA sent a letter to his staff this, complaining about distortions in the film, including the waterboarding scene.

Director Kathryn Bigelow must have known that she was asking for trouble when she included this scene, but she still couldn't resist. Why? Why are these scenes so compelling?

As I think about this, I can't come up with any pleasant answers. At some level, we just enjoy cruelty. We like to see bad people suffer, and we like to see them subjected to our will. It would cross too many moral lines to depict torture done for no reason at all, so we show torture in the cause of justice and right, only to the point where the bad guy is "broken" and assists the good guys in their mission. If we can't persuade them to help us, we will force them. But it isn't accurate -- have you ever seen one of these action thrillers in which the tortured bad guy gives up the wrong name, as they usually do? -- and it substitutes a fantasy psychology for the real thing. These scenes are S&M, plain and simple, dressed up in narrative urgency.

I also have a feeling that this matters. Ignorant simpletons like George W. Bush and Rick Santorum seem to believe that the truth really can be beaten out of people. Santorum once told John McCain, the only American legislator who has actually been tortured, that he "doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works." Where, I wonder, did Santorum acquire his own ideas about torture? From the movies, I suspect. And that ought to trouble us a little.