December 20, 2012

I’m split on Zero Dark Thirty, which is both one of my favorite movies of the year as well as a somewhat problematic account of the hunt to find Osama bin Laden. The problematic scenes in question involve torture — specifically, waterboarding — as Jessica Chastain and her associates spend a long, tense scene basically harassing the shit out of a detainee so that he’ll give up a piece of information. He does, and it ends up being a solid lead. But it also comes off like an implicit validation of torture in the fight to protect America, which has long been a point of partisan contention over tactics like waterboarding.

Now, a handful of U.S. senators have come out of the woodwork to criticize Sony Pictures for the scenes — and, surprisingly enough, it’s a bi-partisan coalition between John McCain (R-AZ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Carl Levin (D-MI). They wrote a letter, which reads in part:

“We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.

“The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.”

To a lot of movie critics, director Kathryn Bigelow only had one obligation: to make the movie she wanted to. But torture is a loaded issue, and because no one in the movie seems to take umbrage with its usage, there’s no doubt that the right of might will be taken at face value by some moviegoers. (In fact, there’s even one line where a character remarks, perhaps wryly, that he had a detainee from which to extract information.) Bigelow may be an artist, but she’s approached the question so subtly that it might appear there’s no question at all — and if it convinces even one person that torture is an acceptably American policy, then that’s a problem.

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