Zero Dark Thirty is already at the centre of a row about the way it depicts torture

Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden is facing criticism - and it's still to be released in the UK


Weary after a hard day hearing cases of juvenile delinquency, I guess, a middle-aged man takes his seat beside me, puts his briefcase between his legs, and before the play starts falls soundly asleep.

We are watching, or at least I am, Mark Rylance clown it magnificently as Richard III. My neighbour sleeps through the first half, wakes briefly for the interval, and sleeps again through the second. I am sympathetic. I have slept through many a play myself. Though I am bolt upright for this one. When it is over, and the players have performed their formal, heart-stopping dance of catharsis – for the dance alone, reader, this is a production to see – my neighbour stirs, opens his eyes, rises, and proceeds to shout “Bravo!” more loudly than anyone else in the auditorium, for all the world as though he has had the theatrical experience of his life. Which for all I know he has. Who’s to say that art cannot penetrate our consciousness even when it’s switched off? Who’s to say we won’t be hearing Shakespeare in the grave?

For art and that which we call “real life”, in all its watchful, vexed opinionatedness, are not the same. My wife, who could barely speak after that cathartic dance, remarked at last that it reminded her of her training as a therapist when after role play everyone had to be carefully reawakened from the intensity of make-believe back to their daily selves. What the actors were dancing was the gulf between pretence and reality, returning them and us from that trance wherein, for a brief while, everything was possible. Our revels now were ended.

Between those who understand art as revel and those who for whom it is nothing but an extension of the judgemental faculties, there is an unbridgeable difference. Artists of every complexion do battle, not with the “uncultured”, who get the revelry of soap opera and comedic rudeness, but with those members of the intelligentsia who are ideologically fixated and to whose stunted, choir-boy sensibilities a revel is an affront.

The latest victim of this educated philistinism is Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, which, though still a week from being released here, is already at the centre of a high-principled row about the rights and wrongs of torture and the way the film depicts it. More than that, objections have been raised to the suggestion that information obtained by torture led, if only indirectly, to Bin Laden’s killing. In the matter of the film’s fidelity to events, in so far as such are verifiable, one has to say that it has brought this fight on itself. At the front of the film, we are told that what we are about to see is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”. This puts paid to Bigelow’s protestations that the film is art, not documentary. I have to say that a part of me switches off when I am told that a film or a novel is based on “a true story”. True, in that lesser, neither fish nor fowl sense, only confuses the matter, violating both the integrity of art, which cannot tolerate validation from outside, and the integrity of documentary which depends on it.

Choose your genre, I say. And if it’s art you’re after, then make your stories up. Only then can you tell the literalists to go hang. And Richard III? Well, at least there were 100 years or more between Shakespeare’s play and the “facts”. And if he always intended it to be interpreted as Rylance interpreted it – and I fancy he did – then history loses out to revelry anyway, as indeed, for much of the time, does moral objurgation.

Which brings us to torture and Bigelow’s rendering of it, where the issue is no longer factuality but rectitude. Writing in The New Yorker, the investigative journalist Jane Mayer complains that the film “doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned”. Others accuse the film, for that very reason, of “endorsing” torture. As a rule of thumb, ignore as worthless any review of anything that includes the word “endorsement”. A banker endorses a cheque; an artist endorses nothing. What Jane Mayer fails to grasp is the nature of drama. A scene questioning an action already dramatically shown to be horrific – and the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are difficult to watch, more difficult than the heads being merrily blown off in Django Unchained, for example – would be an affront to the intelligence of the audience. A judgement need not be made in words for a wrongness that is shown in pictures to be felt. Goya’s The Horrors of War do not require glossing.

And what of the film’s “structural sympathies”, to borrow a phrase from Emma Brockes’s interview with Bigelow in The Guardian? By which I take her to mean that the torture leads, however circuitously, to a happy outcome. Well, what of that? What if out of evil there comes good? It won’t be the first time. Emma Brockes goes on to speculate that there will be “people who argue that torture is such a black-and-white issue that to provoke sympathy for those engaged in it is in itself a reprehensible act”. To which the answer is that in art, at least, there are no black-and-white issues and it’s tantamount to sacrilege to call any act of sympathy reprehensible. By that reckoning, we would not enjoy the company of Richard III nor waste a moment on Macbeth. I ’gin to be aweary of the sun? Serves you bloody right.

Whoever goes to art with a mind made up about anything is not going to art at all. We are granted entrance to the revelry on the condition that we leave what we normally think at home and let our imaginations entertain the ordinarily unimaginable.

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