The Academy Awards definitely has a high school lunch table element to it. It’s the biggest bling-out of the Hollywood year where the celebrity elite applauds each other’s artistic efforts and secretly hopes nobody else wins. Somebody’s bound to get snubbed—this year, however, the nominations have stirred special indignation.
Zero Dark Thirty has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and Jessica Chastain has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her depiction of Maya, a CIA agent hell-bent on finding Osama bin Laden. There is one nomination, nonetheless, that is conspicuously missing: Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow.
There are 10 Best Picture slots and only five Best Director slots; obviously some directors won’t get the nod. But rarely has a film won Best Picture without winning Best Director. By neglecting to nominate Bigelow, the Academy effectively destroyed any chance of Zero Dark Thirty winning Best Picture. Not only that, it ignored the depth of artistic craft Bigelow employed in directing the movie, largely because of political rhetoric.
It’s a strong but attestable accusation. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), and Carl Levin (D-Mich), in an unbelievable display of modern bipartisanship, sent a letter to Sony executives condemning the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, asking them to “correct” inaccuracies. Actors Martin Sheen, Ed Asner, and David Clennon have openly discouraged members of the Academy from voting for the film. Naomi Wolf, noted feminist author, called Bigelow “torture’s handmaiden.” Heavyweights have piled pressure onto an institution notorious for shying away from any debate more grave than Björk’s latest taxidermy-come-fashion.
Critics are understandably concerned that the film not only overstates the role of torture in the hunt for bin Laden, but that it portrays it in a positive light. The content of the film, however, is a clear stand against the morality of torture.
The controversial opening scenes in question are difficult to watch. The suspected terrorist is waterboarded, forced to stand for extended periods of time, and sexually humiliated. The attention to detail—after being starved for days, the detainee desperately clutches an empty juice bottle, nearly crying when the interrogator tries to tug it away; the reek of shame as he is walked around a grimy cell in nothing but dog collar—is intense.
The climax of the scene is when the interrogators attempt to force the date of a suspected attack from the detainee, beating him senseless until he offers a day: “Tuesday.” They continue to brutalize him, demanding more information, finally threatening to shut him away in a cramped box. He begins to scream the days of the week in order, praying that the right piece of information will save him.
It’s clear that the treatment of the detainee is deplorable. It is also explicit that not all of the information he gave under duress was actionable. Most of the torture scenes are shown as dead ends: part of the greatness of Chastain’s performance is how she depicts frustration, sorting through the endless haystack of tapes of interrogations and files to find her needle, suffering the deaths of colleagues and danger to herself to complete the mission.
The cruelty depicted in the film made both torture’s critics and its proponents uncomfortable. John Rizzo, the former Chief Legal Officer for the CIA during George W. Bush’s presidency, helpfully let us know that “The box in the movie is not the kind of box that was used.”
I don’t give a shit about the size of the box. Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary. Its intention was never to be an archive—it was to present an interpretation of events through the lens of creative movie-making.
The discomfort is a testament to how art can spark dialogue. Bigelow intentionally directed scenes parallel to the shocking images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to provoke visceral disgust. Those images remain a pitiless blow to the ideal of American integrity and respect for human dignity.
To accept that we were so afraid in the wake of 9/11 that we succumbed to inhumane methods is necessary. To deplore torture as morally abhorrent is crucial. To deny that it played a role in our intelligence operations is to ignore the complexity of the issue. We can admit that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden without lauding it; we can hate it without denying its occasional efficacy.
To brush off Zero Dark Thirty with the pragmatist argument that torture is wrong simply because its role was overstated, because it showed an inexact cost-benefit, is easy. There is a stronger argument—while torture may be effective, regardless of the security cost-benefit, it is still wrong.
Bigelow deserves the Academy’s acknowledgement that her artistic point of view is valid. She deserves better from the Academy than to be snubbed because it’s cowed by controversy. The bloodstain of torture will forever mark the fabric of our history, and to reprimand Bigelow, her cast and her crew for bringing the darkness to light is to try bleach out the shadows in our story.