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The Zero Dark Thirty Argument: Why Deceptive Art Can Be Great

I can't tell you if the Bin Laden movie really "glorifies torture." But great art can embody ugly ideas—which is why partisans have such a hard time trusting it

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Does Zero Dark Thirty glorify torture? I cannot tell you. I haven’t seen it yet. Nor—at least as of his writing of his column Monday—had Glenn Greenwald. But Greenwald, writing in the Guardian, became a prominent voice attacking Kathryn Bigelow’s movie for an extended sequence of torture that—some people who have seen the movie say—the film implies helped the U.S. find and kill Osama Bin Laden. (Not everyone who’s seen the movie agrees with this interpretation.) Greenwald, who has written passionately for years about civil liberties and the war on terror, says the movie “propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.”

Not wanting to make one more sweeping judgment of a movie on the basis of a few other people’s viewing, I’m going to leave the glorifying-torture question there. But I can talk about Greenwald’s larger argument, which says a lot about how different kind of people view art, how they judge it and what they think its purpose is.

Namely: is it possible that a movie, a book or any other creative work can be deceptive, misleading, propagandistic, even immoral, yet still be great?

“This, of course, is a long-standing debate about film specifically and art generally,” Greenwald notes in his column. But it’s a debate that seems to be resolved pretty plainly in his mind: no, it can’t. A good chunk of his critique is not just aimed at Zero Dark Thirty and secondhand reports of its content. It’s also about the critics who have given it rave reviews, even when, like David Edelstein of New York magazine, they criticized its depiction of torture (“borderline fascistic… an unholy masterwork“). Greenwald objects, as much as anything, to “the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated.”

Is it really so difficult to accept that one failing of an artwork—if Greenwald’s description is in fact correct—does not disqualify it for being praised for its triumphs? “The fact that [director Kathryn Bigelow is] presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her ‘journalistic approach’ to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible,” Greenwald writes. “Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?”

Apparently not, in Greenwald’s view. It is so impossible, in fact, that he must come up with an alternative explanation for the positive reviews: “I don’t believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It’s more accurate to say it’s so admired because of this.”

In other words—in what is sadly now the standard form of political and other argument—he accuses his targets of bad faith. The reason reviewers give for praising the movie is false, and Greenwald knows the right one. A critic who says that Zero Dark Thirty is great despite its depiction of torture is either lying or does not know his or her own mind.

Rather, Greenwald says, critics, like post-9/11 Americans generally, want to be told positive stories about the war on terror. Thus, “Any film that powerfully and adeptly leads Americans to view their government and its intelligence and military actors as noble heroes is one that is going to produce gratitude and glee no matter what else it does.”

Because why else could anyone say positive things about a movie that might please Dick Cheney? How could anyone acknowledge artistic merit in a work that undermines The Cause? Cognitive dissonance resolved!

It’s a simplistic way of looking at art, but it’s not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art. For someone who’s passionate about policy and public issues, aesthetics are secondary. Utility comes first. Things help the cause or they hurt it. There are Parts of the Solution and there are Parts of the Problem.

There are several bad assumptions that go into that kind of thinking. For one, that the primary function of art is to serve, or at least not undermine, one’s desired political arguments. For another, that artworks have literal, direct and easily predictable effects. In this kind of worldview, one kind of entertainment makes people more conservative, another makes them more liberal.

To this mindset, things like beauty and emotional force do matter, because they move us–but, more important, because they’re the spoonful of sugar in which good and righteous artists encase the medicine-pill of right-thinking. Entertainments and art can thus be judged by whether or not they push people in the right direction. (Further, any reasonable intelligent person knows this to be true; hence the need to create a bad-faith explanation for critics who love ZD30 despite its flaws.) To think otherwise is to enable evil: hence, Greenwald invokes Godwin’s Law, bringing up the artistic defenses of Hitler’s filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

If this way of seeing art were accurate, politicians would make great artists and artists would be our finest political pundits. But it’s not. Film history is full of movies that are false, amoral, brutal, sadistic—take the films of Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino—yet are triumphs of vision and storytelling. The idea of the great film that embeds false, even wicked ideas goes at least back to D.W. Griffith’s KKK-glorifying “The Birth of a Nation,” which propagandized horrific racism and revolutionized what directors could convey with movement on a screen. And on that, I’ll turn the discussion over to Roger Ebert, who also knows a thing or two about politics, in his fantastically well-reasoned essay on that film:

Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.

But it is possible to separate the content from the craft? Garry Wills observes that Griffith’s film “raises the same questions that Leni Riefenstahl’s films do, or Ezra Pound’s poems. If art should serve beauty and truth, how can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies?”

The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil.

Art engages good and evil and leaves its audience to continue the argument when the story is over. And this is where ideologues get uncomfortable with art. Because art also leaves the troubling possibility that the audience might choose wrong. That they might draw the wrong conclusions, that—misled by dramatic license or swept away by raw emotion—they could be led to wrong thinking. People might be amused by how Tom Sawyer treats Jim in Huckleberry Finn. TV fans might get a secret kick out of all the things that Archie Bunker says. This is not what political argument does: political argument makes sure it always has a hand on your wrist to lead you to the desired end.

Try to make art that does that, and you generally end up with Atlas Shrugged. But as we already know, there are plenty of politicians that love themselves some Atlas Shrugged.

And that’s why, as Greenwald’s argument with critics exemplifies, political true believers have a hard time trusting aesthetes. They leave room for interpretation and wrong choices. (Some viewers who’ve previewed Zero Dark Thirty believe it argues that torture helped get Bin Laden; others who have seen it don’t think the film argues that at all. Which suggests that maybe the movie does what art often does: avoids giving the audience clear, highlighted answers.) They cannot be trusted to place the correct agenda over all else. They choose foo-foo sophistry about “nuance” and “insight” and “metaphor” over literal truth and the clear, correct argument. Their loyalty, in the end, is suspect.

None of which is to say that partisans and political sorts hate art or that they’re Philistines. (For all I know Glenn Greenwald loves the movies.) But it is why alliances between art and ideology tend to go badly in the end. Art does a lot of powerful, wonderful things. But one thing it’s really bad at is taking orders.


ZD30 does not glorify torture. Jessica Chastain in her appearance on Letterman said Bigelow does not condone any violence. If you look at her previous films, this is correct. The movie fudges the facts, and I wish it didn't, because the reality would have aligned with her theme, which is a critique of the War on Terror. We spend the first hour at various black sites, and we seen men in cages. The only time Pres. Obama makes an appearance is an interview clip that says America does not torture. Now why would the filmmakers put that in? The torture is very graphic and disturbing and at first our heroine like us is disturbed by it. This is the first scene of the movie.The interrogator who conducts the torture later transfers back home, saying he can't take it anymore. But she doesn't. But as she spends years working on this one project, it becomes an unhappy obsession for her, and she at one point, after a horrible event, says she wants to kill all the terrorists. This is not the same woman who was unnerved at the beginning. The end is draw your own reading, but I believe, based on the scene and the whole movie, that it isn't a happy one. 

Anyone who says this is pro-torture or pro-CIA propaganda is misreading the film. Which is sad. SC Justice Stephen Breyer once said reading literature is important for the elected leader. I believe it enhances the intellect to read art correctly, and art enhances empathy and sympathy and fellow feeling. You're supposed to leave your self and your opinions behind to get in the mind of another and look at the world through their eyes. The members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who renounced this film failed to do this.  

apologues like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

"Is it possible that a movie, a book or any other creative work can be deceptive, misleading, propagandistic, even immoral, yet still be great?"  The answer is no.  It can be formally dazzling, with brilliant editing, extraordinary pacing, incisive dialogue, and believable acting, but if it is immoral – actually immoral, actually glorifying evil, and thereby derogating goodness – the answer is no.  Morality does not happen only in moral tournaments.  It attaches as an aspect of almost every public action that we take.  Almost everything we do makes the immediate situation better or worse, and morality is the study of that phenomenon.  Poniewozik's absurd idea is that art is the only public action which, almost by his definition, has no moral valence.

Can one failing in an art work "disqualify it for being praised for its triumphs"?  No, it can still be praised for its various technical achievements, as Leni Riefenstahl's movies celebrating Hitler still are.  But it cannot be great, because in the area that perhaps matters most it is rancid.

It is a straw man argument to claim that a political writer wants all movies to be political on the right side, and cannot view them in terms of aesthetic values.  Note to aesthetes: the rest of us are just as able to distinguish artistic values from propaganda as you are.  No intelligent person – and even his critics think that Greenwald is intelligent – believes that "the primary function of art is to serve, or at least not undermine, one's desired political arguments."

Neither does any intelligent person – and as hard as it is for Poniewozik to understand, there are intelligent people who disagree with him about aesthetics – believe that art always does, or should, "have literal, direct and easily predictable effects."  But some moments in art are literal and direct: for instance, a scene in a movie celebrating our great achievement in gunning down bin Laden, featuring a plot that draws a straight line from his crime to his punishment, that opens with a scene of torture that elicits information that gets the investigative ball rolling and eventuates in "justice."  To make the tired old argument that ambiguity in art is always a plus, and this too could be ambiguous, is terminally naive.

The main question raised by Greenwald is whether this movie, mostly fact-based and presenting itself to the public as fact-based, lies about the efficacy of torture.  Since morally sane people already condemn torture as evil on its face, a movie that justifies torture is already immoral, and one that lies about the factual record in order to do so is doubly immoral.  It can be all other excellent things, but lying to promote evil bars it from "greatness."

Roger Ebert knows more about camera angles than I do, but I'm sorry to have to inform him that there cannot be a "great film that argues for evil."  If it argues for evil by suppressing a factual historical record, it is not thereby "helping us understand good and evil," unless Ebert thinks that Holocaust deniers are helping us.  Ebert's position, although he may not know it, is that Holocaust deniers are immoral because the articles they write obfuscate the truth, but that a Holocaust denier who makes an entertaining action film saying the same thing cannot be similarly accused of immorality, because art-making, alone of all human endeavors, can never be judged by an ethical yardstick.  To apply the ethical yardstick is to be a yahoo.

Audiences that are amused by how Tom Sawyer treats Jim or secretly get a kick out of Archie Bunker's bigotry are simply failing to get what the creators of these characters intended.  No blame can accrue to Mark Twain and Norman Lear for that.  It isn't the inherent ambiguity of their art or its unwillingness to take sides that it causing the problem.  The art is clear and the consumers of it are muddled.  But if viewers of Zero Dark Thirty conclude that torture is justified because it helps the good guys bring the bad guys to justice, they aren't misunderstanding the subtlety – they are understanding the message, like readers who understand that Twain and Lear oppose racism.  And please – don't say that art never sends a message.  The primary intent of the artist may be to entertain, to make money, or to create an artifact of formal beauty that is essentially content-free, but if the art-form uses words, the words are saying something.  Anyone who sees Zero Dark Thirty and thinks that its purpose is to bum the audience out over the demise of bin Laden will be deluded.

The only way that a movie representing evil as good will promote our moral understanding is if people like Glenn Greenwald get us to discuss how and why the movie is doing that.

BarryBolton like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

In case I need an appeal to ethos, I'll mention first that I'm a professor of English.  To be brief, the argument here is fatuous, and has shamelessly misrepresented Greenwald's argument.  He doesn't pretend to judge the film's artistry.  He simply points out the falsehood of the historical facts it presents.  If "artistry," in any case, is to be divorced from the moral fact of the film's obviously propagandistic effect and intent (I've seen it) to excuse torture and underwrite reprehensible jingoistic falsehoods -- then art must be a rather worthless commodity.  Greenwald is only pointing out that propaganda is propaganda, and you can't ignore that fact by twirling off into some parallel universe of "art".

I won't even get into the preposterous historical falsehoods perpetuated by this authoritarian nonsense, which, artistically speaking, is on par with a Transformers film.  Even if you only dwell on the fact that it presents torture as a necessary step in finding bin Laden, when U.S. officials in the CIA and elsewhere have admitted that is not the case, ask yourself:  What kind of "art" is dedicated not to truth -- giving that term whatever expansive definition you'd like -- but rather deliberate, state-propagandizing falsehood?


Art is neither good nor bad. It has no morals. It does nothing and everything. It can lead us to do good things. It can lead us to do evil things. Sometimes it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us not think. It's just a tool in the hands of humans.


IMO, @gerrymcgovern , you bely a very limited understanding of both art and morals if you really believe what you wrote here. 

Lucelucy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Apropos of almost nothing, I have sometimes been heard to argue that all the pain and suffering, death and environmental devastation, political shenanigans and everything else that made the building of the Panama Canal possible, was all worth it because without the Panama Canal, there is no Arsenic and Old Lace. 


LOL.  (I like to think that also stands for Little Old Lady).  Thanks for the likes, guys.  I was prepared for brickbats.  (what are brickbats anyway?  Google?)  I am used to - well, not even brickbats - just blank stares of non-comprehension when I make that argument, at which point I add defensively, "The gods will do anything for art."  Which never seems to have an impact either, so I drift on to another conversational group.  I know way too many wonderfully earnest people.  ♫


Everyone should read the book None of Us Were Like This Before.  It directly relates to this article, and it shows how Rumors, Myths, and Ticking Time Bomb Stories (to cite a chapter) have had a powerful and real impact on soldiers and policymakers.  Like the reviewer, I have no idea if Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture.  It wouldn't be anything new.  But from what I've read, fiction has actually had a long and highly influential impact on convincing military and security forces, officials and the public that torture is effective and should be used.


James Poniewozik: thousands of words to defend a movie that inaccurately presents torture as the key to killing Osama bin Laden. Zero columns on the actual moral abomination of torture.

By the way: you've comprehensively ignored Greenwald's actual points. But hey, you're a busy man, having to lecture people about alleging bad faith and all.

olaf78 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@FreddiedeBoer Thousands to words to explicate a nuanced and complex position - which is that Art is shows, it does not cultivate.

It seems to me that Poniewozik addressed the parts of Greenwald's argument that he found to be in his purview. 

anon76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Now you've done it, you've attacked Glenzilla. I shudder to think what might happen if this is cross-posted to Swampland. I envision the sternest, most earnest talking-to (or rather 'typing at') you've received in some time. Paeans to moral ambiguity play poorly in ideologueville.



Yes, if there's one thing we don't have enough of in the U.S., it's a comforting moral complacency created by a convenient feeling that torture is, at best, ethically "ambiguous."

tomn like.author.displayName 1 Like

You are one amazing writer.  Thank you.