True Lies

Movies

A lot of people are giving Kathryn Bigelow’s new flick, Dark Thirty Rock, or something, a lot of free publicity by jagging off over whether it does, or does not, embrace torture as an effective tactic of interrogation. The filmmakers have elsewhere claimed to have been engaged in something akin to an act of journalism, and that’s supposed to imbue their work with a sort of virtuous truthfulness that makes their depiction of an instrumentally useful waterboarding all the more despicable, or their depiction of a sordid act of ambiguous and questionably efficacious torture all the more morally compelling, depending upon your take as to their authorial intent. But these being filmmakers and this being a work of fiction, when they say “journalism,” what they mean is something more like “realism,” a bit of Anglo-American narrative artifice in which action and affect are supposed to synch up like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. Well, the point is that the film may or may not depict torture as having been necessary, or at least instrumental, in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the filmmakers either are or are not morally compromised for having included it in their otherwise realistic tale.

It’s interesting that we should take up this particular narrative detail as a mark of the movie’s verisimilitude (or lack thereof), given that the entire story is patently bogus. The tale of the gangland killing of Bin Laden is carved out of the stankiest pile of official bullshit: the fake vaccine program that may or may not have occurred; the wife who was or wasn’t there; the mansion that may or may not have been a hovel; the firefight that did or didn’t happen; the body unceremoniously dumped in the ocean; the national security cabinet watching a livestream, just like in a movie. Leave the gun, take the canoli. The tale is pure confabulation, a bunch of cinematic set-piece details straight outta Hollywood, which makes Bigelow’s film a sort of exercise in entertainment doping, blood extracted, saved, and re-injected into the veins of its own originator.

“People are gonna come out of this movie thinking that torture is how we got Bin Laden.” The problem isn’t the torture, but that they think we got Bin Laden in the first place, that this whole episode sits in a neat official history that traces a through-line from the World Trade Centers to the dusty exurbs of Abbottabad. As critics, the question we ought to consider is not, how does this film deviate from reality and, in so doing, become propaganda, but rather, what sort of reality can be so innately and inherently cinematic that it satisfies the artificial demands of narrative realism without significant alteration? If the question of the film’s realness and accuracy is simply, did torture work?, then we should ask: how could it be that a piece of actual history, but for a detail or two, is so neatly constructed that it fits without change into a wide-release, cinematic format? Consider that the movie contains assassination scenes filmed in real time based on assassination scenes filmed in real time. How do filmmakers make less true that which was arranged to give the mere appearance of truth in the first place? 

5 thoughts on “True Lies

  1. With respect to the burial at sea, I didn’t watch the interview with Obama on 60 minutes on May 8, 2011, but when I reviewed the transcript the next morning I had a thought. Obama pointed out how the U.S.’s moral superiority was shown by the care with which bin Laden’s body had been disposed of, after he had been captured, and then summarily executed with gunshots to the head.

    KROFT: Was it your decision to bury him at sea?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was a joint decision. We thought it was important to think through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body if he were killed in the compound. And I think that what we tried to do was, consulting with experts in Islamic law and ritual, to find something that was appropriate that was respectful of the body.

    Frankly we took more care on this than, obviously, bin Laden took when he killed 3,000 people. He didn’t have much regard for how they were treated and desecrated. But that, again, is somethin’ that makes us different. And I think we handled it appropriately.

    [end of quote from 60 Minutes]

    I recognize that hindsight is always 20/20, but notice how Obama is claimin’ clear foresight here. The option of takin’ bin Laden prisoner had been rejected. The plan for tossin’ his corpse in the ocean was already worked out. Anyone who doubts whether bin Laden deserved his fate “needs to have his head examined.” Given all this planning for likely eventualities, why couldn’t they have planned to shoot him in the heart a few times, once they’d grabbed him, instead of in the head? The post-mortem pictures would have been much more presentable. It would have been much more feasible for bin Laden’s head to have been examined. It’s too late now, of course, but they ought to keep this in mind for the next Emmanuel Goldstein.

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