True Lies


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?