The Hollywood film, Zero Dark Thirty has generated a firestorm of controversy, from those saying it condones torture, those saying it doesn't, and those who angrily denounce those who criticize it for condoning torture. It has become a philosophical flashpoint because it purports to be based on fact (albeit difficult to verify). As such it can't just hide behind the curtain of saying: "Hey, lighten up...it's only a movie."

But I use the imagery of hiding behind a curtain deliberately, because there's always a magician lurking behind the Great and Powerful Wizard. And this is true even moreso in out-right fiction. Stories are contrivances. But, like a stage show magician, the goal is to make the audience forget that.

But if we want to discuss torture in popular culture, maybe we have to face up to just how prevalent it's become.

I caught the premiere episode of Ripper Street, a British series set in Victorian London that can best be described as The Murdoch Mysteries...only with viscera and naked hookers! To get information, at one point in the pilot the heroes beat bloody a man in their custody (though they probably could've loosened his tongue faster simply by offering him a plea bargain!)

Around this same time was an episode of the U.S. spy series, Covert Affairs, in which a Mossad agent coerces information from a guy at gun point. By modern standards, it was a pretty mild scene, with the heroine acting suitably disapproving, and with the Mossad agent later confessing to emotional baggage. At the same time: they got the information they wanted.

So I was just watching things at random. A British series I had never seen before, and an American series which I watch only occasionally (star Piper Perabo an appealing actress, though the series itself is well-made but otherwise undistinguished). And it just seems to show how it's almost the default scene modern writers fall back upon. When in doubt -- torture. The characters in the U.S. TV series Lost started torturing each other within a couple of episodes...I think the kids in The Lord of the Flies showed more restraint than that!

In comics, Batman regularly beats informants bloody for information -- comicdom's "greatest detective" better with his fists than his frontal lobe it seems.

Torture scenes are lazy, frankly. The writer isn't sure how to give the heroes the next clue before the commercial break.

But I'm not sure Sherlock Holmes ever instructed Watson to use his medical "skills" on an uncooperative informant. In a 1970s Modesty Blaise novel by Peter O'Donnell (Blaise popularly thought of as the "female James Bond") Blaise dismisses the idea of employing torture as something she doesn't do.

Years ago, the character who sneered at a prisoner: "You're a long way from Geneva, my friend!" would've been the irredeemable villain. Nowadays, it's often the hero uttering that cinematic cliche.

Some justify torture scenes as more dramatic than an interrogation. I guess they've never seen a well written interrogation scene -- the Canadian TV crime-drama King had, I recall, some fine interrogation scenes largely devoid of intimidation, while in the U.S. series Homeland, the smart, gripping scenes involved heroine Carrie trying to win the suspects' trust...not the trite scene of the guy with the knife.

Others celebrate the usage of torture scenes for their "thought provoking" moral "ambiguity".

There's another factor. Given horror films that mainly string together a bunch of sadistic death scenes (dubbed "torture porn" by detractors), are scenes of heroes brutalizing villains just the PG-rated cousins of those horror films? What exactly are we, the audience, supposed to be deriving from these scenes?

Because for all the pretence at "ambiguity" most of these scenes are supposed to be...cool. "Wot a guy," the audience is supposed to coo in admiration of a hero unshackled to "political correctness." Torture scenes are a catharsis not just for those living in fear of terrorism, but even for people fuming about that jerk who stole the parking space they had their eye on.

But is that really healthy?

The definition of terms could warrant an essay on its own. Some of the debate over Zero Dark Thirty is because people are disagreeing over what constitutes "condoning" in a story. Likewise, the definition of torture itself can be debated. Does torture (in a story) mean the victim is tied up and instruments are employed? Or can torture involve simply the hero using excess force, even in a fight? What about police dramas where the hero gleefully threatens to send the perp to maximum security with the implied promise he will be gang raped?

Should the hero derive satisfaction knowing villainy has been thwarted and the streets are safer? Or should the hero derive satisfaction out of besting and, in a sense, humiliating the villain?

Everyone will have their own answers to those questions. But whether it be the quasi-fact of Zero Dark Thirty, the fiction of Ripper Street, or the fantasy of Batman, creative choices were made, and a vision of reality was manufactured for the audience.

When is a scene just a bit of gripping theatre and when is it deliberately trying to shape the discourse? You can give yourself a headache wrestling with all the permutations and combinations. I've enjoyed various stories that another could argue are rife with dubious morality -- heck, that might be what makes them entertaining!

But there's nothing wrong with talking about these things.

The makers of Zero Dark Thirty made a movie, stomping about in a minefield of ethical controversies...yet then they (and the movie's fans) seem incensed that people are actually trying to discuss the issues it raises. But surely that's what good drama does -- it gets people talking.

Did Zero Dark Thirty really cross any lines? Or is it just the logical culmination of the last few years of entertainment -- years when we deliberately didn't pull back the curtain because we were afraid of what it might reveal about the magicians and about ourselves?
CATEGORIES Movies