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'Zero Dark Thirty', Snuff Film | The Nation

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'Zero Dark Thirty', Snuff Film

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AP Images/Universal Pictures Germany/dapd

I didn’t flinch watching Zero Dark Thirty. Usually at suspense films I squirm and grasp at the arm of the seat, the thigh of my companion. Anyone who has ever sat beside me at such films can expect muffled little shrieks and a hand, finally, drawn up like a blindfold.

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

“I can’t watch.”

“It’s only a movie.”

Not if it’s art; as the old poet understood, I readily suspend disbelief for a visionary or even skillful artist.

Zero Dark Thirty is the work of neither. It functions less as art than as a snuff film. Its torture sequences, and the photographs or videos of nameless prisoners that reappear throughout the film’s long lead-up, stoke the viewer for the climactic killing that everyone knows is coming. They do not excuse or glorify torture; they do something worse: they draw the audience into accommodating it.

If there be genius in this film, it is a counterfeit. The state inures the people to violence and tolerates enough dissent to convince most that barbarism doesn’t disqualify their nation from being on the side of right. It is an exquisitely calibrated system. So, assassination, of course; drones and bombing, sure; mass incarceration and death row, OK; torture, maybe… The film mimics this, while distilling conflict in the power battles of its CIA heroine, Maya, played by the otherwise inert Jessica Chastain.

Maya is cartoonishly queasy at her first torture interrogation but rolls with it, growing in confidence and righteousness, touting herself as a “motherfucker” after years of sexless, single-minded toil in pursuit of her quarry. Once bin Laden is bagged, she becomes a girl again, alone in a military transport plane. Naturally, she cries—for lost innocence? 

It seems almost quaint now to recall that in 2004, when the first photographs from Abu Ghraib appeared in the press, the body in pain—stripped naked by our soldiers, shackled to cell bars or bunks, hooded and made to hold a pose for hours, stacked in a pyramid, forced to masturbate—shocked the conscience. America’s torture policy was already being debated by then, and Jack Bauer was already brutalizing his way toward America’s salvation every week in 24. Almost nothing that was done to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had not already been done to the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, or to prisoners held at black sites, forward operating bases or Guantánamo. Harvard’s Law School and Kennedy School of Government had already embarked on a project, underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security, to assess the efficacy of “coercive interrogation,” targeted killings, indefinite detention, etc. (Later all but one of those assessors would conclude that a little torture was sometimes necessary, provided it was accompanied by the proper oversight.)

The early torture debate was largely confined to narrow politico-cultural corridors. The snapshots taken by MPs in the dungeons of Iraq reached every corner of the world. For the briefest moment America was like Adam and Eve after the apple, exposed and ashamed. But because of their ubiquity—the media’s saturation-bombing approach to news—the
photographs soon became emblems of another worn-out story, as familiar as commercials and only slightly more irritating. Like the MPs, who were shocked upon first encountering a tier of chained and naked prisoners with panties over their heads but soon got used to it, Americans moved on.

By the time the face of that scandal, Lynndie England, was court-martialed in 2005, only five news organizations sent reporters to sit through the trial. (I was one, for Harper’s.) The photographs, now with penises fully pixilated, were reproduced in packets for each officer on the jury. They were enlarged on twenty-four-by-thirty-six-inch foam core and propped on an easel. They were displayed on multiple computer monitors in the jury box. At one point the Army prosecutor must have forgotten to turn off his PowerPoint, and the image of two detainees wearing hoods and simulating fellatio remained like wallpaper on the jurors’ monitors, pasted there while the lawyers and judge discussed court business and the lunch schedule. No one seemed bothered.

Eventually the jury bought the prosecutor’s argument that England had done more to disgrace the uniform than anyone in history, and sentenced her to three years in prison for posing for pictures and laughing at humiliated detainees. The CIA committed far worse crimes; England’s MP buddies, labeled deviants for having cruel fun with the detainees, committed worse abuses than the ones for which they were punished. Those other abuses were part of their job, though, and not even a corpse has convicted anyone who was employed to inflict suffering. 

Why would it? As Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes with such devotion, a corpse is America’s singular achievement in the war on terror. 

Hello Thanatos, Eros Calling

To see President Obama twirl Michelle around in her red dress, one would not have thought, There’s a man who picks targets off a kill list. Hence the utility of the inaugural ball: it injects a little eros into the culture of death. We are fascinated with “the dress” because we can imagine it coming off. No other moment of political theater is so suggestive, or necessary. No president wants to be welded in the public mind to the image of a brute. In 1973, Dick and Pat Nixon danced to “People Will Say We’re in Love.” In a sheaf of inaugural photos going back to 1953, even Ike and Mamie look ready for a playful spank and tumble after the ball.

Distractions? Sure, but no one resists horrors in the machine by ignoring their opposite. The first part of “Make Love, Not War” wasn’t in there for its rhythm. Recently, a plain brown package arrived in my mail. Weighing in at six and a half pounds, it disclosed a different kind of pictorial sheaf, The New Erotic Photography 2, edited by Dian Hanson for Taschen. I was doubtful initially. The cover girl struck me as neither new nor alluring: thin, bare, blond, shaved, affecting a dime-novel pose of rapture. A heavy sigh, but I opened the book, and stepped into a glistening arcade of wonders, with fifty international photographers of women.

Nothing scatters the gloom like the beauty of a woman at home in her skin. Sleek women, dimpled women; women on the phone half dressed, in tatty motels, in blue panties as if on a break from the action in old porn, amusing in stylizations
à la Botticelli, laughing together as if ripped from mementos in a commune scrapbook. Large women, enormous women; women with hair, in strained cardigans or summer dresses, with dirty feet, with clean feet, doing contortions in surreal parlors, or walking away, an ordinary figure crossing an ordinary room’s threshold on an ordinary day. Women so caressed by the camera you swear you could touch them, so dreamy underwater they rob your breath, so unguarded gazing back at the photographer you feel like an intruder retrieving a Polaroid from among an old lover’s things. 

Those are some I liked, some from the cover photographer, Andry Tych of Kaliningrad, whose work inside transcends type. “I just like girls and do not consider myself an artist,” he writes. But my favorites from his and others’ portfolios—Tomohide Ikeya’s waterworld, Mark Yann Serge Maggiori’s blurred Polaroids, Andrew Pashis’s and Magdalena Wosinska’s separate evocations of social and sexual freedom, a couple of depthless portraits by Julian Humphries and Jonathon Narducci—invite you in like fiction, calling out, “Suspend disbelief.”

They and the book itself clearly represent the merest sliver of the realm of Eros, who in Greek Orphic tradition more closely embodied the sweep of human desire. Sometimes called Phanes, this Eros, writes Robert Graves, “was double-sexed and golden-winged and, having four heads, sometimes roared like a bull or a lion, sometimes hissed like a serpent or bleated like a ram.” This Eros was the spark of life, set the universe in motion; over it ruled the triune goddess of Night, Order and Justice.

In fraught and ugly times, it serves to recall what human beings are capable of imagining. 

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