Half Past Midnight

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty: Who’s really the one in solitary confinement?

I had been reluctant to see Zero Dark Thirty. Despite having seen the glowing reviews, I had also read an awful lot about its severely problematic assessment of the role of torture in uncovering the key intelligence that, after years, eventually led to bin Laden’s courier. Of all the hideous things America has done to itself after 9/11, the rampant use of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo and other places has been the issue that upsets me most – on a daily basis, in fact. So, let’s just say I went into this with a pretty hefty bias, expecting it to be a piece of jingoistic, Islamophobic, triumphalist claptrap. However, I don’t like trashing movies without seeing them, and, boy, did I want to trash this one.

But I can’t. It does have exactly the problems the negative critics and historians say it does. But it’s also a complex, multivalent movie. I’m convinced that what I took away from the movie was profoundly different from what the frat boys and VMI cadets who were in the audience on a Saturday night took away. But I suspect all of us will be thinking about this movie for a long time.

The scene that had Obama’s interview condemning torture playing on the TV in the background was one of the few chuckles offered by this movie.

But let me be clear. The assertion that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden is not just a false premise of the movie. It is the central premise of the movie, reiterated again and again and again, all the way up to one of the final scenes where a child is compelled to identify the dead body of her father, bin Laden. But oddly, this premise is what allows the movie to hold up a mirror to the American audience. For the most part, it doesn’t preach or force you toward a particular stance on torture. My views on torture have certainly not changed or even been challenged, and I suspect that some in the audience more tolerant of enhanced interrogation techniques feel the same way. I don’t even think that is the movie’s intent.

“Zero dark thirty” is a military designation for 12:30 AM, the time of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. But it also designates the amoral tone of the movie: half past midnight. The audience is plunged into an insular world of spooks without context. For the first half of the movie, the only things we see are interrogation scenes, the group of about half a dozen intelligence operatives strategizing interrogation, or terrorist attacks. After the first couple unexpected explosions, you become conditioned to realize that if the camera strays from the CIA universe, something’s about to blow up. Despite being set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rarely do we see any of the characters engaging the locals, who are glimpsed from time to time in the background. Green zone to black site to green zone.

Interestingly, I think it’s this de-contextualization that allows the film to avoid the trap of Islamophobia. The only Muslim religious activity we are shown is a CIA administrator praying in his office. The Angry Muslim Mob just makes one brief cameo appearance. Religion doesn’t even come up in the interrogation scenes, as far as I recall. Other than assumptions brought in by the audience, there is barely anything to even suggest that the terrorists are Muslims. In an era where Hollywood uses a brief shot of a minaret as a cipher for “OMG, terrorists are nearby,” this film deserves a lot of credit for effectively removing Islam from the center of the discussion about terror.

While bin Laden’s followers are antagonists of a sort, the true antagonist in the second half of the film is the very context that had been avoided in the first half of the film. Political roadblocks, bureaucratic (and male) bravado, and the weakening will of the American public to condone torture continue to confound the heroine, albeit indirectly. I say antagonist, and not villain, because the movie permits us to wonder if perhaps applying the brakes might be warranted. Maya may be the heroine, but her obsessive monomania makes Inspector Javert look like a flighty dilettante.

Most reviews talk about the incredibly graphic and incredibly long torture scenes (although I imagine those scenes are barely half as graphic as the real thing), but the early scene that really stuck with me is when Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, arrives at her desk in Pakistan for the first time. She notices the thick dust and grime on the desk, makes a half-hearted attempt to brush it off, sighs, and then sits down. She and the other characters can turn off any sense of ethics like a switch, and it is only the shutting out of context which permits this. The movie doesn’t tell us if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does show us that it has had a very steep price. It asks us if the price was worth it and allows us each to provide our own answer.

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Questioning Fictional Violence

The Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have resulted in one of the more sustained public conversations about gun violence in many years. A month has passed, and it’s still very much on everyone’s minds, televisions, and browsers. This time around, some more attention has been paid to the larger culture of violence and problems in mental health services, and not just to gun control. There’s also been an unusually good deal of self –reflection in the media. One area I’ve been following has been the conversation on video game violence.

The anti-gaming diatribe of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has rightly been met with a good deal of scorn, a transparent deflection to anything other than a serious discussion of gun control. That being said, gun control on its own can only be part of the solution. We need to look at other cultural factors. One can point to Switzerland, which has incredibly permissive gun laws but low incidence of gun violence. One could also point to Japan, which does have very strict gun laws but consumes massive amounts of graphic sex and violence through the media. When you control for only one variable in this kind of societal comparison, you get really strange and contradictory results.

I am a consumer of violent video games, but I’m not really sure I could throw an effective punch (having never felt the need to try), much less handle a firearm beyond a Super Soaker. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, so I’m not likely to stab anyone, either, or hit them with a hammer. However, in high school, I did write a series of haikus that had my classmates getting dismembered in amusing scenarios, in an Edward Gorey sort of way. These days, such things would probably have gotten me sent to a psychiatrist rather than garner literary praise. I’m glad I wasn’t pathologized in such a way, nor were the proto-engineers in my class who designed and built bombs to blow up squirrels in the back yard (and who grew up to be well-adjusted, model citizens).

But while I’m certain violent video games haven’t made me, at least, more prone to violence, I’ve nevertheless been thinking a great deal about what things in these games make me uncomfortable and why. Too many people ask the question, “Do violent games and movies cause violence?” The obvious answer is no, at least not directly, but they’re not asking the right question. Fictional violence, like real violence, always has a context by which we judge it. What distinguishes legitimate violence from illegitimate violence is a fuzzy and constantly shifting line. The number of children in Yemen and Afghanistan killed by U.S. drone attacks in the name of fighting terrorism hardly elicits an American tear, after all, even though it probably should.

But let’s stay in the fictional world for now. I’m not expecting to provide any profound answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple questions that ought to be included in our national discussion.

Dishonored: How to separate the guilty from the innocent?

AREN’T YOU A LITTLE SHORT FOR A STORM TROOPER?

How do the faces or the facelessness of the victims of violence in games affect the narrative?

The bad guys in our fantasy and sci-fi epics are usually masked in both sameness and otherness – other than us, but all the same to one another. They’re hordes of aliens, orcs, dark-skinned savages (I’m looking at you, Tolkien), clones, robots, or space Nazis. They look different from us and therefore do not count as human. The conventional wisdom is that by dehumanizing the enemy the audience is spared having to delve into morally ambiguous territory. And even enemies that do have a face are bereft of human relationships. Does General Tarkin have any children? What’s his favorite color? How much poker money does he owe Vader? Will anyone mourn him after his horrific death being burnt to a cinder on the Death Star?

Not all games and movies take this route, however. A recent game by Arkane Studios, Dishonored, could be classified as one of the most hyper-violent games this past year, but is simultaneously one of the most thoughtful games I’ve seen when it comes to violence. You play as an assassin who is framed for the murder of an empress and must hunt down the real killers and rescue the princess, all set in a grisly plague-ridden Lovecraftian steampunk dystopia. You can beat the game by slicing off the heads and limbs of your enemies, but you can also beat the game without shedding a drop of blood and sneaking stealthily by your enemies.

While lurking in the shadows, you can overhear the burly guards complaining to one another about their work hours and making plans about what to do when their shift is over. There are also innocent people strewn across the levels you must traverse. While getting seen sometimes puts you in a bad spot, most encounters require you to choose life or death on a case-by-case basis. A maid might see you and cower in fear. Do you spare her and risk her alerting guards? You also have the option to knock her out and hide her in the bedroom. In this game, it is the player who wears a mask, a nameless terror to the denizens of the world. If you choose a more violent path, the plague gets worse and the more zombies get thrown at you by the end. The peaceful path is actually more challenging tactically and more satisfying. As it turns out, I suck at games, so I tried to be peaceful, but the guards always saw me and attacked. Despite my intentions, the game labeled me a pretty reprehensible bloke by the end.

I’m not sure which approach is “better.” Faceless enemies allow you to forget that you’re committing violence or stylize the violence so that it’s aesthetically divorced from the consequences. Enemies with faces force you to confront that you’re committing violence, but the visceral closeness can cut both ways. The exaggerated gore could be taken as a reward, a chance to giggle, as in a Peter Jackson battle scene. Or it could engender a twinge of digital guilt or at least disappointment that you didn’t play it right.

Left Behind: Yes, this really is a game. No, I don’t think they’ve sold that many copies . . . at least I hope not.

YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE

Is violence depicted in the here and now different from violence long ago and far away?

I’ve always shied away from games set in the contemporary world or that portray current conflicts. World War II is about as close as I want to get, either that or 50 years into the future. I wonder why this might be. In the case of games depicting the “War on Terror,” they just smack of jingoistic propaganda or military recruitment. So I guess you could say I find them politically distasteful, but I also worry about the possibility of dehumanizing real groups of people. Dehumanizing Nazis is one thing – that conflict is over and we tend to get along pretty well with the Germans of today. I think for me that “fantasy buffer” is important for my enjoyment of a game. I don’t want to be reminded of real violence happening in my world.

I’ve also had trouble getting into the Grand Theft Auto Series, although I hear they are some of the best roleplaying games made in terms of complexity and writing. But then I’m not attracted to gangster films very much either. I think I find the type of masculinity depicted to be kind of vile. But that’s more about my own taste, perhaps, than the games’ violent content.

I wonder, though, how people construct their “fantasy buffer.” I was already in my 20’s before I really played a video game in any seriousness, although I was a total D&D nerd (several video game genres owe their very existence to Gary Gygax’s idea that an exciting narrative can be determined both by choice and the randomized roll of the dice). So the separation of fantasy and reality has never been a serious issue for me. I may overindulgence my escapist fantasy life, at times, but I never confuse the two.

I wonder if children and younger teens experience games the same way. Obviously, mass shooters have other psychological problems going on. But do “normal” kids growing up on video games end up perceiving real world violence differently? The fact that military technology seems to be more and more game-like does make me worry that the fantasy/reality divide is shifting for many. One of my high school gym teachers used to tell us about how he strangled an enemy in Vietnam with his bare hands (he also egged on several fist fights between classmates – I was not a fan. Violence in video games? Let’s talk about dodge ball as a mechanism to socialize violence in children!) But I wonder if having to physically confront your enemy and contend with his body, rather than pushing a button to blow up a blip on a radar screen, alters your perception of violence, and in what way? I suspect that something is lost, and something is gained, but I’m not sure what. And this clearly isn’t an issue limited to video games.

Mass Effect: Violence for the future of the galaxy: Truth, Justice, and the Organic Way

THE ANTI-ANTI-HERO

What traits make a hero a hero?

Most violent video games are simply the latest iteration of adolescent male fantasy from Homer to comic books. We want to be heroes. As kids, we use superheroes as a way to imagine being in the world. What do we want to be like? As adults, we may continue to be fascinated by superheroes as symbols of the paths we might have taken or as ways to honor the simpler time of our youth. We also seem to be in the age of the antihero, someone who tries to do right but is hampered by human flaws and frailties. The superhero phenomenon has helped many kids deal with feelings of marginalization. Superheroes are different from normal mortals but they save the day for everyone – a fantasy, perhaps, but one that fosters positive self-image. But on the darker side, superheroes tend to be vigilantes, technically, operating beyond the limits imposed on law enforcement. Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen tackles the thorny of issue of vigilantism among our superheroes.

Many video games, particularly in the roleplaying genre, engage the player in shaping heroic traits. BioWare’s games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic or Lionhead’s Fable work a “morality meter” into the mechanics of gameplay. Selfless actions tend to bump you toward the light side, while cruel actions bump you toward the dark side, each unlocking new gameplay options if you’re consistent. But even games without such a meter often present the player with complex moral dilemmas. Do I save the damsel being carried off by the dragon, or do I save the villagers in the village set aflame by said dragon? Even if you indulge the darker choices for the sake of playing a role, you’ve still engaged your ethical thought process, to the degree acting on pixels can be considered “ethical.” Some of these games have had writing on par with some of the best speculative fiction and can be aesthetically and philosophically satisfying.

Another genre, the pure “shooter,” strikes me as more problematic, sometimes, at least. Often there is no context given for the virtual carnage you inflict. It’s all about the adrenaline rush. That, in itself, might not be a bad thing, although I usually don’t find such games to be engaging enough – I want my narrative! In shooters, your targets are usually hordes of “others” – aliens, demons, Nazi cyborgs, etc., although I have heard of a Left Behind shooter where you convert people to Christianity or kill the recalcitrant unbelievers amidst the social chaos of the apocalypse – a troubling worldview to say the least.

I think games that put you in the role of hero have the potential to get the player to reflect on virtue, however simplistically, in the same way that the genres of epic and tragedy have since humanity first starting spinning fictions. But not all games succeed in placing violence in a meaningful context. The difference may ultimately be an aesthetic one, rather than a legalistic one.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that pretend violence is close to the core of what makes a game a game. Sports, cops and robbers, even chess engage our predatory instincts and thirst for competition, however stylized or abstract. In earlier eras, it was how societies remained prepared for war or passed on hunting and survival skills. It is even a behavior that can be understood across species. I play with my cat through pretend violence, and we are both aware of the difference between the real and the not real. That’s truly amazing when you think about it. No matter how rough and tumble we have gotten, he has never broken my skin with teeth or claws (although not all cats have such self-control). Games are not just about violence, they are also about engaging our social skills – even games we play by ourselves require us to think strategically and imagine how our real or virtual opponents will react.

That being said, some forms of pretend violence seem to cater to our baser instincts – vengeance, bloodlust, Schadenfreude. I think most modern societies would agree that the Roman coliseum “sports” crossed an ethical line, no matter how entertaining they were found by the audience. Just because fake violence seems to be instinctual doesn’t mean we always need to give it free reign.

Human beings are violent, and probably always will be, but we survive because we establish mental lines – between fantasy violence and real violence and between acceptable real violence and unacceptable real violence. Such lines shift, of course, and may differ from person to person. But we have a long way to go before truly understanding how such lines are built, reinforced, or undermined in a developing mind.

Some posts on this topic by friends of mine:

Faded Epiphanies

The Yogi Gamer