When the Academy Award nominations were announced on Thursday morning, Kathryn Bigelow was not on the list for Best Director. That surprised some people; maybe it shouldn’t have. The film she made, “Zero Dark Thirty,” was nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, and she’s won in the past, for “The Hurt Locker.” The problem appears to have been torture—the way it was depicted in the movie, which is about the killing of Osama bin Laden, and her insistence that she was constrained in the story she told by the truth, when, in fact, she veered away from it.
If torture had been the only standard, though, then Ben Affleck might have been nominated for best director for “Argo,” a film that is more self-consciously fictionalized, and yet in many ways more honest—but he was also on the list of snubs. (So was Tom Hooper, the director of “Les Misérables.”) “Argo,” set in Iran during the hostage crisis, is based on the story of how six Americans at the embassy managed to slip away while the compound was being stormed, how Canadian diplomats hid them for months, and how a C.I.A. agent helped get them out by pretending that they were the crew for a science-fiction movie.
But it is also a movie about torture: more precisely, about the price of tolerating and abetting it. In a prologue framed as comic-book panels, a narrator explains American complicity in a coup that overthrew an elected government, our support for the Shah, his decadence, and the torture perpetrated by his secret police, which Iranians came to associate with Americans. (Because this comic book is less cartoonish than “Zero Dark Thirty,” it is also nuanced enough to mention that traditionalists weren’t happy with the opportunities afforded to women under the Shah.) Several times in the movie, both hardened C.I.A. agents and American diplomats wonder what we’d been thinking when we decided to support a torturer, and why we were still protecting him—he had fled to the United States for medical treatment, and the Iranians wanted him back. The hatred in the streets, the way Iranian society had been deformed by a drive for revenge and score-settling, is openly attributed to torture.
“Argo” does add a few more cliff-hanging moments than there were in reality—for example, cars screeching after the diplomats’ SwissAir flight as it’s about to take off. (In fairness, the Tehran airport, in that period, was a scene of intense drama, with people pulled off planes, children interrogated, luggage ripped apart.) Another complaint is that the heroism of the Canadian diplomats isn’t credited enough, although, as Michelle Shephard, of the Toronto Star, points out, Affleck took some steps to address that by, for example, amending the film’s postscript. To take one instance, in a tense scene in the movie, C.I.A. agents in Langley electronically confirm the diplomats’ plane tickets; in real life, the Ambassador’s wife paid for them herself. “Argo,” in short, is no documentary. But there’s no mistake about the moral dilemma.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” in contrast, torture is something that steady professionals do in quiet rooms, and that only cowardly politicians question. Many discussions of the film suggest that torture only appears in its opening sequence; but it runs through the film. Maya, the agent played by Jessica Chastain, is seen studying videos of detainees being questioned under torture. They give her epiphanies, not compunctions. And Maya, the character we are meant to identify with, becomes a torturer herself. She mimics the lines she’s heard her colleague Dan use before he hurts people. She questions detainees with a large man sitting next to her, and has him strike them when she doesn’t like an answer. She talks about directing the use of every measure available on a prisoner. As I’ve written before, what is left out in all of this is the wrenching debate within the intelligence community about whether what they were doing was effective or moral or American. In one of the worst lines in the movie, a C.I.A. official complains that new, Obama-era rules have tied his hands: he can’t interrogate the prisoners at Guantánamo at all, because their lawyers will run to tell Al Qaeda what they were asked. That is a profound insult to the many lawyers who worked tirelessly not to help Al Qaeda, but to defend our values and our Constitution. (Jose Rodriguez, a former C.I.A. agent who was involved in the torture program and destroyed videotapes like the ones Maya watched, wrote that, when he heard the line about the lawyers, “I had to smile.”)
The problems people have with “Zero Dark Thirty” and torture are about directorial choices, and it is more than reasonable that Bigelow be judged on them. Directors are rewarded when they do brave things, and for what they have to say—it could just be about love or aging or children’s toys, but she chose to speak about torture. Awards are not only for lighting, or the performances they coax out, or for aesthetics in a vacuum. A didactic film that is garish or woodenly acted shouldn’t be rewarded just for its message either; you need both, which is why great directing is hard, and why only a few people get nominated.
Seeing as we're all wanked out on Django Unchained, maybe we could start discussing this instead.