By Kevin Gaughan
I once read a description of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination of President Kennedy as “the saddest film ever made.” The Dallas clothier inadvertently recorded uniquely American joy, violently transformed into unspeakable human horror, all in 27 seconds. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the entire film.
This past week, watching “Zero Dark Thirty,” Hollywood’s treatment of America exacting final justice on Osama bin Laden, I had to avert my eyes again.
From the moment the movie began with the sound of World Trade Center voices from Sept. 11 – voices that now speak in heaven, but on that morning endured unfathomable hell – I wept. When there followed lengthy depictions of torture that took place during our decade-long search for bin Laden, I writhed. Staring anywhere but the screen, all I could think was, “this is the saddest film ever made.”
I’m not an avid moviegoer. But with Hollywood turning out this year a stirring portrait of Abraham Lincoln, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty’s” evocation of our nation’s lost decade, I’ve spent perhaps too much time thinking about motion pictures.
In a recent chat about our entertainment culture, a friend blurted, “Who cares about entertainers anyway?” And she’s right.
But then a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” comes along. In harrowing scenes, it shows an American citizen, somewhere outside America’s boundaries, committing an act beyond the bounds of democracy: beating a shackled prisoner, on a cement floor, in a darkened warehouse.
The debate over whether torture helped lead to bin Laden misses the film’s point: In pursuing the monster terrorist, our nation committed monstrous acts.
And whether watching the on-screen violence now, or unknowingly going about our day five or 10 years ago when the actual torture took place, we are all degraded by what was done.
During the Revolution, George Washington’s edict was that no British captive be touched. Lincoln – even after the Confederacy’s terrorist raid at Gettysburg – insisted that no hand be raised against rebel prisoners.
“Zero Dark Thirty” illustrates America’s temporary betrayal of this tradition. For that I felt terrible sadness. But then I realized that sensing that pain was necessary to righting our moral gyroscope tilted by the age of terrorism.
At film’s end, with bin Laden rightly dispatched, a sense of emptiness accompanies the feat.
The lead character Maya, an allegorical symbol of us all, is asked where she wants to go now. As our nation continues efforts to restore our moral standing, we citizens must provide the answer.
Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader.