Should movies have ethics?

Well now I do have a conundrum. I’ve always been one of those people who are rather impatient with those who complain about how movies distort history/get the book wrong. Does it really matter if the elves were not at Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s book, but Peter Jackson gave some of his hunky actors more screen time and, thus, put elves at Helm’s Deep?

I am pretty sure that Abraham Lincoln was not really a vampire hunter, and I sincerely hope there are no teenage vampires in Washington state.

I don’t think either Beatrix Potter or Jane Austen charged about solving mysteries in between writing novels and doing beautiful illustrations of small animals in frocks.

So up until about this morning, I’ve been in the “it’s a movie categorized as drama, fer Chrissakes, not a documentary” camp and thought little more about it.

But the controversies around Zero Dark Thirty strike me as rather important. It’s a drama–straight up. When you have “based on real events,” shouldn’t the viewer know full well that you are dealing with artistic license on the scale of “these people lived and did something roughly related to the topic herein presented” but treat the whole story as a matter of fiction until they have investigated the reality behind the story?

I’m betting Jesus does have relatives alive in the world. Whether DaVinci ever thought about them is another story.

So torture makes for good drama, as the Bond films have been making clear for roughly 40 years. But the problem is that there appears to be a strong consensus among interrogators that torture doesn’t work all that well. In fact, many have come forward and argued that the movie suggests that the CIA’s use of torture yielded crucial information to catching bin Laden, when that information was obtained using more humane–and far less cinematically titillating–methods. That gap between the state of the practice and what is shown on screen strikes me as rendering the movie rather into propaganda territory. It’s one thing to lay bare the reality of the CIA’s torture policy; it’s another to hint that it was effective when it wasn’t.

The major ethical arguments for torture are all consequentialist in nature. Take away the ends, and you have little left to stand on.

Either way, I’m now confused about my position. The movie fairly does not purport to be a documentary. But…