December 14, 2012
Zero Conscience in “Zero Dark Thirty”
Posted by Jane Mayer
At the same time that the European Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling condemning the C.I.A.’s treatment of a terror suspect during the Bush years as “torture,” a Hollywood movie about the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty”—whose creators say that they didn’t want to “judge” the interrogation program—appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?
“Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens across the country next month, is a pulse-quickening film that spends its first half hour or so depicting a fictionalized version of the Bush Administration’s secret U.S. interrogation program. In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government. The debate echoed the moral seriousness of the political dilemma once posed by slavery, a subject that is brilliantly evoked in Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln”; by contrast, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.
After some critics called Bigelow a torture apologist, she defended the fairness and historical accuracy of her movie. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience,” she told my New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who interviewed her for a Talk of the Town piece. At a Los Angeles press junket, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were “mischaracterizing” the torture sequences: “I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.
Zero Dark Thirty: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda
As it turns out, the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned
guardian.co.uk, Friday 14 December 2012 15.03 GMT
I’ve now seen “Zero Dark Thirty”. Before getting to that: the controversy triggered this week by my commentary on the debate over that film was one of the most ridiculous in which I’ve ever been involved. It was astounding to watch critics of what I wrote just pretend that I had simply invented or “guessed at” the only point of the film I discussed – that it falsely depicted torture as valuable in finding bin Laden – all while concealing from their readers the ample factual bases I cited: namely, the fact that countless writers, almost unanimously, categorically stated that the film showed exactly this (see here for a partial list of reviewers and commentators who made this factual statement definitively about the film – that it depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden – both before and after my column).
Of course it’s permissible to comment on reviews that are written.That’s why they’re written – and why they’re published before the film is released, in this case weeks before its release. I discussed the film’s depiction of torture as valuable in finding bin Laden because I did not believe that the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, New York’s David Edelstein, CNN’s Peter Bergen and all sorts of other commentators had simultaneously hallucinated or decided to fabricate on this key factual question.
That it’s legitimate to opine on the factual claims (as opposed to the value judgments) of reviewers is not some exotic or idiosyncratic theory that I invented. All kinds of writers who had not seen the film nonetheless similarly condemned this singular aspect of it based on this evidence, including: Andrew Sullivan, twice (“Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie” and torture techniques “were not instrumental in capturing and killing Osama bin Laden – which is the premise of the movie”); Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer (“The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture”); NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (“WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn’t used to get Bin Laden?”); The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky (“Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11. . . . According to reports, I haven’t seen the film, so maybe it’s handled well, that decisions [sic] seems to make the film automatically and definitionally a work of propaganda”), and so on.