[The film] does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet. Were a documentarian making the film, there would surely be less torture in the movie: CNN’s Peter Bergen deems the scenes overwrought, both in their gruesomeness and in their seeming estimation of their role in nabbing bin Laden. But that would also come at the expense of making a viewer come to grips with what Dick Cheney euphemistically called the “dark side” of post-9/11 counterterrorism. Meanwhile, former Bush administration aide Philip Zelikow, who termed the torture a “war crime” in a recent Danger Room interview, will probably find the movie more amenable than Cheney will. What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.
Spencer has, of course, seen the movie. I haven’t. And I respect his judgment and reserve my criticism until I’ve seen it. But I’m troubled by those last sentences:
What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.
But if the shameful actions are intrinsically connected to the proud actions, then Spencer may be relying on his own moral compass, rather than the movie’s.
The core question for me: if this movie is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and those with the most information about it categorically say that torture had nothing to do with the success of the operation, then why is torture in there at all?
To recap the Senate Intelligence Committee’s statement:
“CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL (bin Laden) courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. … Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program. … The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”
So again: why is torture in there at all? Again, I have to see it to judge it properly. But scenes of grotesque torture are apparently spliced with vivid audio from 9/11 in the opening of the movie: a morally fraught connection. Again, I haven’t seen the movie. If it merely reveals how the evil of that September day unleashed emotions of revenge and violence that led the US government to betray the Geneva Conventions, it’s one thing. But if the end of the movie is the successful capture of the perpetrator of 9/11, and torture is seen as part of that process (which is untrue), then this becomes a propaganda movie in defense of war crimes. That’s truer if the movie is a great work of art. It may be. But some great art is evil and abets evil. And the greater the art the deeper the evil it can propagate.
Peter Bergen’s review troubles me even more:
The one time [president Obama] does appear in “Zero Dark Thirty” is in a clip from a “60 Minutes” interview in which he criticizes the use of “torture.” By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama’s opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.
If that’s true, Bigelow is indeed an apologist for evil, and this movie should be protested loudly. Greenwald notes:
That so many reviewers walked away with a pro-torture message from the film – that torture was key to finding bin Laden – means that large numbers of viewers likely will as well, regardless of the after-the-fact claimed intent of the filmmakers. That, by itself, is highly problematic and worthy of commentary.
It’s not just highly problematic. It’s a lie. Other reviewers see it quite plainly. Frank Bruni:
“The torture sequence immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It’s set up as payback. “And by the movie’s account, it produces information vital to the pursuit of the world’s most wanted man. No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that’s what “Zero Dark Thirty” appears to suggest.”
And that’s just not true. And in her comments on the film so far, the director has chosen a defense that does not inspire confidence. As Glenn puts it:
As noted, she is going around praising herself for taking “almost a journalistic approach to film”. But when confronted by factual falsehoods she propagates on critical questions, her screenwriting partner resorts to the excuse that “it’s a movie, not a documentary.”
Since Bigelow and Boal (the screenwriter) put waterboarding at the crux of the hunt for bin Laden, they are not practising journalism. They are propagandists for the efficacy of war crimes against mere suspects handed over to the US often randomly. Bigelow and Boal are not just creating a work of art, if this is indeed the obvious lesson of the movie. They are enlarging the potential for evil – by justifying and celebrating it. If they manage to do so while also showing the full grotesqueness of the brutality the Bush-Cheney administration unleashed on prisoners, it’s even worse. They may persuade people that this kind of unconscionable brutality is justifiable and effective, when it is neither.
And, yes, I’m asking for a copy for review myself. I will give it a fair shake. I deeply admired “The Hurt Locker.” But the mere facts about the movie, as reported by many viewers, do not require a review. They demand a rebuttal.
(Photos: Director Kathryn Bigelow, actress Jessica Chastain and Co-Chairman-Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal attend the after party for the premiere of Columbia Pictures’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ at the Dolby Theatre on December 10, 2012 in Hollywood, California. By Michael Buckner/Getty Images; victims of the Bush-Cheney torture program at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.)