Kathyrn Bigelow, Torture Apologist?


I'll see the movie tomorrow. But yesterday, when I was commenting on Spencer Ackerman's benign take, I wrote:

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.

Spencer knows a lot about this area and he has grappled with the intricacies of the war crimes detailed in the movie. But someone who isn't as informed as Spencer? Take the rave review in Entertainment Weekly by the very talented writer, Owen Gleiberman. Here's the money quote:

The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ''enhanced interrogation techniques'' that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked.

"In no uncertain terms". But we know that this is a lie, if we are to trust the most exhaustive examination of the subject, the Senate Committee.


Bigelow's and Boal's latest response to their direct linkage of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden with torture (something that has no basis in truth) is revealing:

Boal, a former journalist, has defending the decision, arguing that “it’s a movie, not a documentary,” and the film’s main principals stood behind their work at last night’s Los Angeles premiere. “We had to compress a very complicated debate and a 10-year period into two hours,” Boal said. “It doesn’t surprise me that people bring political agendas to the film but it doesn’t actually have a political agenda. Its agenda is to tell these people’s stories in the most honest and factual way we know how, based on a ton of interviews and research.”

But if the movie shows that torture got us information critical to the capture and killing of bin Laden, it absolutely does have a political agenda. It is rendering a lie as truth that justifies war crimes as an essential part of fighting our Jihadist enemies. Notice also the complete contradiction: this is merely a re-telling of facts "based on a ton of interviews and research" and yet it is also "a movie not a documentary." So is it true or false? Or does he even care? Boal needs to own his assertion that torture helped get bin Laden. And defend it against the facts. Or disown it. He can't play the "I'm just a journalist" card, when he's making a pro-torture movie.

Here's Bigelow, parsing carefully:

“There’s definitely a degree to which I wish the torture and interrogation techniques weren’t a part of this narrative, but they were a part of history. This is the hunt for this wanted man and these techniques were used along the way. It was part of the research, and had I not included it I would not be telling the full story of this manhunt.”

She evades the question. Of course barbarism by the US government was part of the story after 9/11. Of course these techniques were used along the way. But they were not instrumental in capturing and killing Osama bin Laden – which is the premise of the movie – and certainly the conclusion in a mass market magazine like EW. And to credit torture with this national triumph is absolutely to take a pro-torture political statement, and to sink it into the public consciousness in emotional ways that will be very hard to displace. Tomorrow, I'll be able to review it in detail. But I fear that the better a movie it is, the more evil it will foment and justify.

(Photos: Director Kathryn Bigelow (L) and Writer/Producer Mark Boal the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Los Angeles Premiere- After Party at Dolby Theatre on December 10, 2012 in Hollywood, California. By Lester Cohen/WireImage; and a victim of the torture techniques defended in Boal's and Bigelow's movie.)