Jon Stewart On Zero Dark Thirty

The segment he had on with Jessica Chastain last night – a simply extraordinary actress, by the way – shook me up. I may be wrong, but I got the very strong impression that after seeing the movie, he had moved toward supporting torture. Since the movie didn’t do that for me, but was seen that way by many I deeply respect, Stewart’s impression – indeed his entire attitude to the subject – made me wonder if indeed my naivete or attempt to see the movie as an artistic whole was misplaced. Here’s the interview, so let me know whether you think I’m off-base:

One small but important thing. Chastain insisted that Boal and Bigelow decided to have no cooperation with the government. Maybe she got some things muddled up but one of the things no one doubts – because it was first questioned and then proven by the right’s Judicial Watch FOIA and then by the anti-torture coalition – is that there was close cooperation with the Pentagon, the CIA and even the White House. There is now a Senate investigation into whether the CIA figures with knowledge of the torture program overstepped the line in cooperating with ZD30. And yet the Daily Show’s site still has this sentence describing the segment:

Jessica Chastain explains why Kathryn Bigelow and the creators of Zero Dark Thirty decided not to work hand-in-hand with the US government.

Just. Not. True. Here’s a good summary of Boal and Bigelow’s close cooperation with the government in getting details right. Here are the documents and emailsproving it beyond any doubt. Chastain must surely walk back or clarify what she means by that. This movie was made hand in glove with the very war criminals who knew the full details. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: getting the layout of OBL’s compound exactly right is what a good movie should do. But that in turn also reveals a key difficulty with the movie: how can you say it’s just a drama “based” on real events when parts of it are meticulously rooted in government sources down to the ceiling heights in OBL’s bedroom? And how can you possibly get objective information about the use of torture from those who did it? Of course they are going to spin it to defend themselves. How many torture victims did Bigelow and Boal get access to? That’s the more salient question – and the other side of the story. Any movie-maker trying to get to the truth would also interview the tortured. Did they?

Then Stewart said he remained queasy about knowing about the existence of the CIA’s “black sites” where prisoners were routinely tortured using Gestapo methods – some actually to death, some completely innocent. “Shouldn’t we be watching this thirty years from now?” he asked, as my jaw dropped. What other crimes done by the government does Stewart think it’s best we don’t know about? Then we got to the nub of the matter, and what I think is a virtue of the movie. It sure did show that what was done by Americans was torture. If you’d had a figure in a World War II movie in Nazi uniform doing the same things CIA operatives are shown doing, you wouldn’t hesitate to call it such. The first torture scene is basically a crucifixion. And you would reflexively flinch and see the abuse as the despicable antithesis of everything we stand for in Western civilization.

So here’s how Stewart began to articulate his response:

Stewart: “This was a time when our government did some truly difficult -”

Chastain (interrupting): “Not great things.”

Difficult? Using overwhelming force to beat suspects to a pulp, drown them to near death scores of times, cram them into boxes, hang them from stess positions used by the Communist Chinese, freeze them to near-death: these things are not difficult. Real interrogation and investigative work is difficult – and it’s what caught and killed bin Laden (which the movie also shows, thank God). Not resorting to torture as a first option after an act of unimaginable terror is difficult. The word the Stewart I thought I knew (and admire) was looking for was surely “evil” or “barbaric”. But they didn’t come to his mind. No: this was a card-carrying liberal seemingly persuaded by the movie that torture was more acceptable than he had previously believed. Maybe I’m wrong. But this subject is too important for equivocation or the “I’m just a comedian” cop-out.

By the way, this movie is now in wide release, and many of you will have seen it by now. My lungs are getting better now so I’m going to see it again soon. But I trust your judgment as much as anyone’s. What did you glean from ZD30? Did it make you more or less persuaded that torture is defensible? Was my partial defense of it justified? Or dangerously naive?