Jon Stewart On Zero Dark Thirty, Ctd

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Readers offer their impressions of the interview with Jessica Chastain:

I say this not as an excuse, but as a partial explanation. I think Jon Stewart has a bit of a blind spot for regarding terrorism in general and Osama Bin Laden in particular. This is one area where he tends to react first as a New Yorker who was attacked on 9/11 and not so much a liberal. I haven’t seen ZD30 and don’t particularly want to, but I don’t think you should assume that Stewart’s reaction is necessarily representative of liberals at large.


Chastain is an ACTRESS. She’s not the writer or the director or the producer. Should Stewart have attacked her for the role she played? Seriously? Chastain is the wrong target for the answers (and the fight) you’re looking for.


Stewart clearly relishes putting policy makers on the spot, but celebrities? Not so much. I suspect because he considers them “civilians” and has empathy for the situation they are in (folks called on to defend some project they are part of but had little role in creating).

Another adds that “if he had conducted a similar softball interview with Kathryn Bigelow, then there would be something to talk about.” Another:

When Stewart said that he had the feeling, “shouldn’t we be watching this 30 years from now?” I don’t see how you can read this as a statement that he believes in the suppression of information. I had the same thought in the film – that this is the sort of information we usually don’t learn about until many years after a fact. Stewart’s phrasing of “shouldn’t” (which he stumbled over, by the way), only tells us that verbal language is more imprecise than written language tends to be. And at the end of the interview, Stewart even uses waterboarding as the extreme example to counter “talking about waterboarding” in the punishment of a CIA agent (i.e., strange that talking about waterboarding could get you into more trouble than engaging in something so horrible).

In short, Andrew, you’re reading a great deal into this interview that strikes me as unfair to Jon Stewart. Please don’t turn him into the latest example of a “torture apologist”.

I think my readers are right – although I simply said his responses were confusing to me. On reflection, I think I made a mountain out of a molehill (as Aaron insisted as we watched and re-watched it that night). But I’m genuinely torn on this movie, which explains my sensitivity. I want to reiterate my profound admiration of what Stewart does every night. It’s often much much better journalism than anything on cable news. Another shifts gears somewhat (spoilers below):

As to your question regarding the movie.  I am a liberal.  I am, I hope obviously, against torture. This movie told me that sometimes – sometimes – torture can work and lead to important information.  However, I am capable of thinking about it outside the movie and came away thinking this does not make torture worth it.

It causes more problems, be they ethical moral, or practical, than it solves. The fact is torturing al-Kuwaiti may very well, and likely did, help find Usama Bin Laden.  But so what?  What about the countless others we tortured which garnered no such information?  That’s pretty fucking awful.  The fact is that the chances of getting a piece of information like the one received from al-Kuwaiti through torture, when we wouldn’t have been able to get it by less-horrible means, is extremely extremely small.

I feel, as a pragmatic person, the case against torture is that the moral and practical costs of obtaining information in such a way – which includes, but is not limited to, our a) standing in the world, b) receipt of misinformation, c) endangering our troops/civilians, d) emboldening terrorists, and e) corrupting legal cases – is much stronger than the case for torture … that maybe, just maybe there is a minute chance we will get a bit of info that may stop an attack.  The movie didn’t change my stance on torture; it just provided some nuance and told the story of one time torture was used.


My impression of the film is that it is essentially a Rorschach Test on celluloid.  If you came into the theater believing that “enhanced interrogation” is inhumane, illegal, and unhelpful to the manhunt, then you certainly wouldn’t have changed your mind after seeing the film.  The acts of torture portrayed in the film are vile, very difficult to watch, and they did not directly lead to useful information.  And the information gleaned from Ammar, the detainee tortured at the beginning of the film, was corroborated by other detainees anyway, so it would be reasonable to say that Bin Laden would have been caught and killed even without the use of torture.

On the other hand, if you came into the theater believing that “enhanced interrogation” was crucial to Bin Laden’s eventual capture, then ZD30 did not do much to dissuade you.  True, the agents were able to obtain information from Ammar only after they stopped torturing him and fed him a solid meal – and then, only by tricking him into believing he had already spilled the beans.  But it would be reasonable to conclude that Ammar’s fear of further torture was at least part of the reason why he gave up the info.  And that fear would not have been there if the agents hadn’t already tortured the guy.

So, I do think you were mistaken (I’d hesitate to say “naive”) to expect that the film would cause viewers to recognize and confront the fact that their government did evil, illegal things as part of this manhunt.  On the contrary, those who were predisposed to believe that torture is worthwhile will leave the movie with that belief intact, and perhaps even bolstered.

As for me, I came into the theater from roughly the same place as you – ashamed of what my government did, but pleased with the end result achieved in Abbottabad.  My shame has not receded after seeing ZD30, but it has been put into perspective.  That is because the torture scenes, though very difficult to watch, simply cannot compare to the abject horror of the opening scene, featuring voices of 9/11 victims. The bone-chilling opening scene set the stage for the entire rest of the film.  It is made entirely clear that whatever pain was suffered by Ammar – who is happily enjoying hummus and tabbouleh at last check – cannot even begin to compare with the suffering felt by those trapped in the towers or in the planes.

One more:

You and I agree on a lot of things so I was absolutely dumbfounded that you did not take away from it a direct connection between torture and the capture of bin Laden.  How did you not see the “bluff” scene as being directly related to the inmate being repeatedly tortured up to that point? Not to mention the other inmate telling Maya he will tell her everything because “I don’t want to be tortured again.”

The best review of the movie in my opinion is here. The concluding sentence is: “To me, that makes Zero Dark Thirty not an apology for torture so much as a powerful acknowledgement that we might never have found and killed Osama bin Laden without the willingness to enter the fog of war.” That is what people are going to take away from the film!  And this is evident in the Liz Cheney tweet you posted along with Hannity’s endorsement of it.

I thought showing torture on screen displayed honesty and would force us to own up to what our government did and hoped that viewers would be disgusted by it.  By connecting torture to OBL’s capture, Bigelow has completely leap-frogged that introspection to the inevitable thought that torture is needed to keep us safe. Even Jon Stewart is grappling with that, for god’s sake.  If he is, what hope is there for those who already believe torture is necessary?  This movie then becomes the ultimate defense for any past or future acts of torture.

Please see it again and let us know what you think.