The Meaning Of Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture

Below are our posts examining the role of torture in the film Zero Dark Thirty, including political commentary from Andrew, his review of the film, and coverage of the film’s accuracy and how much involvement the US government may have had in its making.

Mon Dec 10, 2012 – 12.16pm:

Kathryn Bigelow, Torture Apologist?

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When the director of the magnificent movie, The Hurt Locker, decided to make a movie about the raid on Abottabad, the Republican right got twitchy. Would this be an Obama hagiography just before the election? Isn’t that what Hollywood’s about?

It turns out the opposite is the case. Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie:

The film includes wrenching scenes of a terrorist suspect being waterboarded and subjected to other forms of torture by C.I.A. operatives; the suspect eventually surrenders information that helps lead to bin Laden. Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. “It’s a movie, not a documentary,” Boal said. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.” Still, Bigelow said, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.”

I have not seen the movie yet, so I have to rely on descriptions of its plot. But if it portrays torture as integral to the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is a lie. If Bigelow is calling torture “harsh tactics” she is complicit in its defense. And lies do have an agenda, whatever Bigelow says. They pretend that the law allows torture, they violate the historical record, and they make war crimes more likely in the future. Yes, it makes for a more thrilling ride if we start with a torture scene in a movie drama. But actual torture, authorized illegally by war criminals, is not fiction and is far too grave a matter to be exploited as a plot device. It is illegal because it is evil and because it provides unreliable and often false leads, not real ones. Bigelow cannot argue that her movie has no agenda, or duck behind the excuse that this is a “movie” and not a “documentary”. If it lies to promote the efficacy of torture, it has a very real agenda. And that is a defense of barbarism as entertainment, and as the law of the land.

Tue Dec 11, 2012 – 11.34am:


Ackerman calls Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes “arguably the best and most important part of the movie”:

[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.)

Tue Dec 11, 12.37pm:

Just a heads up. Thanks to Sony Pictures, I’ve got an invite to a screening of Zero Dark Thirty Thursday evening. I’ll post my thoughts as soon as I have collected them. It deserves a viewing. My initial takes here and here.

Wed Dec 12, 2012 – 11.29am:


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) isrevealing:

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 thepremise 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.)

Fri Dec 14, 2012 – 12.18pm:

Kathryn Bigelow: Not A Torture Apologist

Two of Zero Dark Thirty‘s actors address the controversy:

Millman reframes the conversation:

Why do I have to depict torture either as an obstacle to the quest, or as contributing to the success of the quest, or as an inevitable side-effect of the quest? Why can’t it just be a terrible thing that we did, with no particular implications for the quest? Because, I answer, if it’s not in the story for a reason, then why is it in the story you are telling? There has to be an answer for that question – the audience will look for one if you don’t provide one. And if your point is to say “this has nothing to do with the story” then I’m afraid that point is going to become your story, and will eclipse the story of the quest. So long as you are telling a story fundamentally about the quest, everything else is going to be understood in relation to that story.

I saw the movie last night at a screening. It is, before anything else, a brilliant piece of film-making. The direction, acting, and cinematography make it as good as The Hurt Locker. The attention to detail is stunning, and the raw, granular honesty of its dialogue manages to avoid the tired tropes of action movies. It’s entirely believable. Having studied this subject for years, I saw nothing obviously wrong.

The first thing I’d say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that’s what we became in our treatment of prisoners.

In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.

And so the anodyne phrase “stress positions” is actualized in front of our eyes. We see a suspect in a black site, held up by chains on his arms attached to the ceiling. He has been beaten to a pulp, his eyes barely visible behind the swollen sockets, his dignity completely stripped away. We see him strung up, and tormented. He cannot sit or stand for days on end. We see him stripped in front of a woman. We see him walked around on a dog leash. The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed – correctly – as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior’s own orders.

So why include the torture at all? It played no role in finding any clues as to the whereabouts of bin Laden in the movie and in reality. The breakthroughs in the movie come from traditional interrogation and intelligence. In only one instance is torture even remotely connected to a real clue. That’s when a previously tortured suspect – driven to near insanity and oblivion by sleep deprivation – is tricked into believing he had already revealed something when he hadn’t. That’s classic good interrogation: bluffing. Yes, the suspect was more easily coaxed because the premise of the bluff is that he cannot remember what he may or may not have said because of torture. But the trick could have worked in other circumstances. And he gives up information while being outside the torture rooms, and offered food and drink in a restaurant.

The critical clue comes from traditional intelligence – a data point friendly countries gave to the CIA in the wake of 9/11 and then took a few years to percolate up to the analyst who saw its salience. Another critical break comes from old-fashioned bribery. Then we see the grueling, long, tedious, legal intelligence work that finds a needle out of a Peshawar haystack; and the interminable attempt to find out if bin Laden really was the inhabitant of that Abbottabad fortress. Even as those helicopters took off for the raid, the CIA analysts could only conclude that there was at best a 60 percent chance of the mass-murdering theocrat actually being there.

The movie also depicts waterboarding in a way that destroys the pathetic defense that this wasn’t torture, because the tortured were not asked direct questions during it. They were, of course. Torture was followed by interrogation which was followed by more grisly torture. There is no doubt here that what the US did was almost a text-book definition of war crimes.

The controversial opening – actual audio of the victims of 9/11 calling 911 as they were consumed in flames cutting to the torture program – could be interpreted in many ways. It shows the horror of terrorism and then the horror of the torture that Cheney illegally used to respond to it. I suppose those who see no moral problems with torture – the neocon chorus – may cheer or see justice in this equation. They will love the fact that at one point, a tortured detainee is threatened with being sent to Israel as an even worse fate than Bagram.

But the simple juxtaposition of terror with torture in the film does not force an obvious conclusion. In some ways, like Spencer, I think it reveals the core truth behind Cheney’s armchair warrior mindset. The torture was not for intelligence (and it provided nothing reliable as well as countless leads that were dead ends). It was for revenge. It was an emotional lashing out at often random Muslim suspects (and some genuine terrorists) for killing so many Americans. There was no reason behind it and no law. There was pure rage fueled no doubt by Cheney’s guilt at being in charge when the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor happened. Cheney subsequently acted out – and yes, it was acting out, it wasn’t a rational strategy – as a lawless third world dictator for a couple of years. But by 2008, we see the long-term consequences of this war criminal’s rampage. We hear the CIA officer in charge of trying to get the culprits of 9/11 say: “We are failing.”

What the movie also shows – importantly – is the evil of Jihadism, and its fanatical religious roots. It shows the terrorism as well as the torture. The easy view that all of this torture was based on hallucinatory threats is rebutted. We see the 7/7 London bombings in horrific detail; we see the heroine’s car suddenly peppered with bullets as she leaves the Pakistani embassy; we see her in a hotel blasted to smithereens; we see a key CIA analyst tricked and blown to bits by a suicide bomber. The evil of the enemy is as clear as the evil of Cheney. That matters. Evil begets evil.

And the heroine of the movie is at first appalled by what she sees in the torture rooms. Then she is made complicit, then numb, then desperate. But her strength comes from a passion to get bin Laden and a persistent insistence on tracing every tiny piece of evidence to its source, which means, in the end, on-the-ground human intelligence in Pakistan at great risk. In so many ways, this movie echoes what we are told the Senate Intelligence Committee report concludes. We got bin Laden when we stuck to Western values. When we acted like the Nazis or the Communists, we failed.

A word about the acting. Chastain is completely believable. Given the extremes to which this character is exposed, that is an acting feat of stupendous proportions. And the movie ends in deep sadness, not triumph. It may be that many people watching this movie will actually believe the torture was integral to the end-result. But that will be because they want to see that or because they are as dumb as Owen Gleiberman. It isn’t there. And if they want to see that, they will also be forced, at least, to own the barbarism depicted on screen in a way that euphemisms like “sleep deprivation”, “stress positions” and “enhanced interrogation” were designed to obscure. Maybe there are enough people in this country to be comfortable with that. But my view is that Americans were shielded by their government and, disgracefully, their press, into living with barbarism – because Orwellian language was used and propagated to disguise the true evil that was at the heart of the Cheney mindset.

No euphemism can obscure the truth here. And the truth is that this country was run by war criminals who have yet to be brought to justice in the way their underlings have been. That breach must be healed – not by prosecuting those at the bottom of the line of command (like the Abu Ghraib grunts), but by prosecuting those at the very top, Bush, Cheney, Addington, Rumsfeld, and their enablers. Without them, we could have found and killed bin Laden without becoming like him in our tactics. Cheney was too weak to stand up for American values in our hour of need. Bush was even weaker. But America came through in the end, despite them.

So when are we going to be able to read the entire Senate Report on the war crimes committed? It was approved yesterday. It would be immensely helpful to release it before the movie, so that we can all see what this movie reveals: torture was not just at Abu Ghraib. It was everywhere; and it was mandated from the very, very top. We brought bin Laden to justice. We have not yet done the same for Cheney.

Sat Dec 15, 2012 – 2.12pm:

Watching Zero Dark Thirty

Jane Mayer has a very different response than I did. Here is where I think she hits on something important:

Despite Boal’s contentions, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not capture the complexity of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.

The movie is careful not to take a stand on torture. Can you imagine that in any other context?

One has to wonder whether any morally serious director would have chosen a morally-neutral approach to torture if she were portraying torture practiced by, say, the Iranian terror state, or by Nazis or Communists? The techniques are exactly the same. Is not taking a stand as you present such evil itself an endorsement? My sense is that Bigelow and Boal talked to some of those war criminals who did the torture and since torturers have to find some way to justify their acts, and because they are modern Americans fighting terror, the director simply did not have the courage to confront them with the fact that they belong in jail and hell for what they did.

To connect finding the name of the courier in any way with torture is, as Jane insists, factually untrue:

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”

Then this:

At one point, the film’s chief C.I.A. interrogator claims, without being challenged, that “everyone breaks in the end,” adding, “it’s biology.” Maybe that’s what they think in Hollywood, but experts on the history of torture disagree. Indeed, many prisoners have been tortured to death without ever revealing secrets, while many others—including some of those who were brutalized during the Bush years—have fabricated disinformation while being tortured. Some of the disinformation provided under duress during those years, in fact, helped to lead the U.S. into the war in Iraq under false premises.

Yes, but a chief CIA torturer would defend his crimes in such a fashion, wouldn’t he? The pro-torture claims are not authorial commentary, but embedded in characters.

I would have preferred an anti-torture movie, with characters in the government protesting, as so many did, against our descent into barbarism. Bigelow couldn’t summon the moral courage to show that – and it was integral to the full picture. But a director has such artistic license. And what she did do – which, to my mind, rescues the film –  is simply expose the lie at the heart of the Bush administration: Abu Ghraib was “not America.” Under Bush and Cheney, it was – and far worse.

You simply cannot watch that movie and pretend that torture didn’t occur – no euphemisms, lies, or denial can take that away. Maybe a democracy needs simply to confront the fact of what it has done before it can being to process it. Bigelow doesn’t process it; she doesn’t move the ball forward. She simply lays it out in public. It’s an act of cowardice expertly delivered. But it is our own cowardice as a nation that has been worse.

And it is not, as I have written, in my mind, a pro-torture film.

Mon Dec 17, 2012 – 11.34am:

The Zero Dark Debate

Glenn Greenwald argues that Zero Dark Thirty “absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden”:

[T]o depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That’s why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step – the first, indispensable step – in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America’s most hated public enemy.

The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don’t support it because they don’t realize it’s brutal. They know it’s brutal – that’s precisely why they think it works – and they believe it’s justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.

As if to prove Greenwald’s point, Kyle Smith claims that the film “is a clear vindication for the Bush administration’s view of the War on Terror”:

Does “ZD30” glorify torture? No, because no one is tortured in it. The worst procedure shown is waterboarding, and while this is an extremely unpleasant process (it’s not even easy to watch a movie simulation of it), it isn’t torture. Any reasonable definition of torture must exclude procedures that sane people would undergo on a lark. Journalists such as Kaj Larsen and Christopher Hitchens have volunteered to be waterboarded in exchange for nothing more than a cocktail-party anecdote and some copy.

And both did so knowing they could stop it at any point and subsequently had no hesitation in calling it exactly what it is: torture. I may be naive. But I do not think anyone but a sadist or a fascist could watch the torture scenes and be able to say they were not torture. Which is to say that Smith is either a sadist or a fascist, who has contempt for the rule of law and Western civilization. A man is beaten to a pulp, effectively crucified by stress positions, and then waterboarded. If that were done to an American by an Iranian intelligence agent, the same people now exonerating it would be the first to condemn it as evil. And the way in which the laws against torture are written, everything depicted in the movie is illegal, was illegal and in any democracy will always be illegal. It makes the case for prosecution of war crimes very vividly to me, especially when contrasted with the heroine’s determined and effective intelligence work of the most traditional and ethical kind.

Glenn sees a crucial scene differently than I did:

Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: “I can always go eat with some other guy – and hang you back up to the ceiling.” That’s when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden’s courier – after he’s threatened with more torture – and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden.

A couple of things. You can see the interaction at that meal as evidence that traditional intelligence – simple bluffing – can work. I only saw the movie once and took notes throughout, but no one gives up the truth while being unambiguously tortured in the movie, which is how most people understand torture. And Glenn does not note that after all the torture, in 2008, we discover that there has been nothing but failure – according to the CIA itself – in tracking down bin Laden, or in preventing future terror attacks. It was only in the post-torture period that old-fashioned guess-work, fresh data analysis, painstaking investigation and extreme caution gave us bin Laden’s whereabouts and that rightly celebrated raid.

I’m shaken by Glenn’s and Jane’s much more horrified analysis of the film. They may be right in assessing how many will read its lessons. The torturing agents are not monsters – but what they do is monstrous. Perhaps I am letting my own sense of fairness to the detail – I don’t believe, after seeing the film, that it says torture got us bin Laden – get in the way of the broader emotional impact on less informed viewers. I may have been affected by the undeniable power of the film.

But perhaps I also have a slightly brighter view of the American movie public than Glenn or Jane. I think any decent human being will be repulsed by graphic evidence of Nazi-like torture by men with American accents in American bases and sites. I think what Glenn and Jane may be missing is the visceral achievement of those scenes. Maybe for some, like the depraved Kyle Smith, it will lead them to embrace torture in all its horror. But if that is what the public comes to accept, it is ultimately their responsibility and not Bigelow’s. She did not pretty up the evil. She laid it out in front of us.

Mon Dec 17, 2012 – 1.20pm:

How Accurate Is Zero Dark Thirty?

Peter Maass had trouble suspending his disbelief:

Unlike Lincoln, about a man who was killed a century and a half ago,Zero Dark Thirty portrays recent events. We know pretty much everything there is to know about Lincoln—all that’s left is to interpret the historical record—but precious little about the hunt for bin Laden. That’s why I was not only riveted by the “Bring me people to kill” line, but curious. Did it really happen? Did the film’s heroine, who is called Maya, really tell the CIA director, during a meeting about bin Laden’s compound, “I am the motherfucker that found that place”? I had fact-or-fiction questions about nearly every scene in the movie.

He doesn’t fault the filmmakers for their fictional constructions, but still worries that, for the most part, the film allowed the government to get its story told uncritically, possibly as a natural byproduct of giving the filmmakers so much access – an issue he himself is familiar with having spent time as an embedded journalist:

[T]he new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

Tue Dec 18, 2012 – 11.40am:

The Zero Dark Debate, Ctd

Manohla Dargis’ review shares my own view of the movie. It simply holds a glass up to torture. A reader writes:

I read Jane Mayer’s article yesterday and frankly was disgusted. Her primary complaint seemed to be that the film didn’t work to redeem the reputations of her sources. As if the fact that the FBI was against torture, and people in the CIA and military were “conflicted” about it, in any way mitigated the fact that it happened.

Her attacks on some of the characterizations in the movie, the “it’s biology” bit and so forth, seem to be of a piece with Glenn Greenwald’s critique, in that they seem to take all of the CIA characters at face value. This would be appropriate if Maya and Dan were heroes like Jack Bauer, but they’re much more unreliable, like Humbert Humbert or Colonel Mathieu from “The Battle of Algiers”. In “Lolita,” if you want to see a pro-pedophilia message, you’ll see it, but only by completely accepting Humbert’s framing, and that requires a pretty closed mind and/or a lot of obtuseness. Similarly in “Zero Dark Thirty,” you’ll see a pro-torture message, or a “hagiography” of the CIA, but only by accepting the CIA characters on their face as the “Good Guys.”

But, I think it’s clear these people aren’t good people. Maya flat-out wants to murder Bin Laden. Her female co-worker talks blandly about murdering a confidential source if he balks at doing a job. Dan plainly relishes Abu Ghraib methods in the event, even if he burns out on them eventually (poor baby!). Their station chief is a glib careerist, and most Agency types not named Maya seem to be condescending, cowardly, unimaginative and a little sexist. Maya is the most sympathetic character, but she’s a very strange, unbalanced person. She’s not “movie crazy,” and its clear that she’s high-functioning and once set into motion can accomplish anything, but she’s no Bruce Willis/John McClane.

The film’s depiction of violence, its attitude and politics, are ineffable, and you can’t put it into words – you just have to see it and figure it out for yourself. I don’t agree with the idea that it has no politics, it most certainly does, but I think they transcend any of the conversations in the press.

The suggestion that it’s pro-torture completely weirds me out. The Kyle Smith article you linked to was the first one I saw that actually tried to make sense of this argument, insofar as I think this is possible – it’s still ridiculous though. I guess if you sit through those scenes and you sincerely believe that what you’re seeing is just, good for America and the world, affirmative and righteous before man and God, then you’re entitled to say so, and here’s something to talk about. But I think enemies of torture like Greenwald and Mayer are being counterproductive by presuming this argument in the film.

To me, it says more about their contempt for a median American moviegoer, his ignorance and his (supposed) predisposition to violence and revenge fantasies, than what is actually on the screen. Glenn’s attitude is cultural Leninism: any depiction which does not condemn must be objective support.

Anyway, I appreciate your coverage of this.

Sun Dec 23, 2012 – 8.42 pm:

More and more, people viewing it are disturbed and concerned that – even in the interstices – it gives an impression of something false: that torturing suspects with Nazi and Communist-style  techniques played some role in finding and killing the theocratic mass murderer, Osama bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence Report – the most exhaustive and penetrating study of Cheney’s torture regime – says otherwise, we are authoritatively told by Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain (pdf). The current deputy head of the CIA has also now weighed in:

In a message sent Friday to agency employees about the film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mr. Morell said it “creates the strong impression that theenhanced interrogation torture techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false.”

In fact, he said, “the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led C.I.A. analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad,” the city in Pakistan where a Navy SEAL team killed him in May 2011. “Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques torture” Mr. Morell wrote, using the C.I.A.’s euphemism for harsh and sometimes brutal treatment that included waterboarding torture. “But there were many other sources as well.”

He said that “whether enhanced interrogation techniques were torture was the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

So there you have it (I have translated the Orwellian text into plain English).

But notice that the CIA therefore in some tiny fashion backs up the movie. There is only one moment in the film when torture is shown to have played any role in the intelligence gathering, as I noted in my own review of the movie. It was when a clue was uncovered after someone had been tortured and then treated kindly and then bluffed into giving up a piece of information which, on its own, could not have led to finding bin Laden. And the acting CIA chief does say that some tiny fragments might have come from previously tortured suspects – and this is not something that those of us who oppose torture in all its forms would be surprised by. Of course, every now and again, torture will cough up something that is true. But it is so often surrounded by mountains of lies ZD30_Pic_5and misdirections that it soon becomes impossible to tell what is real evidence and what is not, what are blind leads and what are real ones. The case against torture is simply that it is torture, that capturing human beings and “breaking” them physically, mentally, spiritually is a form of absolute evil that negates the core principle of human freedom and autonomy on which the West is founded. It is more fatal to our way of life and civilization than terrorism.

And we can do better. We will never know, for example, if painstaking intelligence-gathering under the law would have discovered that nugget if Cheney had not insisted on torturing suspects to death in some instances. But it seems stupid and futile to say that such horrifying torture never produced anything remotely true. Just almost never anything remotely reliable, and at a cost in false leads and loss of moral integrity that vastly outweighs any tiny benefits. And remember it was long after the torture program had been ended that the real intelligence work to find and kill bin Laden worked. We were never up against the ticking time-bomb exception devised to justify a massive, on-going torture apparatus. And by the end of the Bush years, the movie makes clear that the effort to track bin Laden was a “failure” and that no one had been able to prevent by torturing suspects, any of the massive terror attacks – from London to Mumbai – that continued.

I do not want to be an apologist for those too cowardly to make a movie that tackles torture and its lies head-on. But I do believe that an artist and a movie should be judged in toto. I can only say, having watched the entire thing like a hawk, that it is a movie neutral about the use of torture, but one that also clearly demonstrates its barbarism and extremely limited utility. That is not the movie I would have written or made. It is, to my mind, too deferent to some who want somehow to justify retroactively the war crimes they committed. I do not believe that any American movie about a foreign country that tortures suspects would bend over backwards to be neutral about it.

But that simply makes Boal and Bigelow cowards rather than liars. And cowards can make great movies as well.

Thu Dec 27. 2013 – 12.09pm:

“The big ‘truth’ point here is about the efficiency and efficacy of torture. Using these terrible methods is, for better or worse, how we got the intel to ultimately find Osama. But that is only the surface message, the cover story if you will. The real story, the real truth the filmmakers are trying to subliminally present, is about the beauty of torture.

The bald claim, or the meta construct, or the wink wink about this being a serious and important version of a big issue is really just so we can get to the total sexiness of physical abuse. You need a higher purpose to get out-and-out pervy stuff like this into a big-budget movie. History is the justification.

Kathryn Bigelow is a fetishist and a sadist, which, in a literary sense, certainly has a fine tradition. But without some acknowledgement that this is her lonely journey and not a shared one – not our collective reality, not a set of accepted assumptions but, for better or worse, her own particular, problematic kink – all you have is a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda,” – Michael Wolff, The Guardian.

Thu Jan 3, 2013 – 11.54am:

How Deep Was The CIA’s Involvement In Zero Dark Thirty?

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In what is a somewhat delicious irony, the movie that Republicans once denounced as a possible propaganda move for Obama’s re-election is now being assailed by the Senate Intelligence Committee as pro-CIA propaganda. Hosenball has the goods:

In the latest controversy surrounding the film, Reuters has learned that the committee will examine records charting contacts between intelligence officials and the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said.

The intelligence committee’s Democrats contend that is factually incorrect.

A couple of comments. Not just the Democrats: McCain is very much in the mix. And I very much hope that Bigelow and Boal are in no way investigated for committing a work of art. That would be a horrifying precedent. The Hosenball piece relieves this anxiety a little:

The person familiar with the committee’s plan to review administration dealings with the filmmakers said initially this would involve reviewing uncensored copies of CIA records regarding the film. The committee presently does not plan to contact the filmmakers directly, the source said.

I have no problem with an investigation into whether an agency trying to clear its name in public opinion told a movie-maker or screen-writer self-serving lies. The relationship between the CIA and Hollywood bears scrutiny, especially in this case. But I return to a core disagreement with the Senators involved, Feinstein, Levin and McCain, whose integrity on this matter I do not impugn.

They say that the movie “clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier”. The trouble is revealed by the language itself: “clearly implies”.

An “implication” is rarely that “clear”. It requires subjective interpretation. I’ve only seen the movie once, so maybe I missed something. But to my mind, there is only one scene where torture plays a role in attaining actionable intelligence – and it is indirect. It is a classic intelligence bluff move after a prisoner has been tortured that reveals a small clue.

I agree that this implies that torture played a role in the process, but the movie in no way suggests that this was the only way to get that information. In fact the very scene suggests that simply bluffing may have worked in a humane context far more effectively than torture. I say “suggest” because the movie is infuriatingly opaque about its intent and message – an almost shameless flight from political and moral responsibility – which is why I respect the views of those who think it will encourage undiscerning viewers to draw a damaging and false conclusion about torture. But those critics have to come to terms with the fact that the movie has many, many scenes where torture is shown to be fruitless and barbaric. And by far the bulk of the evidence is shown by the movie to come from relentless traditional ethical intelligence work.

Let’s find out if the CIA – including its current acting director, Michael Morell – tried to spin a defense of its own war crimes. Let’s find out how credulous or “embedded” Boal became. But let’s also note that this is a work of art, open to a variety of interpretations. That artistic freedom – to say things others really don’t want to hear – is also critical to defend.

Mon Jan 7, 2013 – 11.29am:

In Defense Of Zero Dark Thirty

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I was a little stunned to find myself defending it after one viewing. I was all ready to start a picket line. But the most pointed and polemical defense of the movie I have yet read is here. It’s from film critic Glenn Kenny. It’s somewhat aggressive to Glenn Greenwald – but Glenn’s a big boy. Read the whole thing, but I like the Ramones analogy:

In 1976 Robert Christgau wrote this about the first Ramones record: “I love this record–love it–even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially) in much the same way ‘Midnight Rambler’ flirts with rape. You couldn’t say they condone any nasties, natch–they merely suggest that the power of their music has some fairly ominous sources and tap those sources even as they offer the suggestion. This makes me uneasy. But my theory has always been that good rock and roll should damn well make you uneasy.” I agree with Bob in all these particulars, and even more so if you substitute  “good art” for “good rock and roll.” Zero Dark Thirty made me uneasy.

Greenwald’s evocations of amorality are not entirely inapt. There’s a sense in which the film at least skirts outright amorality by refusing to assign any definite values to the various Xes and Ys in the equation that makes up its narrative. Its perspective, from where I sit, is sometimes flat to the point of affectlessness. There is an almost cynical mordancy in its depiction of events, and this to me is entirely clear from the film’s visual grammar … But Greenwald sees none of this, and insists: “There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: that we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists.”

I guess I have more faith in the “standard viewer”. Kenny has a useful bunch of links, expanding on critical defense of the film. If you’re interested, many of them are very much worth exploring:

My review for MSN Movies, which I filed before even Frank Bruni’s column appeared, is now up. I stand by it. Manohla Dargis makes some salient points beautifully, as she always does, in her NYT review. The great Larry Gross has some provocative perceptions at Film Comment’s site. And Devin Faraci shows me more grace and kindness than I’ve ever shown him in commending my work in a piece about the film for Badass Digest, and I am grateful for his giving me a necessary lesson in humility, but more important, I think his perceptions on the film and his detailed descriptions combine for a wholly admirable piece of criticism. I thank him.  Scott Tobias’ AV Club review is valuable. Also, I am reminded that David Poland, commendably, got the ball rolling from our end with this piece.

UPDATE 2: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s piece at MUBI’s Notebook is remarkable.