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The Debate Over Torture in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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by Matt Singer
December 11, 2012 4:29 PM
3 Comments
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"Zero Dark Thirty."

This post contains some minor SPOILERS for "Zero Dark Thirty."

Whether it ultimately wins the Best Picture Oscar or not, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" already looks like a mortal lock for another prize: The Most Controversial Movie of the Year. Government officials previously argued that the filmmakers, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, were given too much access to classified information by the Obama administration; later, others complained that the film should not be released before the 2012 election because it could swing the results in President Obama's favor. A week before the film opens, it's come under fire for a new reason: the allegation that "Zero Dark Thirty" "glorifies" torture, committed by the CIA in their pursuit of information about Osama bin Laden.

In The Guardian, "Security and Liberty" columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote an aggressive attack against the film, condemning "Zero Dark Thirty" for presenting torture as "crucial in capturing America's most hated public enemy" and for "uncritically [heralding] CIA officials as dramatic heroes," a tactic he described as "anything but surprising:"

"A large Hollywood studio would never dare make a film about the episode which is America's greatest source of collective self-esteem and jingoistic pride without clinging tightly to patriotic orthodoxies. The events that led to bullets being pumped into Osama bin Laden's skull and his corpse being dumped into the ocean have taken on sacred status in American lore, and Big Hollywood will inevitably validate rather than challenge that mythology."

Going further, he essentially accused critics of admiring the film specifically because it glorifies torture, not in spite of that fact:

"Over the last decade, nothing has produced more positive feelings among Americans about themselves than the killing of bin Laden. That's why it was a centerpiece of Obama's re-election campaign and multiple chanting sessions at the Democrats' convention. When it comes to 'the hunt for bin Laden,' few people want their nationalistic pride to be diluted by criticisms of the agencies responsible or reminders of the war crimes their country committed (or the fake child vaccine programs on which it relied). Any film that powerfully and adeptly leads Americans to view their government and its intelligence and military actors as noble heroes is one that is going to produce gratitude and glee no matter what else it does."

Those are serious charges. And they come with a serious caveat: Greenwald hasn't actually seen "Zero Dark Thirty." Instead, he based his column on the opinions expressed by other writers who had seen the film, including Frank Bruni of The New York Times and David Edelstein of New York Magazine, who proclaimed "Zero Dark Thirty" his favorite movie of 2012 before adding that "it also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible." Greenwald's already published two different updates defending his lack of first-hand knowledge about the movie, saying that he wrote "a critique of the viewpoints expressed by reviewers and the filmmakers" and that "anyone claiming I've reviewed this film is plagued either by severe reading comprehension problems and/or a desire to distort."

I don't think Greenwald has reviewed "Zero Dark Thirty;" I think he's interpreted it without even watching it. Greenwald believes he doesn't need to see "Zero Dark Thirty" to understand it, which is a shame, since it is, in my opinion, not so simply boiled down to a single line in a David Edelstein top ten list (the child vaccine program Greenwald mentions, for example, is in fact discussed in "Zero Dark Thirty"). I liked the film a great deal, and I don't think it glorifies torture (and I certainly didn't like the film specifically because it glorifies torture). Granted, I can only speak from personal experience, but at the screening I attended, I didn't see a lot of critics walking out high-fiving each other and singing the theme song from "Team America: World Police" either.

"Zero Dark Thirty" does not include scenes of torture to glorify torture. It includes scenes of torture because the United States tortured people. Greenwald insists that tortured captives did not help us find Osama bin Laden. But surely he would agree we tortured terror suspects hoping that it would. Successful or not, it happened. In Bigelow and Boal's approach, that action must be acknowledged and dealt with. Its moral implications are far more important to their film than its logistic implications.

Likewise, "Zero Dark Thirty"'s version of the CIA is not the uncritical heralding Greenwald describes (or rather describes from other descriptions). Its use of torture is emblematic of its portrayal of the organization as a whole -- which is ultimately depicted as hard-working but reactionary, determined but flawed, intelligent but confused, overly political and occasionally inept. These people make mistakes, and sometimes when they do, people die. One of the things that makes "Zero Dark Thirty" so powerful is the way it shows the price paid -- in both lives and innocence lost -- in the name of justice.

Here I find myself in agreement with The American Prospect's Tom Carson, who wrote the finest defense of the film against Greenwald's charges that I've read so far. He refuses to think that anyone who has seen the film could believe it is hailing torture because:

"The torture scenes are squalid, vivid, and brutally protracted, and -- not by accident, since they lead off the movie -- they make the protagonists morally compromised from the get-go. Not to mention, by extension, us, since we paid their real-life equivalents' salaries. (The horrible sense of complicity when we realize we want the guy they're interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with is one of the more memorable experiences in recent movies.) There can't be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for... The point of 'Zero Dark Thirty' isn't to let us exult that we got bin Laden, and never mind being finicky about how. Right down to the great closing shot of Jessica Chastain's troubled, newly purposeless face, the movie is all about the moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid to do it."

Precisely; Chastain's character, a CIA officer named Maya who spent almost a decade tracking down a vital lead, has no life outside of her office -- no friends, loved ones, or even a home at times (I believe we see her at her apartment once in the entire film). All she has is her work -- and in that final shot, the sacrifices this woman (and a lot of other people) have made in pursuit of this objective come into focus. From a certain perspective, "Zero Dark Thirty" can be read as a circular story about what single-minded individuals can accomplish when they focus their lives obsessively on a goal. The movie begins with a black screen and the sounds of 9/11 -- the results of the actions of one of those single-minded individuals -- and ends with bin Laden's death -- the results of the actions of another.

I would imagine that Greenwald's response to someone like Carson would be to say that if "Zero Dark Thirty" shows torture in a story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, then it is inaccurately valorizing the act and therefore tacitly condoning its use. But that's a theoretical argument that doesn't take into consideration any of the context or subtext from the movie itself, which complicates things significantly. My advice to those who are concerned with the film's depiction of torture: see the movie for yourself. If you think it truly glorifies torture at that point, write a reaction, not a prediction.

Read more of "'Zero Dark Thirty:' Torture-Glorifying Film Wins Raves" and "'Zero Dark Thirty''s Morality Brigade."

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3 Comments

  • Colonel | December 12, 2012 1:09 PMReply

    The problem Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan have with it is that they've heard or read that the movie shows torture leading to solid intelligence that eventually helped find Bin Laden, which isn't how it happened, according to numerous accounts. Still, I think they should probably keep their yaps shut until they actually see the movie.

  • serpico | December 11, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    How can naive can people be? As I stated elsewhere, yes, America tortures. It didn't stop after Abu Ghraib. In order to get stuff done (like catch Bin Laden) you probably have to break some omeletes to make some eggs. It's a tough, brutal world that we're better off not knowing about. But if they're going to make a movie about it, I'd rather it be honest. And nothing about Mark Boal and K. Biggs' work glorifies or condemns America's actions over seas. Apolitical and straight forward, as more of Hollywood should be.

  • No | December 11, 2012 5:21 PMReply

    I will go and see the film, but if the film shows the torture, but doesn't show in the film that it wasn't torture that led to finding bin Laden, then Greenwald's essential contention holds.

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