December 12, 2012

Zero Dark Bullshit?

Do you have to see a movie before you can judge it? I don’t mean on a “thumbs up/thumbs down” kind of level. I’m talking about on a moral level, deciding about whether the message of the movie is worth condemning. Do you have to see Birth of a Nation to know it’s profoundly racist? Do you have to see Triumph of the Will to know it’s a blinkered piece of propaganda?

Zero Dark Thirty, the new film about the hunt of Osama bin Laden, from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (the team behind Oscar winner The Hurt Locker), is raising that issue. Specifically, the films brutal depiction of the torture of terrorists by CIA operatives is causing some folks to wonder if it’s an apologetic for the torture. The debate’s been simmering since the film’s gotten into the thick of the awards season, showing up on numerous “best of” lists for the year (it doesn’t officially open outside of NY and Los Angeles until January 11).

Blowback began in the New York Times, where Frank Bruni commented that:
I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’
That’s because:
‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ like waterboarding are presented as crucial to that search [for bin Laden].

* * *

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 the intelligence agents involved in torture seem not so much relieved as challenged by Obama’s edict that it stop. Their quest for leads just got that much more difficult.
Glenn Greenwald picked up on Bruni’s criticism. Although he explicitly noted that he hasn’t seen the film and was only working off of reactions to it, he writes:
With its release imminent, the film is now garnering a pile of top awards and virtually uniform rave reviews. What makes this so remarkable is that, by most accounts, the film glorifies torture by claiming - falsely - that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden.
And as Greenwald catalogs, his reaction is not unique:
Other reactions to the commentary from film reviewers from those who haven't yet seen the film was offered yesterday by NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen (‘WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn't used to get Bin Laden?’); Mother Jones' Adam Serwer (‘The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture’); The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan (‘Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie’); and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky (‘Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11’).
It is true, as Adam Serwer over at Mother Jones recounts that numerous sources have established that the information that led to bin Laden’s eventual demise was not procured by torture. So if a film that’s tagline is “The Greatest Manhunt In History” and which the director claims was made using “almost a journalistic approach,” getting such a fact wrong is pretty inexcusable.

But is that really what the film shows? After all, Greenwald and many others haven’t actually seen it. Are film critics so swayed by the technical aspects to check their morality at the door?* Consider this take from Spencer Ackerman at Wired:
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden begins with an unsparing, nauseating and frighteningly realistic look at how the CIA tortured many people and reaped very little intelligence. Never before has a movie grappled with post-9/11 torture the way Zero Dark Thirty does. The torture on display in the film occurs at the intersection of ignorance and brutality, while the vast, vast majority of the intelligence work that actually does lead to bin Laden’s downfall occurs after the torture has ended.
He goes on to describe what happens on screen in some detail:
These are not ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ as apologists for the abuse have called it. There is little interrogation presented in Zero Dark Thirty. There is a shouted question, followed by brutality. At one point, ‘Maya,’ a stand-in for the dedicated CIA agents who actually succeeded at hunting bin Laden, points out that one abused detainee couldn’t possibly have the information the agents are demanding of him. The closest the movie comes to presenting a case for the utility of torture is by presenting the name of a key bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as resulting from an interrogation not shown on screen. But — spoiler alert — the CIA ultimately comes to learn that it misunderstood the context of who that courier was and what he actually looked like. All that happens over five years after the torture program initiated. Meanwhile, the real intelligence work begins when a CIA agent bribes a Kuwaiti with a yellow Lamborghini for the phone number of the courier’s mother, and through extensive surveillance, like a police procedural, the manhunt rolls to its climax. If this is the case for the utility of torture, it’s a weak case — nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.
Likewise, Emily Bazelon at Slate suggests things are a bit more nuanced:
The movie thus doesn’t show a vicious act of torture leading straight to a game-changing piece of intelligence, or even a unique piece. After all, the interrogation of Amar takes place in 2004; Bin Laden remained free for seven more years. And yet it’s Amar’s information that feels crucial, because it’s presented as the root of Maya’s obsession with this particular lead. This is the way in which the movie credits torture: It suggests that the tenacious agent who led the hunt wouldn’t have been moved to do so without this piece of information given up by a detainee who’d been tortured.

Is this actually what happened? It’s hard to say for sure.
And, for what it’s worth:
Boal told that despite the gruesome torture scenes, viewers who come away thinking torture was the pivotal tactic in nabbing bin Laden, rather than one method used in a decade-long hunt, are ‘misreading the film.’
I can’t say whether either Ackerman’s or Bazelon’s impressions are accurate – I haven’t seen the movie yet, of course – but neither can Greenwald and others who haven’t seen the movie say it isn’t. Context matters, particularly when you separate the work itself from how it’s either promoted or described shorthand. From the advertising, one might expect the focus of Zero Dark Thirty to be on the raid itself and the time period just before when it was planned and the intelligence gathered to support it. But perhaps the movie tells a broader story, one in which the national urge for revenge took some ugly and dead end turns before it turned out the way it did. Maybe it’s a metaphoric examination of the entire war on terror, in which we gain the ultimate prize (bin Laden in a watery grave), but at tremendous cost? Who can tell without actually seeing it.

I saw some similar criticisms, in reverse, of Argo, Ben Affleck’s slick depiction of the rescue of a small group of Americans who escaped the embassy in Tehran in 1979. People argued it didn’t go far enough into the background of the Iranian revolution or that it didn’t deal enough with the hostages who didn’t make it out of the embassy. But that’s not what the movie was about. It was about a specific event that occurred against the backdrop of those events. It was never supposed to be a long form examination of the Iranian revolution.

Which is just to say, you really need to see the movie before you decide its morally horrific. Is there some reason to think that critics, who have actually seen it, just check their moral compasses at the door? Or is the film perhaps more nuanced and subtle than Bruni, et. al., are giving it credit for? Who knows? I suppose we common folk will need to wait until January to find out.

In the end, it’s best to judge for yourself.

* Who do they think they are, lawyers?!

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