Can a movie that relies on fabrications to generate support for war crimes still be considered great?
Earlier this year, the film “Zero Dark Thirty“, which purports to dramatize the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, generated substantial political controversy. It was discovered that CIA and White House officials had met with its filmmakers and passed non-public information to them – at exactly the same time that DOJ officials were in federal court resisting transparency requests from media outlets and activist groups on the ground that it was all classified.
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.
In the New York Times on Sunday, Frank Bruni wrote: “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 finding America’s most hated terrorist. Bruni explains [emphasis added]:
“[I]t’s hard not to focus on them, because the first extended sequence in the movie shows a detainee being strung up by his wrists, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep, made to feel as if he’s drowning and shoved into a box smaller than a coffin.
“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.”
Referencing Jane Mayer’s reporting that it was ground-level CIA officers who were the first to object to these torture techniques as both immoral and counter-productive, Bruni notes: “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ doesn’t convey that, nor does it reflect many experts’ belief that torture is unnecessary, yielding as much bad information as good.”
[I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated.]
Strangely, that the film glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden is noted even by its most gushing fans. New York Magazine’s David Edelstein just named it the best film of 2012, hailing it as “a phenomenal piece of action filmmaking — and an even better piece of nonaction filmmaking.” But in the next breath, he notes: “It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results — and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other ‘black sites’ — it makes a case for the efficacy of torture.”
In the New Yorker, former New York Times Iraq war correspondent Dexter Filkins just published a short and fluffy profile of the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, in which he notes that “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.” Noting how quickly the film was released after the raid itself – a mere 19 months – the profile quotes Bigelow as claiming that “what we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.”
That this film would depict CIA interrogation programs as crucial in capturing America’s most hated public enemy, and uncritically herald CIA officials as dramatic heroes, is 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.
Moreover, the controversy earlier this year was grounded in the concern that by working so closely with government officials – “considerable cooperation from the CIA and the Defense Department”, wrote Bruni – the filmmakers would be captured by their viewpoints and agenda. And so it is: by all accounts, the film’s supreme hero is a CIA agent; the CIA’s most controversial – illegal – interrogation tactics are hailed as indispensable; and while Obama is not featured much, any film that glorifies the bin Laden raid necessarily reminds the country of what he and his followers obviously consider to be one of his crowning achievements.
All of that is just ordinary propaganda and orthodoxy-boostering that, standing alone, would be too commonplace and inevitable to merit much comment. But what makes all of this so remarkable is that the film’s glorifying claims about torture are demonstrably, factually false. That waterboarding and other torture techniques were effective in finding bin Laden is a fabrication.
About the film’s depiction of torture as helpful in finding bin Laden, Bruni writes with extreme understatement that “that’s hardly a universally accepted version of events”. Filkens’ reaction – though also weirdly tepid – is much closer to the truth. Here’s the crux of this matter [emphasis added]:
“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 CIA to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. ‘It’s a movie, not a documentary,’ [screenwriter Mark] Boal said. ‘We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program.’ Still, Bigelow said, ‘the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.”
Bigelow and Boal are speaking out of both sides of their mouths here. 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.”
The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency’s torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as “Zero Dark Thirty” regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden.
That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA – Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin – to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA’s then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.
What this film does, then, is uncritically presents as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.
Shouldn’t that rather glaring “flaw” preclude gushing admiration for this film? Is it possible to separate the filmmakers’ political propaganda and dissemination of falsehoods from their technical skills in producing a well-crafted entertainment product?
This, of course, is a long-standing debate about film specifically and art generally. In that regard, Bigelow’s defense to criticisms of the torture scenes is striking: “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” Obviously, whether intended or not, the fact that torture is depicted as indispensable in finding America’s most hatred enemy – and then is immediately and exploitatively contrasted with images of the anguish of 9/11 victims – is inevitably going to cause large numbers of Americans to view those techniques more favorably.
But, says Bigelow, that is not her responsibility: she is merely depicting, not advocating. Without comparing the crimes involved, that was always the controversy surrounding German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, widely hailed as one of the most brilliant and innovative filmmakers of the 20th Century, yet also widely despised for producing films that glorified Nazism and excluded all of its crimes. One of her principal defenses – I was simply showing what was taking place, not judging – has been rather vehemently rejected by most commentators, because it (at best) naively ignores the obvious effects of what she produced, and because she had a responsibility to judge those crimes.
If Bigelow had merely depicted episodes that actually happened, then her defense that she is not judging and has no responsibility to do so would be more debatable. But the fact that she’s presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her “journalistic approach” to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible. Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?
Ultimately, I don’t believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It’s more accurate to say it’s so admired because of this.
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 who ordered and implemented torture were never prosecuted. They were actively shielded from all forms of legal accountability by the current president. They thus went on to write books, get even richer, and live the lives of honored American statesmen. Torture was thus transformed from what it had been – a universally recognized war crime – into just another pedestrian, partisan political debate that Americans have.
That’s the critical context in which a film can simultaneously be said to glorify torture using outright fabrications and be praised as the year’s greatest film. The normalization of torture – and of all crimes committed by the US government in the name of war – is both a cause and effect of this film’s success. That normalization is what enables a film like this to be so widely admired, and it will be bolstered even further as the film gathers more accolades and box office riches.
Anyone wishing to claim that I’ve reviewed this film without seeing it would be well-advised to re-read this sentence as many times as is necessary for the clear, simple and obvious point it expresses to click:
I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated.
That bolded passage is not difficult to understand. I’m writing here about two issues:
(1) those reviewers who state that the film glorifies torture with falsehoods yet nonetheless praise the film as great; I’m arguing that this should not be possible since their view that it contains falsehood-ridden torture glorification should preclude that sort of praise; and,
(2) the fact that the film asserts, falsely, that torture helped the US find bin Laden, which is a fabrication and an inexcusable one at that, one that inevitable leads to the glorification of torture for the reasons I expressed; nobody, including the filmmakers, disputes that the film does this.
It’s not a review of the film. It’s a critique of the viewpoints expressed by reviewers and the filmmakers. Anyone claiming I’ve reviewed this film is plagued either by severe reading comprehension problems and/or a desire to distort.
UPDATE II [Tues.]
A small flotilla of movie critics attacked this column yesterday on the ground that I had reviewed this film without seeing it, despite the fact that (obviously anticipating this objection) I explicitly declared near the beginning that I was doing no such thing and instead explained that I was commenting on the reactions to the film and the defenses from the filmmakers. I officially give up on trying to convince anyone who still doesn’t see this point – commenters to this column had no trouble understanding and discussing what it was about and what it was not about – but Freddie deBoer has an excellent reaction to all of this, along with his commentary on a defense of the film from Spencer Ackerman, that is well worth reading. Relatedly, Jon Schwarz has a one-minute clip of the film featuring the film’s hero that he critiques for factual (in)accuracy.
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”).
If writers at major media outlets who review the film all say the film shows torture being helpful in finding bin Laden – all while the film’s director runs around the country praising herself for her journalistic approach to the film while the film’s screenwriter defends this artistic license to depict the non-existent value of torture (as he did to Filkins) – then people are going to talk about that, and they should. They’re also going to talk about reviewers who simultaneously gush about the film while noting that it falsely depicts torture as helping find bin Laden, and they should do that also.
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.
I wasn’t previously aware of this rule imposing a blackout on discussing film reviews that appear in major media outlets prior to the film’s opening. It’s an inane prohibition, and particularly strange to watch film critics, who write these pre-opening reviews, lead the way in imposing this blackout period on discussing what they write.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian on December 10, 2012.