Zero Conscience In ‘Zero Dark Thirty’; Rationalizing Torture Through Entertainment

January 13th, 2013 by Andy in Human Rights (Torture & 'The War on Terror')

There’s been an awful lot of discourse and debate these past few weeks over the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (produced with some notable help from the CIA). I’ve heard a number of different perspectives argued regarding the film, some even calling it “brilliant.” Brilliant, perhaps, in its execution; Insidious in its implications.

That’s a point driven home in what is probably one of the single best pieces yet written regarding the film; Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style: Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again Palatable, by Karen Greenberg, posted on the always excellent

The sad fact is that Zero Dark Thirty could have been written by the tight circle of national security advisors who counseled President George W. Bush to create the post-9/11 policies that led to Guantanamo, the global network of borrowed “black sites” that added up to an offshore universe of injustice, and the grim torture practices — euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — that went with them.

It’s also a film that those in the Obama administration who have championed non-accountability for such shameful policies could and (evidently did) get behind. It might as well be called Back to the Future, Part IV, for the film, like the country it speaks to, seems stuck forever in that time warp moment of revenge and hubris that swept the country just after 9/11.

As its core, Bigelow’s film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11.

Tom Engelhardt’s addendum comments to her piece are also humorously relevatory, as they entertain the suggestion that this film is hardly the only real-life CIA film that needed to be made. He suggests a whole range of stories that Hollywood’s storytellers can mine for a cavalcade of cinematic suspense and daring-do, all with plenty of opportunities for blood and torture, such as the dramatic (yet historically buried) story of the CIA’s 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government had nationalized the country’s oil industry.

What a story! It couldn’t be oilier, involving BP in an earlier incarnation, the CIA, British intelligence, bribery, secretly funded street demonstrations, and (lest you think there’d be no torture in the film) the installation of an autocratic regime that would create a fearsome secret police and torture opponents for decades to come. All of this was done in the name of what used to be called “the Free World.” That “successful” coup was the point of origin for just about every disaster and bit of “blowback” — a term first used in the CIA’s secret history of the coup — in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day. Many of the documents have been released and whatta story it turned out to be! Hollywood, where are you?

Read all about them Here.

One of the most scathing indictments of the films moral and ethical emptiness, and the dangers it poses as a political statement, has been delivered by Glenn Greenwald, with his must-read piece Zero Dark Thirty: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda.

Greenwald is particularly dead on in regards to challenging those who defend the film on the ground that it is “art,” and shouldn’t be held accountable as a political statement, calling that…

…pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral claptrap…

First, this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the “journalistic” approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film’s first screen assures viewers that it is all “based on first hand accounts of actual events”. You can’t claim you’re doing journalism and then scream “art” to justify radical inaccuracies. Serwer aptly noted the manipulative shell-game driving this: “If you’re thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is ‘history’; if you’re a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it’s just a movie.”

Second, the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade: the 9/11 attack (which it starts with) and the killing of bin Laden (which it ends with). George Bush got re-elected running on the former, while Obama just got re-elected running on the latter. It was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House. Everything about this film - its subject, its claims, its mode of production, its implications - are political to its core. It does not have an apolitical bone in its body. Demanding that political considerations be excluded from how this film is judged is nonsensical; it’s a political film from start to finish.

Third, to demand that this movie be treated as “art” is to expand that term beyond any real recognition. This film is Hollywood shlock. The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers…

Worst of all, it does not challenge, subvert, or even unsettle a single nationalistic orthodoxy. It grapples with no big questions, takes no risks in the political values it promotes, and is even too fearful of letting upsetting views be heard, let alone validated (such as the grievances of Terrorists that lead them to engage in violence, or the equivalence between their methods and “ours”).

There’s nothing courageous, or impressive, about any of this. As one friend who is a long-time journalist put it to me by email (I’m quoting this because I can’t improve on how it’s expressed):

“I also feel like there’s this tendency of critics to give credit to artists (argh, novelists, too) for simply raising uncomfortable issues, even when they don’t bother to coherently think them through, as though just wallowing in the gray areas of the human condition is a noble thing (and sure, it can be, but it can be lazy, too).”

Read the Full Article Here. It’s really worth the read, particularly the parts where he brings up the comparative questions regarding how we judge Bigelow’s work as to how we historically view that of Leni Reifenstahl.

Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I’ve actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl’s films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

The ever-relevant Jane Mayer, somebody who knows all about how torture, uh, excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” has been inculcated into American security processes and procedures, provides some insightful critique here regarding this work.

Mayer’s criticisms resonate with many of my own, and not just regarding ZDT, but concerns I’ve had regarding The Hurt Locker. That was Bigelow’s previous work which garnered her an Academy Award for Best Director, and a film for which the more I think about it, the more disturbed I am by it. And now, the fact that her latest contribution to the cinematic arts is being used by torture apologists (which is, on the face of it, a shocking thing to even have to debate in this country) is pretty disconcerting.

Zero Dark Thirty, whose creators say that they didn’t want to “judge” the interrogation program, appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?


[T]he director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.

[T]he film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were “mischaracterizing” the torture sequences: “I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.”

His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.

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…

Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.


Bigelow has portrayed herself as a reluctant truth-teller. She recently described the film’s torture scenes as “difficult to shoot.” She said, “I wish it was not part of our history. But it was.” Yet what is so unsettling about Zero Dark Thirty is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts.


In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture in several other subtle ways. 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.


Bigelow has stressed that she had “no agenda” when she made Zero Dark Thirty. Unsurprisingly, though, those who have defended the brutalization of detainees have already begun embracing the film as evidence that they are right. Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC’s show Morning Joe, said recently that the film’s narrative, “whether you find it repugnant or not,” shows that the C.I.A. program was effective and “led to the couriers, that led, eventually, years later, to the killing of Osama bin Laden.” My guess is that this is just the beginning, and that by the time millions of Americans have seen this movie, they will believe that, as Frank Bruni put it in a recent Times column, “No waterboarding, no bin Laden.”

Mayer hits it on the head here, about the use of real world events for fictional storytelling effect (and the cheap dodge by filmmakers that “its just a film, just a story”)…

If there is an expectation of accuracy, it is set up by the filmmakers themselves. It seems they want it both ways: they want the thrill that comes from revealing what happened behind the scenes as history was being made and the creative license of fiction, which frees them from the responsibility to stick to the truth.

This is always one of the most disturbing aspects of the use of historical realities as fodder for fictionalized dramatic narratives in moviemaking storytelling, creates a distorted cultural memory of that history. People’s perceptions created through “entertainment” live on as the accepted public record in many people’s minds. This phenomenon was referenced in Greenberg’s piece, when she noted that the film opened on January 11th, 11 years to the day after the Bush administration opened its notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, serving as “a perfect indication of the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the film, which will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans.”

A lot of the distortion and damage to the historical record can be traced back directly to the fact that, again quoting Karen Greenberg…

…[no officials] who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it. With scant public debate and no public record of accountability, Bigelow feels free to leave out even a scintilla of criticism of that torture program. Her film is thus one more example of the fact that without accountability, the pernicious narrative continues, possibly gaining traction as it does.

Read Mayer’s complete piece in the New Yorker.

And for those who think its only a handful of voices out there who question the accuracy and efficacy of the film’s implicit assertion as t to the efficacy of torture in the pursuit of bin Laden, read these.

And now we have people like Keith Calder saying that Zero Dark Thirty is “a great movie that forces you to acknowledge you live in a moral gray zone,” one that screenwriter Mark Boal claims captures “the complexity of the debate.”

As Greenwald pointed out, nothing can “force” an “acknowledgment” that torture, of all things, resides in “a moral gray zone.” After all, what in God’s name is “gray” or “complex” about it? Numerous treaties and laws, both domestic and international, as well as universally-recognized laws of humanity, and practically every identifiable moral code, are all black and white on the point.

All of this reminds me of an excellent article by Chase Madar from a couple years ago on Torture’s Comeback, published in The American Conservative. Well worth the re-read, particularly in light of the debates being engendered by the release of this film.

The response to the bin Laden execution has revealed just how wedded much of America’s national-security establishment is to the theory and practice of torture. But there are some brave souls who would like to hold our own torturers to account for the damage they have done, to their victims and to what’s left of our national honor. Until these arguments are confronted, the allures of torture will be hyped and hyped some more, not only amid the rubble and carnage of 9/11 but even ten years later in the exultation of victory.

What has happened to us?

Here is a good debate between Glenn Greenwald and The Atlantic’s Mark Bowden regarding not only the film, but the appointment of John Brennan as the new CIA Director. Bowden has over the last decade (as has Brennan) repeatedly defended the Bush torture program. This is both a written piece and a link to their debate on KQED public radio.

A point of additional concern to me is the fact that there are many pushing for the film’s recognition and honor at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards. That is an event watched by literally hundreds of millions of people around the world. What kind of message are we sending to them, if we celebrate a film that places our torture regime, which has so damaged American credibility abroad, in such an absolving light? Is this what kind of statement we want to be projecting to the world about American values?

I would definitely not encourage anyone to spend a single dime on it. I personally had the good fortune of being able to see this film outside of a commercial venue, one in which I would have been complicit in providing economic support for both its production and distribution. If people can find a way to see it outside of providing any financial support to it, in order to study it, understand it, critique it, then by all means they should see it. But to economically enable this kind of thing is really ethically compromising to me. I truly believe (or at least hope) that one day this film will be treated the same way D. W. Griffith’s abjectly racist Birth of a Nation is today; a technical masterpiece in cinematic achievement for its time, but completely outside the bounds of any acceptable morality, totally unwatchable in decent company.

UPDATE: Here’s more reason why these arguments against ZDT aren’t simply about disagreeing with somone’s perspective, but are about challenging a disingenuous propaganda campaign, being sold through the use of cinematic product from Hollywood (and opposition to what that campaign is designed to promote)…

“…because it was first questioned and then proven by the right’s Judicial Watch FOIA and then by the anti-torture coalition - is that there was close cooperation with the Pentagon, the CIA and even the White House. There is now a Senate investigation into whether the CIA figures with knowledge of the torture program overstepped the line in cooperating with ZD30.”

I’m very glad that Andrew Sullivan called out The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart’s thoroughly lame comments regarding the film and America’s use of torture as “difficult”…

“Difficult? Using overwhelming force to beat suspects to a pulp, drown them to near death scores of times, cram them into boxes, hang them from stess positions used by the Communist Chinese, freeze them to near-death: these things are not difficult. Real interrogation and investigative work is difficult - and it’s what caught and killed bin Laden (which the movie also shows, thank God). Not resorting to torture as a first option after an act of unimaginable terror is difficult. The word the Stewart I thought I knew (and admire) was looking for was surely “evil” or “barbaric”. But they didn’t come to his mind. No: this was a card-carrying liberal seemingly persuaded by the movie that torture was more acceptable than he had previously believed. Maybe I’m wrong. But this subject is too important for equivocation or the “I’m just a comedian” cop-out.”

Just like its too important a topic to be relegated to being simply a matter of “difference of opinion.” To torture or not to torture. Sorry, that’s not a legitimate question in a civilized society.

For the full post, including with video, go Here

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