The Academy Awards: The CIA and the National Security State in Fact and Film
By Dennis Loo (2/25/13)
During Jack Nicholson’s announcing the Best Picture Oscar last night he brought in direct from the White House First Lady Michelle Obama as his co-presenter to announce the winner. Flanked by men and women in full military dress complete with awards regalia, Michelle congratulated Hollywood for its work.
Behind Michelle we don’t see a group of actors, creative types, children, regular Americans or even distinguished civilian Americans. This isn’t a Veteran’s Day broadcast either. This is the Academy Awards, the principle awards show for films.
In helping to introduce the 2013 Best Picture, the First Lady looks like she’s about to announce the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Cross.
This tableau isn’t so inappropriate after all, for when she opens the envelope, the winner is (drum roll please): Argo! A film that depicts the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of the CIA, the people who brought the tyrant Shah to power in Iran through a coup in 1953, overthrowing the extremely popular Mossadegh who tried to nationalize the oil fields (which sealed his doom from the perspective of Big Oil and the U.S. Empire). The CIA provided torture instruction and equipment to the Shah for decades so that he could torture and kill his opponents in Iran (his opponents being the vast majority of the people). The 1979 Iranian Revolution drove him and the U.S. and the CIA out. As one of the film’s producers, Grant Heslov, says in a half an hour “The Making of Argo” piece: he’s proud of the film because it humanizes the CIA and makes us proud of them.
So Michelle Obama’s chosen backdrop of a military entourage does make sense after all in this season of all things military and secret agents/special ops. It’s just jarring to see it if you’re not completely seduced by the Military Security State.
I was very pleased to see that Zero Dark Thirty, despite being touted heavily by major movie critics upon its release a few months ago as the best film of the year which they said would sweep multiple awards at the Oscars, including Best Picture, was shunned by Hollywood, garnering only one Oscar, a tie for sound editing with the James Bond flick “Skyfall.”
A funny thing happened on the way to the podium for the makers of ZDT: people smelled a rat and wrote about it. This was something that took some time to build because as late as the Golden Globes, the biggest pre-Academy Awards show whose winners frequently predict the Oscar winners, Jessica Chastain (who played Maya the CIA torturer/killer in ZDT) won the Golden Globes' Best Actress.
The shunning of this film that revels in torture came about clearly because of the stinging criticism and protests against it by a number of writers and activists, including notably actors such as David Clennon and Ed Asner, columnist Glenn Greenwald, director Alex Gibney, Jane Mayer, and others including myself, and World Can’t Wait which, among other things, staged a sarcastic first annual Leni Riefenstahl Award by the Committee for Sanitizing Crimes Against Humanity in Film outside of the Oscars yesterday, which I was pleased to join as, playing against type, John Yoo, to give out the First Annual Leni. Actor David Clennon, whose work in breaking ranks in Hollywood publicly condemning the film for its immoral endorsement of torture, played a signal role, joined and helped to make this counter-awards’ event.
We had trouble finding a place to do our performance piece, however, as a wide swath of the areas around the Hollywood and Highland area where the Oscars were happening were closed down to traffic and the foot traffic severely restricted by the police, another example of the Military Security State exercising its muscle to make sure that the spectacle occurred without the public having more than a glancing opportunity to be physically present or even very proximal physically.
Bigelow and her co-writer Marc Boal did not help their cause when criticisms of their docu – propaganda (docu-ganda?) piece were aired. Bigelow and Boal purposefully mischaracterized their critics as attempting to censor their film and mischaracterized what was in their film, as if people couldn’t recognize these misstatements after seeing the films for themselves. In this case it wasn’t Hollywood itself that pressed the attack on ZDT but mostly political writers. Hollywood, however, responded to that and it’s a good thing.
In a related matter, The New York Times is reporting today in its top story that the Afghan government has banned U.S. forces from operating in Maidan Wardak Province. Maidan Wardak is southwest of Kabul and is “the American military’s main source of offensive firepower from the area.” It is also a staging area for Taliban attacks. The reason for the ban from the Karzai government, a puppet of the U.S.? Fury among Afghans for the U.S. Special Forces torturing and killing villagers.
Our Special Forces? Our military? The kind of people that First Lady Michelle Obama surrounded herself with during the Academy Awards announcing the Best Picture?
By announcing the ban, the government signaled its willingness to take a far harder line against abuses linked to foreign troops than it has in the past. The action also reflected a deep distrust of international forces that is now widespread in Afghanistan, and the view held by many Afghans, President Hamid Karzai among them, that the coalition shares responsibility with the Taliban for the violence that continues to afflict the country.
Afghan officials said the measure was taken as a last resort. They said they had tried for weeks to get the coalition to cooperate with an investigation into claims that civilians had been killed, abducted or tortured by Afghans working for American Special Operations forces in Maidan Wardak. But the coalition was not responsive, they said.
The provincial government in Maidan Wardak expressed support for the ban. “There have been lots of complaints from the local people about misconduct, mistreatment, beating, taking away, torturing and killing of civilians by Special Forces and their Afghan associates,” said Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial government.
He cited a raid on a village on Feb. 13, when American troops and Afghans working with them detained a veterinary student. “His dead body was found three days later in the area under a bridge,” Mr. Khogyani said, prompting protests against foreigners.
Mr. Faizi said that villagers in Maidan Wardak had reported a number of similar episodes in recent months, including the disappearance of nine men in a single raid. “People from the province, elders from villages, have come to Kabul so many times, and they have brought photographs and videos of their family members who have been tortured,” he said.
So while Hollywood both rejects and accepts the CIA’s preferred view of itself, the fact of U.S. military and CIA activities are emblazoned on the front pages of The New York Times again. Efforts to combat falsified history and the promotion of crimes as heroism and patriotism made and make a difference, as evidenced by Hollywood's shunning of the pre-Academy Awards favorite in ZDT. Much more, however, must be done.
I’m going to finish this article by posting the text of the talk I gave on behalf of the Committee for Sanitizing Crimes Against Humanity in Film yesterday in the blocked off streets of Hollywood shortly before the Oscars show began:
I am John Yoo. I teach on the Law School faculty at Berkeley and I worked as a DOJ lawyer for the Bush Administration.
Kathyrn Bigelow: I am honored to have been asked to speak at this award ceremony on your behalf.
We are honoring you today with the Leni Riefenstahl Award for doing more with a film lasting two and a half hours than all of the articles that I have written defending and advocating the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” [slowly and with emphasis]
Film, as the Nazis understood better than anyone and took to a splendid place in the works of Leni Riefenstahl, is the most powerful propaganda tool there is. You can get people to believe things that you cannot do through other means. With film you tell them a story and get people to identify with the central characters, no matter how unsavory the things they might be doing.
Getting a liberal like Michael Moore to endorse your film, who mistakenly and, I must say, stupidly, thinks that ZDT is an anti-torture film, shows how cleverly you disguised the role of ”enhanced interrogation techniques” by wrapping it all in a package of American nationalism, tripping up people like Moore who can’t see what Dick Cheney’s own daughter Liz could see when she tweeted after seeing your film:
“Just saw Zero Dark Thirty. Excellent film about years of heroism, including in the enhanced interrogation program, that led to bin Laden.”
When I told a Senate hearing that it would be acceptable for the president to order that a young boy’s testicles be crushed in order to get information out of his father, I was ridiculed for this, even though as you know, I only had the best of intentions to protect this great nation.
But now because of your film, my stance is more popular than ever and I can walk around holding my head up higher in defiance of all of those treasonous types who find “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be immoral and unjust. Maybe now people like Lindy English who so famously held a dog collar and leash to an Iraqi detainee can walk proudly too – for she is an American hero just like Maya.
You have made heroic people who used “enhanced interrogation techniques” to kill our enemies, even if those enemies didn’t know that they were our enemies and even if they didn’t really know anything at all.
As someone who I greatly admire for his astuteness put it, Herr Hermann Goering, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.”
You have done this masterfully using such sophisticated techniques as a faux documentary style to make it more convincing.
And when people criticized you and your co-writer Marc Boal for depicting in positive terms what they call “torture,” you and Marc were oh so skillful at dodging their questions, presenting fanciful versions of what is in your film, and throwing in red herrings like “censorship.”
As someone who has also had to cope with my critics in the academic world, from left wing fanatics, and human rights activists, I deeply appreciate the artfulness of your dissembling. You have made a film that promotes what others call torture while still claiming to be anti-torture and for that you definitely deserve an award!
I cannot claim to be non-partisan and disinterested and objective. Everyone knows that I am a staunch Republican and that I wrote memos under Bush to give a legal justification for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But you have produced a masterful propaganda piece while claiming to be impartial in a way that no one else has been able to do. You have taken this message out to millions of Americans and made the work that people like me do so much easier. I salute you for that! [Sieg Heil]