Zero Dark Thirty: Journalism? Art? Propaganda?
By Dennis Loo (1/10/13)
Zero Dark Thirty opens in nationwide release today on Friday, January 11, the 11th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay prison where the U.S. has been and continues to hold detainees unjustly, subjecting them to torture. Director Kathyrn Bigelow and co-writer Marc Boal, in various fora, have been defending Zero Dark Thirty, their saga about the hunt for bin Laden, from critics who decry their film as an apologia for torture. In the face of this controversy, the filmmakers declare that they are proud of what they have done and that their critics are being unfair. In an undated interview at The Wrap by Steve Pond, Bigelow and Boal described these accusations as "preposterous" and said that the fim isn't a documentary and that it does not take a political position:
“I’m not saying the film is a documentary of everything that happened, but it’s being misread,” [Boal] said. “The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there -- from a number of detainees who are not being coerced. That is what’s in the film, if you actually look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.”
I have written previously about how dishonest their defense for their film is. There are two parts to this which I'd like to expand upon here and also discuss two other articles in which they defend their film. They claim in The Wrap interview:
A) that the detainee depicted in the film [who is a stand-in for the real Khalid Sheik Mohammed] didn't give up information due to torture because he didn't do it while being tortured, but only during a "civilized lunch" with his torturer acting as his civilized host, albeit promising that instead of more civilized food, he could instead hang him from the ceiling again, and so therefore anyone claiming that this film is linking the successful search for bin Laden to torture is wrong since he wasn't being tortured at the moment he gave up the crucial information about the courier's name, and
B) that because Maya [Jessica Chastain's character] goes back after this to the research room and sees that the information is already there, from detainees who were not being coerced, that therefore the viewers should conclude that Maya has or should have a revelation then and there that "My God! I could have offered him a V-8 instead of having him tortured!" Besides which Boal's characterization of this apres-torture and apres-"civilized lunch" scene isn't even correct: the revelations that Maya looks at in the research room are from people who were being or had obviously been tortured, with only one possible exception from my view.
This is not, as everyone knows, a low-budget indie or porn film with amateurs throwing together a picture in which they contradict themselves all over the place and sequences don't make sense. These are top tier filmmakers and writers who are making a big-budget blockbuster from a major studio. Bigelow and Boal know exactly what they wrote in this script. They went over it again and again, both in the writing of it and in the filming and editing of it in the cutting room. They know what sequence follows what. They know every detail. Juxtaposing at the beginning of the film the harrowing actual voices of those killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11 with immediately following scenes of detainees being tortured, one of whom then gives up the crucial piece of evidence as a result of torture, which then propels the rest of the movie's action, is not the sequencing of filmmakers denying that torture "worked." If your purpose was to show that torture wasn't right or appropriate, then why falsely depict the key piece of evidence coming in the immediate aftermath of torture? Why, after releasing the film, falsely claim that this "confession" didn't occur due to torture but during a "civilzed lunch?"
Boal's explanation is simply not credible. I am astonished that he and Bigelow would think that such a lame excuse could pass even cursory inspection, especially for those who have actually seen the film. But then again, the lame excuses don't end there. In another interview (or perhaps the same interview but with more quotes from that interview in a subsequent article), also written by Steve Pond at The Wrap dated December 11, 2012, Boal is quoted as saying:
"We're trying to present a long, 10-year intelligence hunt, of which the harsh interrogation program is the most controversial aspect. And it's just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden."
How is it misreading the film, to say that your film "shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden"? This is like someone saying, upon being accused of assault and battery on someone: "You have a photo of me with my arm holding a knife pulled back as if to strike someone, and then you have a picture of me standing over the other guy with blood on the knife, but you don't have a picture of me with my hand on the knife while it is in the guy's body. So you don't really have any proof that I knifed him, do you?"
Bigelow, appearing with Boal, at the NY Film Critics Circle Awards on January 7, 2013, is quoted as saying:
"I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices," Bigelow said while accepting the award for Best Director. "No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time."
But those of us who are criticizing Bigelow for her depiction of torture aren't complaining because she shows torture. Indeed, many of us who have been most vocal in our condemnation of our government's use of torture have used the simulation of torture in our protest actions in order to bring home to people a little of the reality of torture's nature. That is, we've done it when authorities have allowed us to. Those anti-torture protestors planning to carry out a dramatization of torture in Washington DC in 2009 were told by the police that if they simulated torture they would be arrested. This stands in sharp contrast to Bigelow and Boal now being honored for their big budget depiction of torture and "heroic" CIA agents and talked about in the exalted terms of a possible multiple Oscar winner and creating one of the best, if not the best, films of the year. As Joe Emersberger, however, put it at his blog:
For Bigelow to characterize her critics as being against their portraying "inhumane practices" is a strawman argument and extremely dishonest. What those of us who are condemning in this film is that Zero Dark Thirty falsely portrays torture as producing useful information and provides ammunition for those who want to believe that using torture is a necessary, though perhaps ugly, tool in the battle against the implacable evil foes that her film depicts Muslims to be, instead of a war crime and crime against humanity, which is what torture is - always, under any cirumstance, and everywhere.
Join the protests against this film. The film opens in nationwide release Friday, January 11, on the anniversary of the opening of the obscenity of Gitmo. Download flyers at this page (click on the PDF on that page for the flyer) and take them to film showings around your community. Talk to people about this film. Raise people's consciousness about what they can all too easily be sucked into by the skill of highly sophisticated propaganda.