Zero Dark Thirty and Truthiness
By Dennis Loo (1/15/13)
Update 3: Al-Jazeera reports that ZDT's twitter account tweeted praise for drones, saying: "To find a man in hiding, you need an eye in the sky. Learn about our specialized airpower at Militarydotcom.bit.ly/ZDTtc1."
They have since deleted it. But not before it was noticed. As one tweeter put it succinctly:
Update 2: Kathyrn Bigelow defended her film in an LA Times OpEd on January 15, 2013. In it she claims that she thinks that "ingenious detective work" got us bin Laden and that people criticizing her film are trying to censor free expression. In my comments on her article I said in part:
Bigelow says, "Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden." If it wasn't key to finding bin Laden, then why do you depict it in your film as the key? If you claim authenticity and accuracy as you do in this OpEd and as your film does so from the start with its claim that it's "based on firsthand accounts of real events," eschewing even showing opening film credits so as to convey documentary veracity, then why falsely portray what role torture played? If you aren't trying to say that torture is "necessary" and that it worked, then why are you lionizing the people who committed war crimes in carrying out torture?
If you're disturbed by people who are "misreading" your film as an apology for torture, why don't you add a disclaimer at the beginning of your film that you have taken certain liberties with the historical events and that you regard torture as a crime against humanity, instead of writing this half-truthful OpEd? Why are you mischaracterizing your critics as wanting to censor the portrayal of torture when you know that our complaint is not that you show torture but that you show it as working and as the acts of heroes rather than of war criminals?
Update 1: Dick Cheney's daughter, Liz Cheney, just saw ZDT and tweeted her reaction. For anyone still out there (and there are still a lot of them, including Michael Moore!) who think that ZDT's not endorsing torture, check out the Dark Lord daughter's reaction:
"Just saw Zero Dark Thirty. Excellent film about years of heroism, including in the enhanced interrogation program, that led to bin Laden."
Unlike Michael Moore, Liz Cheney can recognize ZDT's essential elements: the CIA are heroes, torture got us bin Laden, period.
What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality. – Stephen Colbert
Zero Dark Thirty’s version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is a perfect example of “truthiness” and the degradation of truth. ZDT’s filmmakers try to straddle the fence on the question of reality. The film does not open with opening credits and film title. Instead, it displays the following line, white letters against a stark black background: “This is based upon first-hand accounts of real events.” Following this, actual voice recordings of people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11 are played. The next scene, stated on screen to be two years later, is of a detainee being tortured by CIA personnel. Credits don’t appear until the entire film is over. All of this is designed to convey the impression of journalistic or documentary veracity.
The average viewer sitting in the theatre will, of course, conclude from ZDT’s opening scenes that the filmmakers have not taken great liberties with the truth. They would be wrong, however, to do so. Most egregiously, Director Kathyrn Bigelow and co-writer Marc Boal decided, for reasons unknown, to present torture as the means by which the U.S. found bin Laden, a patently false representation compared to the actual historical record.
Bigelow and her studio, Sony Pictures, claim that to exclude torture from the story would have been falsifying history. In response to the film, which has been lauded by most of the critics as a masterpiece and the year’s best film, a number of people have described the film, by contrast, as an outrageous apologia for torture - Alex Gibney, Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, Naomi Wolf, actor David Clennon, myself and others – and Sen. Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain wrote a letter in protest. Sony, responding to this controversy, issued this statement:
"Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture. To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda. This film should be judged free of partisanship.
"To punish an Artist's right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is. While we fully respect everyone's right to express their opinion, this activity is really an affront to the Academy and artistic creative freedom. This attempt to censure one of the great films of our time should be opposed.
"As Kathryn Bigelow so appropriately said earlier this week, 'Depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.' We believe members of the Academy will judge the film on its true merits and will tune out the wrongful and misdirected rhetoric."
Co-Chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment
Bigelow, Boal, and Sony thus have portrayed the criticism of their film as censorship and wrapped themselves in the flag of free expression. But the opposition their film has sparked is not about censorship at all and their characterizing their critics as censorious is dishonest. People who oppose torture want torture to be shown to the American people. The fine 2007 film Rendition, for example, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon, showed torture and was appreciated by those of us who admire well-made films and oppose torture’s immorality and illegality. We would have liked the critics to have appreciated the film rather than slammed it – for political reasons, stated or unstated - as they did, thereby helping to make the film a commercial failure. What ZDT does, by contrast to Rendition, is use torture as an integral part of propelling their story forward in a specious manner. Without the torture in ZDT, bin Laden is never found. To say that ZDT does not advocate torture is like saying that Titanic is not a film about a ship named Titanic that sank.
Bigelow and Boal’s Defense
Bigelow and Boal have called the criticism that their film apologizes for torture “preposterous.” What is their evidence for this? Here is what Boal has said. I have in previous articles here and here cited this quote (and their other statements) but I want to repeat this passage because I want to approach his comment here from a few additional angles:
“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.”
If you have seen the film (and even if you haven’t seen it but think closely enough about what Boal says and have other accounts about this incident from those who have seen the film), his explanation is remarkably a) superficial, b) specious, and c) blatantly wrong. Amazingly, the head writer for the film cannot or will not accurately depict what is in his own film in pivotal sequences.
As I have pointed out in previous articles, to accept his explanation that the film does not portray torture producing the key piece of evidence - bin Laden’s courier’s name - you have to ignore a) the fact that Ammar was tortured at length before the “civilized lunch” and b) the fact that Dan, the interrogator, tells him during the lunch that if he doesn’t co-operate with them and tell them what they want, that he can easily hang Ammar from the ceiling again. In other words, Ammar gives them what they want - the courier’s identity - because of torture and the threat of more.
A detainee later in the film interrogated by Maya makes the impact of torture as portrayed in the film very plain once more. After saying to her that he has been tortured before and does not want more of it, he tells her: “Ask me a question and I will answer.”
Further, in the scene in the research room where, according to Boal, Maya discovers that other detainees gave up the courier’s name but not while being “coerced,” Boal claims that Maya learns therefore - and the movie viewer presumably - that the torture of Ammar was not necessary after all. Yet each of these detainees, save possibly one, and there are a number of them that she watches videotapes of giving up the courier’s name, clearly had been tortured before they gave the courier’s name up. All of them were in chains and in various states of stress and extreme exhaustion. But even if Boal’s false characterization of this scene were true and these detainees were not being coerced, then his point that Maya discovers that torture was not necessary at all only works if she was thinking that they had in fact tortured Ammar to give up the courier’s name and realizes that this was unnecessary. So Boal is contradicting himself in yet another way. In the first part of his statement he is claiming that Ammar was not tortured and then in the second part of his statement he is admitting that Ammar was tortured. Which one is it Mr. Boal? His defense, in short, is beyond preposterous from beginning to end.
In yet another scene in the movie, the filmmakers’ attitude about torture and indefinite detention becomes further underscored. While the CIA is trying to convince some White House contacts that they have found bin Laden’s hidden lair and upon being told by the White House reps in response that the CIA has not yet produced any convincing proof that bin Laden is in that house, one of the CIA officials erupts in frustration, "You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program—who the hell am I supposed to ask: some guy in Gitmo who is all lawyered up?" In other words, we can’t get you the direct proof that you want because you’ve tied our hands.
For the average moviegoer who does not know the truth about the CIA’s black sites, does not know that under both Bush and Obama rendition was and has been maintained, and that the very idea that detainees have been “lawyered up” is ridiculous, you would have to think, if the other scenes in the movie did not quite convince you, that going after the “enemy” detainees using every means you have at your disposal, including especially torture, is necessary. You would have to conclude that the detainee/black site program was useful in finding bin Laden’s hiding place, that no detainees were being held any longer other than at Gitmo, and that torture was no longer being used there or anywhere. And you would be wrong about all of this.
But, according to the filmmakers’ comments, in spite of these scenes and the movie’s narrative arc, you would be crazy to think that ZDT’s promoting the use of torture. Bigelow, Boal and Sony Pictures are effectively saying, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?
Which raises another question: How can Bigelow and Boal offer such lame and clearly false explanations?
I have come to conclude that they are just as confident that their paltry rebuttals will work as they are that their false representations in the film itself will work: in other words, what is true does not matter. What matters in their mind is truthiness: the appearance of truth. And there is ample evidence to support their gambit in the honorifics bestowed on the film by critics and much of Hollywood, at least so far, unless the exposures about their lies grow larger, louder and spread more widely.
Before citing some examples of how “truthiness” is working so far, a prefatory remark: their ability to get away with falsehoods paraded around as journalistic truth has been facilitated by the all now too widespread notion that truth is a slippery slope and that interpretation rather than actual hard evidence constitute truth. As I wrote in the Preface to my book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
One of the most dangerous forces at work in our world today, perhaps the most dangerous force, is an assault on truth coming from the Right and from some elements of the Left, bolstered by the growing power of increasingly concentrated corporate media, advertising, public relations, and government propaganda, emanating from both major political parties, all trying to convince us of what is true irrespective of actual truth. Stephen Colbert satirically dubbed this trend to downgrade truth as “truthiness”—the semblance of truth. This attack on reality, on science, on reason, and on the Enlightenment is intimately connected to developments in the economy and politics…. Globalization and its political expression, neoliberalism, could not continue to exist and prevail without the degradation of the meaning of truth.
The other factor at work here is that people who should know better, for example, Michael Moore,[i] are being blinded in their response to ZDT by a mistaken desire either to defend ZDT simply because it stars a female protagonist and is directed by a female and/or a desire to feel good about Obama. Their failure or refusal to call ZDT out as a pro-torture movie is at best deeply disappointing and at worse a shameful betrayal of principle.
An Apolitical Film?
Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, is quoted in E! saying, “[T]hey're [those who’ve seen the movie] realizing it's not a propaganda film and it doesn't have an agenda. It just tries to show this moment in history as accurately as possible."
I do not think that you can hold Chastain to the same level of responsibility or understanding of her role and the film, as we should the director and the writer. I think that Chastain could mean what she is quoted as saying: that she does not think she is in a propaganda film and that the film is not trying to push an agenda and is only trying to be faithful to the actual course of events. She is wrong and for her to reach that conclusion requires that she be exceedingly ill informed about the real history that she is supposedly enacting.
Propaganda, Politics, Art, Truth
This brings up the larger questions of what propaganda is, what being political is, what art is, and what being true to history and the facts means in relation to being political. There are a number of mistaken notions about these issues and some clarification is in order.
First, the film is not historically accurate. It is a perverse and malignant false representation of history. Its falsity is exacerbated by their claim to being journalistic – “This film is based upon first-hand accounts of real events.” It would be more accurate if the film were marketed as something coming from the Dick Cheney Archive of History or the CIA Vaults of Recruitment Videos because it conforms to Cheney’s and the CIA”s preferred and bowdlerized view of the world.
Second, how could one possibly do a film about the most politically charged event in recent times, 9/11, and the central political obsession, the War on Terror, and not be political? How could one make a film that features torture and terrorist incidents and not be political? It is not possible and anyone connected to ZDT claiming otherwise is either deliberately obfuscating or does not understand what politics is.
Even leaving aside the unparalleled politicization of the issues being depicted in the film, it is important to point out that no film is ever apolitical, no matter what its topic. Even a film about the search for other planets and the search for the origins of the universe or about polar bears or insects cannot escape politics. Everything we do is political, not political in the sense of “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” but political in the sense that politics has to do with the prioritization of what is important to do and what is less important or not important to do with limited resources. How we see the world and our place and that of others in it is inherently political and ideological.
Furthermore, in making a film, writing a book or article, creating a song or poem, choosing what you are going to read, watch, spend time on, engaging in conversation or not, what you talk about and how, how you spend your money and what you do with what you buy and how you discard it, how you treat other people and those of other genders, nations, and so on – these are all political decisions, whether you think about them as political or not. If you choose to let your engine idle while you are standing still parked in a space, that is a political decision, even if the people doing it are not consciously making a political decision: I am not going to worry about the contributions I’m making to global warming and let my engine run, even though I am not going anywhere.
We cannot, any of us, escape making political choices and making decisions every minute we are awake about what we are going to do. We have to choose because we cannot do everything, pay attention to everything, understand everything in multiple ways constantly. These are all political decisions.
When Bigelow and Boal decided that they were going to depict torture in their film, they had to decide what function torture would play in their film. They had to decide how they were going to portray the CIA – as heroes or as something else. They had to decide how they were going to portray Muslims – as villains or as something else. They had to decide what scenes would be included and what they would leave out. These are all political decisions.
Third, saying that everything is inherently political is not the same thing as saying therefore truth does not exist because everyone has their own way of seeing things. This is a complicated matter that requires some exposition to unfold properly – it can take up a whole book - so I am going to focus on answering it here as concisely as possible. Let’s start with the question of the relation between the diversity of individual views and the existence of an objective reality and truth. People, it is true, have their own idiosyncratic way of being, writing, and speaking, but the range of views that exist is limited. That is, all opinions exist on a limited spectrum and can be segregated into a relatively small number of opinions. That is because we are social beings and our individual opinions really do not originate in us but in the groups that we belong to, identify with, or aspire to, and those groups in turn occupy a particular position relative to the key components of the issue in question.
Groups in turn have a specific relationship to the key levers of power and resource distribution in the society. What is in your group interest consequently varies depending upon which group you belong to. If you are a member of the 1%, and you love your money more than justice,[ii] your group has a material interest in maintaining your position of superiority over the resources and the means by which resources are obtained and distributed. You have a material interest in the levers of power remaining in your group’s hands and not having this power distributed differently, as in shared as a public good (e.g., petroleum treated as shared resource rather than privately owned). If you are a member of the bottom 47%, by comparison, your group interests are in conflict with those of the top 1% and your group would be dramatically better off if it could penetrate the fog of deception, misinformation, and use of coercion exercised by the 1% over your group and the rest of the 99%. What is in the 1%’s advantage, concealing the real reasons for political and economic decisions, is to the disadvantage of the rest of the society that is harmed by those actions.
Art cannot escape being political so the question for a work of art such as a film is not whether or not it is making a political statement but what political statement it is making and whether that statement is true or not. Is the history told by ZDT true in that it conforms fairly to historical events? Did the identity of bin Laden’s courier come as a result of torture? The answer is clearly no to both questions. And therefore the political statement being made by ZDT is both false and malignant in this case because it is attempting to convince people that they should support the commission of war crimes, which is what torture is. This offense is made all the more serious because the people behind this are dishonestly claiming that they are not doing precisely what they are doing. This is made clear, besides what is clearly in the film, by the responses from some of the moviegoers who activists have spoken to coming out of the film who say that the movie convinced them that torture was necessary.
Art is never evaluated solely or even mainly on the basis of what the artist intended consciously to do. Even if it could be shown that the filmmakers sincerely believe that they have created an apolitical film and that they did not intend endorse torture, and Bigelow’s comments on wanting to make a film that lionizes the CIA makes such a conclusion impossible to adopt, art is primarily evaluated as to its qualities and its impact.
If Bigelow and Boal Really Were Against Torture…
If Bigelow and Boal did not intend to advocate for torture, then the passionate and closely argued response from so many quarters inside and outside the industry that torture is what we in fact see the film endorsing would lead sincere filmmakers to carry out an examination of their film and find out what it is in the film that leads people to that conclusion. If they are truly against torture and appalled that anyone could conclude that their film is advocating it, then it would not be that hard for them to correct the problem, even without having to alter their film. They could, for example, readily revise the opening sequence of their movie and replace the “based on first-hand accounts of real events” with something like, “This is a work of art, not of journalism, and while many of the events depicted are based on real events, certain artistic liberties were taken in depicting those events. Torture is always a war crime and we do not endorse its use.” After all, is there much more important an issue than the charge that you are endorsing torture? Instead of doing this simple thing, however, Bigelow and Boal have offered patently false statements again and again about what is in their film, where their critics are coming from, and what they intended. The fact that they have responded this way to their critics speaks volumes about their real intentions and the real nature of their film.
What is Torture? What is its Purpose?
Torture is a form of terror, applied to one individual, designed to terrorize a whole people. Torture’s purpose is not intelligence gathering, which is why torturers frequently torture people that they know without a doubt are innocent and who they know know nothing useful. Torture’s purpose is to convince people that those who are doing the torturing will not shrink from doing anything and everything to stay on top and that you should be afraid that you or your loved ones will be the next arbitrarily chosen victim of their unmitigated brutality. This is what the Spanish Inquisitors did to those they suspected of heresy and it is the infamous Spanish Inquisitors, by the way, who invented waterboarding. Torture is not designed to extract the truth. It is designed to coerce people into “confessions” that thereby “prove” the need for torture and that prove who is in charge.
There are several different meanings for the word “propaganda,” some of them are not derogatory, but the most common one and the one that Chastain is using is this: “Information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” By this common meaning of the term ZDT is very clearly propaganda inasmuch as it uses not just biased or misleading information, but outrageously consequential false information as a central narrative device for the film, about the most high profile and consequential public policy since 2001, and thereby promotes the idea that it is permissible to torture people and, in fact, that those who did it are heroic. As Bigelow describes it at the film’s premiere:
“I want them to be moved and I want them to know that this is the story, kind of behind, you know, the intelligence community finding this man. These are incredibly brave individuals, dedicated individuals who sacrificed a lot in order to accomplish this mission.”
What is Reality? The Yawning Divide
The debate around ZDT highlights the divide between those who believe that reality is what you believe it to be versus those who hold that reality is something that exists independent of our consciousness. This conflict between conflicting views of reality and truth is no mere scholastic philosophical difference that has no real world consequences. It is a central philosophical debate that has world implications of momentous dimensions.
The first group, those who believe reality is what you think it is, goes by various names - “faith-based,” fundamentalism, relativism, postmodernism, solipsism, etc. – for whom truth is solely a question of personal interpretation – what is true is what I choose to believe to be true. Or, truth is what is declared by sacred texts such as the Bible, the Koran, etc. or by authorities, secular or religious, who are supposed to have special access to the truth.
In the latter group, the empiricists, the world exists independent of our existence and our consciousness of it. Empiricism is the perspective of the Enlightenment.
Empiricism is the foundation for science – the view that empirical evidence (facts, physical evidence, data, things that you can measure, etc.) constitute our world and are the material that we use to examine the validity of our hypotheses and theories about what is going on, what is real, and how things work.
In our courts, the principle is that you first have to prove that someone is guilty by the use of evidence, evidence strong enough to constitute the basis for a finding beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not, or at least it was not enough until the so-called “war on terror” came along, to merely accuse someone to render them guilty; you used to have to prove it using empirical data and a strong and convincing argument based upon the empirical evidence – the facts – which made sensible and supported, rather than undermined, the argument. This form of jurisprudence represented a momentous advance over prior systems of “justice” in which it was enough for the king to detain, torture and/or hang anyone because he was the king. In the principle in play before the Magna Carta, which dates from close to nine hundred years ago, governmental power was unchecked by any limits upon its exercise: the government could do what it wanted, to whoever it wanted to do it to. Fear and superstition reigned rather than reason and evidence. ZDT reflects the reemergence of fear-based discourses designed to override legal principles of due process that came into being historically as a check upon the ruthless exercise of power by authorities. Bush and Obama have both advanced us down this treacherous road of the suspension of due process and guilt by accusation.
Due process and science, in other words, go hand in hand. The absence of due process, tyranny, superstition or anti-rationalist faith, and reasoning by appeal solely to authority (e.g., sacred texts or “revelation”) also go hand in hand.
The advantage of being an empiricist is that there is a means by which we can decide between competing versions of truth via empirical verification. This is what science is based upon: that truth exists and can be determined through empirical evidence and that evidence comes from a world that exists objectively rather than something created and maintained subjectively. Without this independent means of verification, no version of truth can be selected as being superior to any other. Any belief, the notion, for example, that we are really all dreaming the world and that the world has no existence independent of those dreams, is just as reliable and “true” as any other in the absence of that independent criterion.
A writer at Huffington Post named G. Roger Denson has written two articles about ZDT. The first is titled: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Account of Torture Verified by Media Record of Legislators and CIA Officials. The second is titled Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow Falsely Cast by Naomi Wolf as Nazi Propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. In the ensuing and still ongoing debate on his articles’ threads, he says in response to me: “ZDT does not show INDISCRIMINATE torture. It does not show whole populations targeted. Nor does it show drone attacts [sic]. You are filling in your voids with general news reports about the Afghanistan War because you can't find any documented facts contradicting the account in the film. Spare us all your wild and dsioriented [sic] speculations. They are worthless,”. I said in response, in part, that his comment about “INDISCRIMINATE torture” reminds me of ex-Rep. Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape.”
Apparently, according to Mr. Denson, there is DISCRIMINATE torture (he says earlier: “That was the reason torture was applied to Ammar--to save lives”) and there is INDISCRIMINATE torture.
His comment lets the cat out of the bag: Denson’s been claiming from the beginning that ZDT does not endorse the use of torture and that it in fact opens up for people the reality of torture so that they will come to see that it is bad, yet here he is asserting that torture was used on Ammar to “save lives” and therefore, it was not INDISCRIMINATE torture but presumably, JUSTIFIABLE torture.
Someone should tell him that according to the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, and international law, torture is torture. I have been trying, but I cannot seem to get this through to the man. Perhaps this explains Bigelow, Boal, Sony Pictures, and Denson’s blind spot about the film: perhaps to them, if U.S. agents are using torture, it’s not really torture and therefore that is why they can say with a straight face that the film isn’t endorsing torture.
ZDT is a microcosm of the larger conflict playing itself out on the world scale today, ranging from the personal and individual level to the most macro of levels.
First published by Daily Censored.
“Zero Dark 30 makes it clear: 7 yrs of torture under [George W.] Bush doesn’t find Osama bin Laden. [Barack] Obama elected, torture stops, guess what? WE FIND BIN LADEN.”
[iii] Nathan Rabin, “Interview: Stephen Colbert,” AVClub.com, January 5, 2006, http://www.avclub.com/articles/stephen-colbert,13970/, accessed January 19, 2010:
People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up do not seem to exist. It is the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? . . . . Truthiness is “What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.” It is not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.