My comments below relate to Bigelow’s fictional representations of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, not to the debate over whether real torture led to the real capture of UBL. I believe torture did NOT. I believe Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein and the CIA when they say this movie is factually wrong. In the words of one friend: It’s a movie, not a documentary.
McCain & Feinstein letter here.
CIA response here.
I also do not share Andrew Sullivan’s first reaction. After seeing the film he wrote: Having studied this subject for years, I saw nothing obviously wrong. In fairness, his views are ever shifting. Sullivan’s detailed and complicated set of posts about this film here.
That said, I left the theater with no doubt in my mind that Zero Dark Thirty is unapologetic pro-torture propaganda. It might be just a movie, but it is propaganda. Bigelow’s claims to “depiction not endorsement” ring hollow when echoed through the vast dishonesty cocoon this movie is imprisoned within. Anyone who claims this movie is ambiguous or agnostic with respect to torture is lying, either to themselves or you. Note, I fisk a couple of Bigelow's claims about her approach to this film at the end of this review.
I will argue two main points about this movie:
- It is pro-torture propaganda.
- It is cowardly.
- The early scenes of torture are causally linked to the eventual discovery of the name of UBL’s courier.
- Throughout the film, there are multiple other prisoners who confirm the name of the courier only under torture or threat of torture, and their confirmations are crucial to the hunt.
- Throughout the film, multiple characters lament the end of the US torture and rendition program implying that lack of torture as a tool will hinder or end the hunt for UBL.
- The scenes of torture are sanitized versions of the real thing which lead naïve audiences to conclude that torture is acceptable.
Point 1: The early scenes of torture are causally linked to the eventual discovery of the name of UBL’s courier.
The early scenes of physical torture (the ones most often discussed) lead directly to the later scene where a "bluff" is used to finally get the name of UBL’s courier. The prisoner has been tortured for an unspecified length of time, but it has to be weeks or months, possibly years. Finally, after a 96 hour period of stress position and sleep deprivation, the CIA team believes his memory is destroyed to the point where they can lie to him and pretend he already told them the names of his “bothers” in a cell, including the name of UBL’s courier. This is the bluff. They give him food and water and rest and treat him nice while plying him for information while lying to him. And he does give up the name. But here’s the thing that is clear: no torture, no bluff, no name. There is a clear causal sequence of physical and psychological torture that leads to the prisoner giving up the name. If he wasn’t sleep deprived and desperately afraid of torture, he would not have given up the name. Why situating the extraction of information in this way tames Sullivan's anger is beyond me. Does Sullivan accept that all the torture in the world is fine, as long as the torturers ask nice in the end? It should go without saying that this causal link is not factual. Read the McCain letter and CIA response above.
Point 2: Throughout the film, there are multiple other men who confirm the name of the courier only under torture or threat of torture.
It is depicted throughout the film that only the use of torture convinces multiple other handcuffed, beaten prisoners to confirm the name of UBL’s courier. In this film, nearly all of the information that leads to UBL’s compound is obtained from beaten men locked inside US dark sites (with one paper exception near the very end, but this is the fourth or fifth confirmation; by itself, it was ignored for years within the logic of the film). No confirmations and that early piece of info means nothing to the analysts. It should go without saying that this not factual. Read the McCain letter and CIA response above.
Point 3: Throughout the film, multiple characters lament the end of the US torture and rendition program implying that lack of torture as a tool will hinder or end the hunt for UBL.
Add to all of this that multiple characters are shown lamenting the end of US torture after President Obama is elected. There are multiple implications that without torture, we would fail to find UBL. One character laments the end of the torture regime with almost identical tone that Duvall used in his famous Apocalypse Now line, “Someday this war's gonna end...”, but with none of the irony or implications. The end of systematic torture by the US government is given multiple laments, not one character is thankful. Not. One. This is not factually accurate. Many within the CIA and throughout the US intelligence community protested the use of torture from the very early stages and many applauded President Obama’s ending of torture. This film's lack of balance, failure to present the cacophony of anti-torture protest is tantamount to endorsement. It is the lie of omission.
Point 4: The scenes of torture are sanitized versions of the real thing which lead naïve audiences to conclude that torture is acceptable.
Andrew Sullivan wrote “No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed.” This is flat false and hopelessly naïve. Sullivan gives the average viewer too much credit for sensitivity. This film is not brave when depicting torture because the scenes of torture lack the voyeuristic close ups and duration of torture porn in movies like Saw or Hostel. Using the techniques of torture porn would have been far creepier and more effectively anti-torture. True torture porn would be too intense and courageous for the milquetoast Bigelow. True torture porn would force the audience to confront the deep evil of the practice. But Bigelow lets us (and herself) off far too easily. Her torture scenes are flat and tame compared to real torture porn (Sullivan’s thin skin is surprising here). Bigelow keeps her camera shots short with quick cutaways. She doesn’t linger. She is unwilling to thrust the vile ugliness of real torture under our nose. Yes, she shows us stress positions, but for ever so short a duration. So short, that it doesn't really sink in what is happening to the man’s body. Why not construct a 10 minutes long, single shot scene with the stress position center camera the whole time. How easy would the average person find it to watch that? How many people would walk out? How much ambiguity could possibly be left after such a viewing experience? But she did not do this. And for that reason she is a coward.
Compare her sanitized scenes with Tarantino’s scene in Reservoir Dogs of Mr. Blonde torturing a kidnapped policeman. Tarantino's ear slicing scene is a much more courageous expose of torture. In his scene, there is no doubt left that the perpetrator is a sick fuck with no moral core and no other interest than to inflict pain and suffering on his victim. Bigelow lacks the courage to paint CIA torturers this way. She eases her conscience by giving every torturer a moral out. Never do we see torture as pure sadism, pure vile desire to watch another human being writhe in pain.
This is Bigelow's cowardice. To ease her conscience, she ensures that every one of her torture victims is a murderer. And none of them die in front of our eyes. Her primary torture perpetrator is a CIA agent who consistently expresses recognition of the moral “murkiness” of his actions and eventually succumbs to the emotional weight and leaves the lifestyle, requiring a psychological break.
In this way, Bigelow makes torture look okay. THAT is why it is propaganda. Where is her artistic courage? Tarantino made his torture victim innocent, writhing in pain, and made him die before our eyes. Bigelow made her torture victim a known murderer, cut away from his pain quickly, and we last see him eating fresh food and resting. Who is the brave director?
By all credible accounts of US black site torture, many US torture victims were either innocent of any crime or guilty of little more than association. This is covered by Zero Dark Thirty, but with zero dark nuance. It is only through off hand comments thrown aside that we hear of such “depiction”. This movie never questions the deeply wrong idea that US torturers are free to use whatever means they care to, against anyone they choose, with no oversight. The very idea of oversight is ridiculed (see #3).
Tarantino and Coppola are truly brave directors who confronted torture and moral cowardice without flinching. If Bigelow thinks she has created nuanced ambiguous art with respect to torture, then she is genuinely bad at her job.
What is the point of America’s existence? I find this a remarkably easy question to answer. The point of my country's existence is to discover, no matter how long it takes, if it is possible for a large group of flawed human beings to form a more perfect union. To unite a diverse citizenry with a common bond of law and fairness. To rest our common safety, happiness, and prosperity on the foundation of transparency, trust, and freedom.
Are we Americans to content ourselves with being just another run-of-the-mill nation defined by arbitrary borders and historical accident? If yes, then I'll punch my ticket to that Mars thing.
I am neither naïve nor squeamish. I am prepared to accept rough men standing guard in the night prepared to visit violence on those who would do us harm. But if those rough men must use torture and un-American means to keep me safe, then the American experiment is dead. We have failed. We have failed the ideals of our founding fathers. We might as well call ourselves The United States of Fuck You We Don't Care Anymore.
When we give up the spirit of American freedom, we give up America.
Luckily, I believe Katherine Bigelow is wrong. I think she is just a mediocre director trying to sell tickets. This is a film, not a documentary. And it’s a bad film at that. Bigelow is overrated. Zero Dark Thirty has zero dark signature. There is no signature Bigelow style. She makes films with all the artistic flare of a Guns and Ammo catalog. Her narrative is uneven and she traffics in cliché relationships and factual errors.
Kathryn Bigelow responded to some of these controversies in this rather unsatisfying January 15th Op Ed Kathryn Bigelow addresses 'Zero Dark Thirty' torture criticism. It deserves a little fisking:
But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.No. My sentiments are directed at you because it is your movie that falsely implicates torture in the successful hunt for UBL. That's not a critique of the CIA's actual techniques, which remain classified. This is a critique of your film, which is public.
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time."Depiction is not endorsement"??? When you depict a set of events closely tracking recent historical events but then fake causality that did not exist, you have jumped the shark into the deep end of endorsement. It is cowardly and it IS "endorsement." If Bigelow doesn't get this, then it proves the point that she is genuinely not good at her job.