Michael Moore's Defense of 'Zero Dark Thirty': Annotated
Today, Aaron Reid asked me if I found anything worthwhile in Michael Moore's defense of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Yep. In fact, Michael Moore defends the film better than anyone I've read—particularly director Kathryn Bigelow. He's particularly good at defending the film from the left. Nice irony. But overall his defense involves things that aren't in the movie. I wish they were.
The words below are Moore's. The annotations are mine.
There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that — get this! — we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more??? Interesting take. Except those CIA officials? Like Maya (Jessica Chastain)? We're behind them. We agree with them. Plus this is a cartoon version of what happens.
The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he's saying, in plain English, that America's torturing days are over, done, finished. There's an “aw, shit” look on their faces and then some new boss comes into the meeting room, slams his fist on the table and says, essentially, you've had eight years to find bin Laden — and all you've got to show for it are a bunch of photos of naked Arab men peeing on themselves and wearing dog collars and black hoods. Well, he shouts, those days are over! There's no secret group up on the top floor looking for bin Laden, you're it, and goddammit do your job and find him. Is this how the scene played out in Michael Moore's mind? Because it's not how it played in the theater where I saw it. People laughed when Obama said “We don't torture.” He was the naive guy in the room. We were in a room with serious people, and this guy came along running for office and saying these pretty things, and they listened to him for a second and then went back to business. They went back to serious work. That's how I read the scene. And I never made the connection between the new guy (played by Mark Strong) and the Obama administration. Maybe it's there, way back somewhere, back back back, but it's not mentioned. Not even subtly.
He is there to put the fear of God in them, probably because his boss, the new president, has (as we can presume) on his first day in office, ordered that bin Laden be found and killed. Key word is “probably.”
Unlike his frat boy predecessor who had little interest in finding bin Laden (even to the point of joking that “I really just don't spend that much time on him”), this new president was not an imbecile and all about business. Go find bin Laden — and don't use torture. Torture is morally wrong. Torture is the coward's way. C'mon — we're smart, we're the USA, and you're telling me we can't find a six-and-a-half-foot tall Saudi who's got a $25 million bounty on his head? Use your brains (like I do) and, goddammit, get to work! This is kinda how things played out in the real world. But it's not anywhere in the movie.
And then, as the movie shows, the CIA abruptly shifts from torture porn to — are you sitting down? — detective work. Actually, at this point, we get a long set piece on a disastrous attempt to turn one of the members of al Qaeda. Which was totally unnecessary. And insulting to women. Remember Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) baking a cake for the dude? And being all nervous like on a first date? And then getting blown up. Apparently this character is loosely based on Jennifer Matthews. Those who knew her, such as Nada Bakos, aren't pleased.
Like cops do to find killers. Bin Laden was a killer — a mass killer — not a general of an army of soldiers, or the head of a country call Terrorstan. He was a crazed religious fanatic, a multi-millionaire, and a punk who was part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen whom we trained, armed and funded in Afghanistan back in the '80s. But he was a godsend and a very useful tool to the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfields of the world. They could hold him up to a frightened American public and scare the bejesus out of everyone — and everyone (well, most everyone) would then get behind the effort to declare war on, um ... well ... Who exactly do we declare war against? Oh, right — terrorism! The War on Terrorism! So skilled were the men from Halliburton, et al. that they convinced the Congress and the public to go to war against a noun. Terrorism. People fell for it, and these rich men and their friends made billions of dollars from “contracting” and armaments and a Burger King on every Iraqi base. Billions more were made creating a massive internal spying apparatus called “Homeland Security.” Business was very, very good, and as long as the bogeyman (Osama) was alive, the citizenry would not complain one bit. Moore's cartoon take on 2001-08. Again, I don't disagree. Again, not in the movie.
I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work — and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture — no bin Laden. Two years of detective work — boom! Bin Laden!
And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results — and that torture is wrong. Except the shift isn't as abrupt as you make it. And the crucial bit of evidence, the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed, is attained through torture in the first third of the film.
Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!
But then we learn a piece of news: The CIA has had the name of this guy all along! For ten years! And how did they get this name ten years ago? From “a tip.” A random tip! No torture involved. But, as was the rule during those years of incompetency and no desire to find bin Laden, the tip was filed away somewhere in some room — and not discovered until 2010. So, instead of torturing hundreds for eight years to find this important morsel of intelligence, they could have found it in their own CIA file cabinet in about eight minutes. Yeah, torture works. OK, this is Mr. Moore's VAST misreading of the movie. This bit of information was only brought to Maya's attention because she was already searching for Abu Ahmed. If she hadn't already been searching for Abu Ahmed, a name gained through two years of torture, the name in the file would've remained in the file. It never would have been brought to her attention.
And—hold on a second—wouldn't THIS have been the perfect moment to mention some of the negatives in the enhanced interrogation program? Maya mentions all the false intel buzzing around in the early years and implies it came from supposed friendlies, such as Pakistan, who weren't really that friendly. I'm sure we got a lot of false intel from interrogating the wrong people, too. Torture someone and they'll tell you what you want to hear. Even if what you want to hear is false.
In the movie, after they have the name of the courier, they then believe if they find him, they find bin Laden. So how do they find him? They bribe a Kuwaiti informant with a new car. That's right, they find the number of the courier's family by giving the guy a Lamborghini. And what do they do when they find the courier's mother? Do they kidnap and torture her to find out where her son is? Nope, they just listen in on his weekly call home to Mom, and through that, they trace him to Pakistan and then hire a bunch of undercover Pakistani Joe Fridays to follow this guy's every move — which, then, leads them to the infamous compound in Abbottabad where the Saudi punk has holed up. Very true. Except, again, it begins, it all begins, with the evidence attained through torture.
Nice police work, boys! Agreed. This is the best part of the movie. This detective work.
Oh — and girl. 'Zero Dark Thirty — a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don't listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick — and it would do you well to see it. Now you're boring me. Particularly since you ignore Jessica.
But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate — namely, in this case, to debate “whether torture works.” You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, “is torture wrong?” And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can't believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this. “I can't believe anyone of conscience would...” And that's where you stumble. All the time. In your belief that no one else could think other than the way you do.
If you allow the question to be “did torture work?” then you'll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don't know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing - but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don't. You know this, I know this, I've been making this argument all along. So why didn't the movie SHOW this? Because Bigelow and Boal wanted to be subtle? Because they didn't want to ruffle feathers? Because they drank some bitter CIA Kool-Aid? With all due respect, Mr. Moore, the question you need to answer is: WHY ISN'T THIS IN THE FUCKING MOVIE?
But let's grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture “works.” Here's what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don't we do that? Probably because we think it's morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he'll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question. Should. Isn't.
After I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a friend asked me, “During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most — the American torturer or the Arab suspect?” That was easy to answer. “Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist.” Dan? A sadist? I didn't get that at all. He was someone who got worn down by official policy. His scene with the monkeys in the cage? And the ice cream? That's our sadist? The guy who's doing what needs to be done to keep us safe? The guy who bribes the dude with the Lamborghini? Who gets THAT ball rolling? Does the movie see him as a sadist? Does Maya?
“Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in Das Boot, that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate.” Right movie, wrong analogy. We root for the Germans in DAS BOOT because they're the main characters. They're US. It's very difficult to create main characters in movies with whom the audience doesn't empathize. The lights go down, we disappear, we become them. That's the trade-off of movies. And in “Zero Dark Thirty”? The main character is Maya. We're on her side. Whatever she does, even torturing people, we're behind her. She's just trying to keep us safe. She's getting her hands dirty to keep us safe.
Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity — and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains. Or you'll chuckle at his small, naive moment onscreen--as many have done.
And that's what worked.
P.S. One final thought. I've heard fellow lefties say that even if the filmmakers didn't intend to endorse torture (Bigelow called torture “reprehensible” on Colbert the other night), the average person watching the movie is going to take it the wrong way. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that the lesser minds among us “get it.” Should Springsteen not have named his album Born in the USA because some took it to be as a salute to patriotism (Reagan wanted to use it in his 1984 reelection campaign but Bruce said no)? Dumbing down is one thing. But you have to be aware of what movies are, what movies do, the trade-off in the dark. I'm not asking for a dumbing down. I'm asking for 1/10 of what Moore sees in the movie to actually BE in the movie.
Michael Moore defends “Zero Dark Thirty” by imagining a less murky movie than “Zero Dark Thirty.”