The Two Controversies of 'Zero Dark Thirty'
There are two controversies about “Zero Dark Thirty” but only one gets written about. That's the “does it or doesn't it?” controversy: Does the film suggest that the “enhanced interrogation methods” of the Bush administration, i.e., torture, led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden? Many critics have said yes. Owen Gleiberman said yes, almost enthusiastically, on December 5:
Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ''enhanced interrogation techniques'' that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama could love. At the same time, the film spins its fearless — and potentially controversial — stance toward the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners into a heady international detective thriller.
It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other 'black sites'—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture.
Glenn Greenwald, safely on the other side of the Atlantic, compiles a list.
I first became aware of the controversy last week via Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker and was astounded.... by how long it took the controversy to come to light. That's the second controversy. By this point, “Zero Dark Thirty” had already won how many year-end awards? From how many organizations and critics groups? New York Film Critics Circle, Boston critics, D.C. critics, National Board of Review. And it took Dexter Filkins and Frank Bruni in The New York Times to bring the controversy to light?
What the fuck were the critics thinking?
Maybe they were thinking what I was thinking when I saw the trailer last month. It begins with hints of the torture to come, and some part of me thought, “Wait. The movie isn't suggesting we got good intel from this torture, is it?” But that thought, that blip, was ignored because the rest of the movie looked fucking good. It looked serious and important, and—I'll say it—2012 has been a lousy year for movies. We needed something good to come along, something serious and important to make us excited about the movies again and wash away the bad taste left by the dreck of summer: all those big and bombastic and flailing and flopping pictures. “Zero Dark Thirty” looked IT. It looked like THE ONE.
Now even Washington, D.C. is getting involved. Senators Diane Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin, after a screening of ZDT, sent a letter to Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton condemning the film:
We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden...
The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.
The response from Bigelow and Boal thus far? Flailing and flopping. They talk about how the movie is not a documentary. They bring up the irrelevant fact that the U.S. government did torture people—as if that were the controversy. Here's Bigelow a few days ago:
The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy. Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.
The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes. Before we even wrote it, it was (branded) an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous... Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be...
I'm not saying the film is a documentary of everything that happened, but it's being misread... Look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.
That's some weak tea.
How could they not know? That they were stepping into one of the most heated debates of our time? And how could Bigelow, who wishes that torture had not been part of our history, misrepresent the efficacy of that very torture?
Now the critics are splashing us with their own weak tea. Jeff Wells, over at Hollywood Elsewhere, who is insanely anti-“Lincoln” in the best-picture Oscar race, and thus insanely pro-“Zero Dark Thirty,” makes the following argument in the wake of the Senators' letter:
Obviously Al Qaeda allies were tortured during the Bush admistration so what's the problem? How do Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain know for a fact that no good information resulted from torture? They believe this because they've been told this, but how do they really know?
His first sentence is again not the issue. The rest of his argument confuses things even more. His goal is obfuscation here. The tactic of lawyers and pundits when the facts aren't on their side. Because it really comes down to this:
- Does “Zero Dark Thirty” show that intel gathered via torture led us to Osama bin Laden?
If the answer to that is “Yes,” they've misrepresented the facts as we know them. Their only possible saving grace is that they know other facts, more so than Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin of the U.S. Armed Services Committee. If so, then they should own up. They should let us drink that strong tea. But if they drew the line themselves between torture and the intel that led to Osama bin Laden, a mea culpa of the most massive kind is in order.
Does she or doesn't she? Some say she still does.