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The Case for … Zero Dark Thirty

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Written by Craig Kennedy

What do you do when you have, what I and many think, is the best American movie of the year and it also turns out to be the most controversial movie of the year? That’s Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty for those of you keeping score at home. In a vacuum, it probably doesn’t matter, but in the Oscar bubble, it could be the deciding factor between a win and a loss. The irony is that the source of its greatness and the source of the controversy are the same thing. It’s the film’s unwillingness to take a moral stance on the horrors it shows you that has everyone up in arms, but it’s also what transforms the film from simply being a good movie into something much more.

To be fair, it’s not simply Zero Dark Thirty‘s amorality that is troubling. That just compounds the problem of factual inaccuracy. Its detractors will argue specifically that the film makes the case that torture was an effective tool in finding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and that this is demonstrably incorrect and therefore dangerous. I’m still not convinced the film makes all that clear of a case, nor am I convinced that torture doesn’t or didn’t provide useful intelligence, despite what Congressional hearings on the matter have concluded. It’s almost impossible to prove a negative, but the argument that “torture doesn’t work” is a much cleaner and more compelling argument for anti-torture activists to make than “torture is wrong.” Here’s the thing though: even if you accept that Zero Dark Thirty is factually incorrect, it is still a powerful, brilliant film and perhaps the most important to come out of the “War on Terror” so far.

Whether you call it “torture” or you call it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Zero Dark Thirty shows you up close and in detail the waterboarding, the abuse, the humiliation and the deprivations we subjected other human beings to in the name of justice. Seeing it played out on the big screen is much harder and more intense than simply reading about it in a newspaper and that alone makes Zero Dark Thirty an important film. However, by not taking a moral stand, by forcing the audience to decide for itself whether what it’s seeing is right or wrong, the audience is implicated in what’s happening. We have a stake in it and can’t just write it off as a few bad people doing bad things. The conversations and arguments that Zero Dark Thirty is inspiring on the internet and in op-ed columns all around the world are exactly the kinds of conversations we all should’ve been having with ourselves for the last decade. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have taken an intellectual idea and brought it home for everyone to see in all its horror and they’re forcing audiences to come to terms with it. You have to decide whether torture is right or wrong. It shouldn’t really matter whether it works or not.

If Zero Dark Thirty merely inspired conversation, it would be fine, but the sneaky thing about it is that it couches its intellectual time bomb within a supremely entertaining espionage/action thriller. The first two thirds follow CIA operative Maya and her team as they work for a decade piecing together the trail that will lead to the world’s most wanted man. It’s an ugly, disturbing trail, half of which exposes people behaving at their worst. The last third follows the Navy SEAL team on the gripping raid itself. Filmed seemingly in real time, the raid is thrilling, yes, but it’s also claustrophobic, frightening and deeply unsettling. As the team makes its way in the dark through the compound’s maze of passages amid the terrified screams of women and innocent children, we’re given what we instinctively want, revenge, but it leaves a sour taste in our mouths. From beginning to end, Bigelow expertly pushes our buttons while simultaneously punching us in the gut with reality.

As Mia, Jessica Chastain is the heart and soul of the film. Seemingly fragile at first, Mia turns out to be the toughest, most intense and most single-minded of all. Even as her superiors are beginning to doubt the wisdom of tracking bin Laden, let alone whether it’s even possible, she never wavers. She wants what we all wanted, but she’s also a flawed, frightening person. This is the kind of machine you need to do an ugly job and Chastain is utterly convincing. You root for her, but she also gives you pause.

There are a lot of good films in the running for Oscar this year and there are a lot of likable films, but with the possible exception of Lincoln, there are none that are so important to the here and now; none that so deeply resonate with our times while also entertaining the hell out of us. Yes, history may in fact show that Zero Dark Thirty is troublingly incorrect in the version of history it puts forth, but the controversy it has stirred up, regardless of how you feel about the issues it presents, is compelling and vital. Zero Dark Thirty takes the most important series of events in our lifetimes, it rips them out of the op-ed pages and then shoves them in our faces. This is what happened as best as we can understand it. Now, deal with it. If that’s not the best picture of the year, I don’t know what those words mean.

 

 

52 Comments on this Post

  1. ‘There are a lot of good films in the running for Oscar this year and there are a lot of likable films, but with the possible exception of Lincoln, there are none that are so important to the here and now; none that so deeply resonate with our times while also entertaining the hell out of us.’

    Sasha, you’ve summed up perfectly why these two films are the most epic American films of the year. If the Oscar race ended up being a battle between these two, if the Academy split their nods for these two films, I would be happy. I want them both to be recognized.
    I would vote this way:
    Lincoln – BP
    ZD30 – BD (because while Spielberg deserves praise, the film’s strength is in what he allowed the actors, the screenwriter and cinematographer to do….freedom)
    Lincoln: Best Actor, Best Supp Actress, Best Actor
    Lincoln: Best Adapted Screenplay
    ZD30: Best Actress

    I know its wishful-thinking, but this would be the most perfect outcome to me.

  2. A passionate and acute defense of a film that for me needs no defense at all. But I agree it needs to be discussed in this way, what with all the controversy some of making of the torture sequences, not to mention it is part of an ongoing series at AD. Some are saying ‘the truth hurts’ and I’m inclined to agree, though Bigelow gives the facts and asks viewers to reach their own conclusions. The first 20 minutes are harrowing, and Jessica Chastain delivers an electrifying performance, one that for me is more worthy than the presumed Oscar favorite, Jennifer Lawrence. The scene where she asserts there is a 100% chance Bin Laden may be hiding in the discovered target, is unforgettable. The green-tinted finale of course is brilliantly visualized.

    Terrific piece here Craig, and surely this film is one of the very best of 2012, for me easily in the Top 5.

  3. Yvette, you mean Craig.

  4. One writer called the stance of Bigelow and the treatment of the matter of torture in the film as making a film about slavery, but focusing on if the cotton crop failed or was a success. I agree.

    Is there a doubt that torture as slavery is immoral? Should we now revisit the matter of slavery in the cinemas as to the “rights” and wrongs of it ? Would that be considered a brave thing to do ? I can’t believe that someone would believe it’s daring to take no stand and hide behind the banner of “challenging cinema”.

    To part-take in celebration of such work is an abdication of ones own moral judgement on a matter far too important in world affairs. I’m very surprised so many liberals are jumping shark on this issue. But perhaps the see no evil on Obamas drone program should’ve been a hint. As long as a liberal does it, it’s not a problem or condemnable. Congrats on making that clear.

  5. Kevin Klawitter

    ” One writer called the stance of Bigelow and the treatment of the matter of torture in the film as making a film about slavery, but focusing on if the cotton crop failed or was a success. ”

    And if “Zero Dark Thirty” was about torture, that might actually mean something. But it’s not. The torture scenes might be the parts that everybody has been worked up over, but from what I understand (having not seen the movie yet, admittedly), they are only one part of the movie that covers a wide range of territory.

  6. Is there a doubt that torture as slavery is immoral?

    If you’re in no doubt, why do you seem to require a film about torture to support your opinion? Perhaps if, indeed, no such doubt exists, then Zero Dark Thirty is an anti-torture film in the simple fact that it depicts torture.

    I didn’t watch Downfall and complain that Hitler weren’t depicted as evil enough. I know that Hitler was evil, and I don’t require any film to tell me so.

  7. I think getting called out for factual innaccuracies are worse then whole torture thing. Argo already taking advantage by giving Deadline exclusive with real people telling thier tale.

  8. I didn’t watch Downfall and complain that Hitler weren’t depicted as evil enough. I know that Hitler was evil, and I don’t require any film to tell me so.

    First, Downfall was about – well , the downfall of Hitler and not so much about whole history about Hitler or the concentration camp. That’s the backstory. It’s in many ways like Lincoln. I’m also pretty sure that poisoning children in the name of an ideology is a telling sign of the lenght that those people would go and how much they believed in their cause. If that act was not evil, I’m not sure what is.

    The other difference is that Zero Dark Thirty portraits as heroes people who not only condone, but engage in torture. Then it poses as some kind of brave filmmaking. Maya is as much a hero as Henry Hill was, and I haven’t heard anyone say that Goodfellas asked daring moral questions or that Henry Hill was a “badass” for doing what he did.

    *Kevin: The filmmakers have said that they didn’t want to take side on torture in the film. I believe that’s akin to saying, you know even though the movie is about this specific period and features slaves being treated as slaves, we decided not to adress the issue of if slavery is good or not. We decided to let the audience decide. To me that’s an abdication of moral responsibility.

    To me not taking stand means taking stand for. Silent is consent.

  9. To be silent is not to consent to anything, Mohammed. If someone refuses to divulge their opinion, who has the right to assign them one? And moral responsibility? Filmmakers have only the responsibility which they wish to have. Perhaps neither Kathryn Bigelow nor Mark Boal felt it necessary to condemn torture because they felt that it condemned itself. They have no responsibility to instruct us in how we ought to think. Were Kathryn Bigelow to pander to her audience and instructed us in how to think and how to feel about the onscreen events, she’d have turned Zero Dark Thirty into a fucking PSA. And if people leave the theatre in the belief that torture is good, they can take responsibility themselves for their own thoughts and opinions.

    I’m also pretty sure that poisoning children in the name of an ideology is a telling sign of the lenght that those people would go and how much they believed in their cause. If that act was not evil, I’m not sure what is.

    And it would appear that you’re also pretty sure that torturing someone is a telling sign of the length that some people do go to out of belief in their cause, and that you regard such an act as evil. Why do you need Bigelow and Boal to let you know that they agree with you? Pfft heroes… it’s not a bloody comic book movie.

  10. Here’s my problem, Mohammed, with your argument. You’re applying your opinions to a film that was not made with your opinions in mind. You admit that Zero Dark Thirty does not take a stance on the issue of torture, which you interpret as supporting a cause in opposition to your opinions. I believe that, were you in favour of torture, you would interpret the non-partisan depiction of torture in 0D30 as being anti-torture. Whom are you, and whom is anyone, to declare that a film takes a side in not taking a side.

    I am neither left-wing nor right-wing in my political beliefs. Does that mean that I’m actually right-wing? Or actually left-wing? Can’t I just not take any specific stance one way or another?

  11. @Pj,
    I noticed Argo taking advantage of the situation with ZD30. Getting the CIA to vouch for the accuracy and correcting any inaccuracies. Boal/Bigelow can fix this the same way. Just be honest about which parts are fiction and get some retired CIA men and women to back you on the accurate parts.
    Still have ZD30 as the final BP winner though.

  12. Bob Burns

    “colludes with evil.”

  13. Very well-wrriten “case for” piece Craig,
    I agree. If this film does nothing else it allowed for us to again have the moral debate on torture. Some people skipped out on it during the Bush administration. Choosing instead to bury their heads in the sand or go see escapist films. Well Team Biggy-Boal is bringing it straight to your local multiplex January 11, you can’t hide.

  14. Padd, I don’t go to the movies and seek out films because they are in line with my political opinion. Regardless of political stance I think there are certain things that are widely regarded as so abhorent as to be not just an opinion, but quite, but immoral across cultures. Would a film depicting a group of human beings as subhuman and therefor deserving of subjugation be considered a work of art as long as it’s visceral and packet with action and has a beautiful female lead ? I know that I’m using a spear as a dartt here, but I think it’s a valid question, applicable to the situation.

    Is there a moral argument to be made for slavery and torture that would render it a celebral opinion in this day and age ?

    The filmmakers have themselvs said that it was intended NOT to take a moral stand on the issue in the film. In that moral universe nothing is right or wrong. It’s merely an opinion. I find that kind of a stand very dangerous, and I believe that is what this film is promoting. And by celebrating this kind of filmmaking I believe the critics are embracing this kind of argument.

    It’s after all “brave”.

  15. PS: Paddy, I’ve read some research that points out that there realy aren’t people who are what you’d call strictly middle. Either you lean left or you lean right. It’s like being the neighbour that likes to borrow stuff from the other neighbours. You may borrow sugar from one and milk from another, but the most likely thing is that you’ll know the one you are most comfortable with and from whom you will borrow most often.

    Having been involved with politics for over a decade I have yet to meet a single independent voter who didn’t lean one way or another. The vast majority didn’t want to be lumped with one party or another and be forced to defend certain policies. They wanted to pretend to be sitting on some mountaintop from where they had better view of things than most others.

  16. Isn’t Chastain’s character named Maya, not Mia?

  17. Excellent case, Craig.

    The shame is that the conversation always turns to the controversy over what was intended by showing the torture scenes, which is frustrating for most of us right now because ZDT hasn’t been released wide. We haven’t seen it and can’t (or shouldn’t is probably more appropriate) jump into the fray.

    I do love this, though: “…they’re forcing audiences to come to terms with it. You have to decide whether torture is right or wrong. It shouldn’t really matter whether it works or not.”

    Good read.

  18. I stand corrected Paddy.
    Great piece.

  19. I say that a film that is cinematically well made, or wonderfully made like this one, and that challenges us on many levels firing up the public discussion on vital and important issues concerning our recent history, our present and our future is doing the job that Art, in any form, should always do. Zero Dark Thirty does that and more, so Best is a too small of a word to define it. Let’s keep discuss and question our political and moral beliefs, that’s what the film was aiming for.

  20. Linc4jess

    I haven’t seen the film but from all I have read and heard is that ZDT is fiction and hardly a narrative or lesson as to what actually did happen in the ten year span as there is so much of what did happen that is left out of the film. NOW, it seems we have taken to discussing torture and whether it is morally right or wrong and not so much on the events leading up to the capture and killing of Bin Laden so now I am led to believe this film is nothing more than a well executed suspenseful thriller and I would think that is what the film will or at least needs to be judged by. This said, I suppose, based on the positive critical consensus, the film will be interesting and entertaining much like ARGO is and the question will remain whether the Academy views it as such as far as its best picture chances. I wonder if the hype and praise will have people anxiously awaiting it, much like “Les Miserables” or “Django”. or will by Jan 11 when the film goes nationwide will ZDT just die at the box office much like “The Hurt Locker” no matter how many Oscar nods it gets or how many wins.

  21. As I would love ZDT winning I think its chances are (almost) over, I found the winner is clear (or almost) just before even the guilds start giving their awards

    the key nominations for a film to win the oscar are:
    – PGA – DGA – ACE – SAG & surprisingly ADG

    This is a list of films that received nominations for that 5 guilds since ADG exists:

    2011
    The Artist *
    The Descendants

    2010
    Black Swan
    The Fighter
    The King’s Speech *
    The Social Network

    2009
    The Hurt Locker *

    2008
    Frost/Nixon
    Milk
    Slumdog Millionaire *
    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

    2007
    No Country for Old Men *

    2006 – ADG award is divided in Period, Contemporary and Fantasy
    Babel
    The Departed *

    2005
    Crash *

    2004
    Million Dollar Baby *
    The Aviator

    2003
    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King *

    2002
    Chicago *
    The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

    2001
    The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

    2000 – ADG award is divided in Contemporary & Period or Fantasy
    Gladiator

    1999 – ACE award is divided in Drama & Comedy or Musical
    American Beauty

    1998
    Saving Private Ryan
    Shakespeare in Love *

    1997
    L.A. Confidential
    Titanic *

    1996
    The English Patient *

    The only anomaly here was 2001, A Beautiful Mind only missed the ADG nomination, then you may think the ADG is irrelevant but Brokeback Mountain and other several movies were in the same position and didn’t win so to me 2001 is still a Weinstein anomaly.

    Moulin Rouge!, Seabiscuit, Mystic River, Finding Neverland & Good Night, and Good Luck also receive this 5 nominations but then didn’t receive director or editing nominations at the oscars so they were out of the game anyway

    So basically the contenders this year are at the moment the SAG nominees, I’m not saying The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a better shot at a nomination than Zero Dark Thirty or even at winning (DGA is not gonna go there). If we get a year like 2010 or 2008 with so many films with the 5 mentions then the first one to reach 3 awards from this guilds whatever the combination, wins the oscar and the game is over.

  22. I’m going too take exception to the issue that the torture addressed by Zero is a subject that we should have all been talking about with ourselves for the last ten years. As recall we had a promise from a certain individual who ran for re elecion this year that Guantanamo was going to be closed. It remains open. There have many who have voiced there opinion about torture so many of us have indeed had that conversation with ourselves. It would seem to me that the gentleman from Illinois who won re election had that conversation with himself as well and did not keep his word about closing Guantanamo. So perhaps you might want to send him a note.

  23. Bob Burns

    the film is factually and essentially incorrect. I hated TKS for it’s revisionism about important – and undisputed – historical facts. This is worse.

    The more I read here the worse it is.

  24. Unlikely hood

    But paddy and Craig and others – you’re acting as though torture was ancillary, like the concentration camps in Downfall or perhaps Jackie Kennedy in JFK. This film is about torture for about an hour. Was Full Metal Jacket not about D’Onofrio’s character? I’d say it was; certainly he was hardly peripheral.

    I think the onus is on defenders to come up with precedents, and so far, I ain’t hearing many. Like, we need to hear “it’s like in All the Presidents Men when Woodward and Bernstein broke the law repeatedly and it’s not that we even approved it was more like – here’s what happened, deal with it.” This is a poor example. Better me.

    Or tell me that Bigelow and Boal just re-invented the historical docudrama wheel.

  25. Thanks all for reading and commenting. It’s hard to address all the disagreements one by one so let me just restate a couple of things in general in the hope it’s more clear. Of course you’re welcome to continue to disagree.

    1) I believe torture is wrong. I believe by engaging in it, we’ve lowered ourselves from being the freedom, liberty and justice people we like to tell the world we are. In a real sense, the terrorists have won because they’ve gotten us to behave as monsters abroad and to impinge upon the rights and freedoms we hold precious at home.

    2) I’m not 100% convinced that Zero Dark Thirty makes a black and white case that torture directly led to evidence that led to bin Laden. I think this point is fuzzy and I also think, despite what many have said, this point is also fuzzy in the actual record of what we know happened. Different people say contradictory things about the value of torture and they ALL have an agenda of some kind.

    3) Even if torture was not effective in this case, you can’t really prove a negative. Just because torture has not been successful, does not mean that it can’t ever be. To say “torture did not provide us evidence that led us to bin Laden” will never convince people torture shouldn’t be used in the future. Torture should be rejected because it’s wrong, not because it’s ineffective. what if torture DID work? Does it make you feel any better about using it? That’s the question people should be asking themselves and that’s one of the questions this movie forces you to confront.

    4) The question then becomes, do you want a movie that simply advocates a particular moral point of view guaranteed to be rejected by everyone but those who already hold that moral point of view? Or do you want a movie that is received by everyone and inspires conversation and argument and debate?

    Obviously, I prefer the latter and I’m completely comfortable with the idea that there will be people out there who see this movie and decide that torture is ok. That is something they have to carry with them. The truth is, I don’t think a lot of us have really honestly asked and answered that question. Most people don’t know what these “enhanced interrogation techniques” entailed or how widespread their usage was. Most people think of a couple of bad people doing bad things at Abu Ghraib, not a systematic policy on the part of our CIA.

    Even if it turns out Zero Dark Thirty is flawed in getting the specific facts wrong regarding the usefulness of torture in this case, it is important for so many other reasons. To toss it aside because it doesn’t fit your take on the facts is a mistake.

  26. We could see a four-way split in the Oscars:

    Lincoln – Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Makeup, Score

    Zero Dark Thirty – Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, Sound Editing

    Les Miserables – Supporting Actress, Production Design, Costume Design, Song, Sound Mixing

    Life of Pi – Cinematography, Visual Effects

    Possible Spoilers: Django Unchained for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Silver Linings Playbook for Actress, Anna Kareina for Costume Design, The Hobbit for Makeup, Argo for Editing(as a consolation).

  27. Craig: Since the other points have been talked to death I’ll just go directly to point 4 on your comment.

    ” The question then becomes, do you want a movie that simply advocates a particular moral point of view guaranteed to be rejected by everyone but those who already hold that moral point of view? Or do you want a movie that is received by everyone and inspires conversation and argument and debate? ”

    I take this to mean that there is a somewhat moral argument to be made for torture. I’m also taking this to mean that if a country has a moral “view” that makes it alright to torture, that it is as valid moral stance as the one against torture. It becomes then even more difficult to understand why this should be exclusive for torture. We can then have movies where the master of a slave lashes the slave, then cut to a scene where the master serves food to his slave and make that master the protoganist in a film that makes no judgement about slavery. Then human subjugation becomes an issue of differing points of view.

    Maya doesn’t once utter a word of protest against the torture, yet she’s the one we are supposed to sympathise with. Does that not bother you ? And what makes her justification any more defencible than, lets say Henry Hill’s justification for leading the life he led( I’m guessing he didn’t want be a schmuck). Both are equally valid.

    This moral equivelance is in my opinion the prime reason that there is no one brought to justice for the torture and rendition that did take place, and for the Irak war. In the wider international community it sends a signal that one is only criminal according to international law if one doesn’t have strong military and influence.

  28. Unlikely hood

    Aye Craig – to your points, especially #4 (“do you want a movie that…”), again I think your case would be 10x better with another filmic example. Because you are suggesting that ZDT is the TYPE of film we should prefer; thus, what else is in the type?

    I think that’s hard for you because the truth is movies about history are never as objective as you suggest. Especially because they choose what to leave in (“you don’t want to be left holding the dog collar”) and leave out (“we have to get UBL as a warning to any future attacker”).

    Look in many ways I love ZDT. I pretty much agree with David Denby’s review in the new yorker – a rave – which nonetheless identifies the “contradiction” that “mars” the film. Your legalese hair-splitting about did it work, didn’t it, does the film say that or not…it’s not helping. Because you’d never say that about any other film. And it’s kinda sad that you’re blending filmic exceptionalism with American exceptionalism.

    I am coming to think of ZDT as my friends and I thought of Return of the Jedi growing up – great film, fatal flaw.

  29. I take this to mean that there is a somewhat moral argument to be made for torture.

    You’ll find some people who do argue in favour of torture on moral grounds. If such opinions exist, surely they ought to be considered.

    Maya doesn’t once utter a word of protest against the torture, yet she’s the one we are supposed to sympathise with.

    It’s up to you with whom you sympathise. You don’t have to sympathise with anyone. The Master is one of my favourite films of the year, but I sympathised with no-one in it.

    And, Mohammed, I can assure you: You may have read some research and you may be yet to meet a truly independently-minded person, politically. But please don’t inform me that either I lean left or I lean right. You can’t dismantle my argument by informing me of my political beliefs, principally because you are wrong about me. I am an independently-minded person, politically, in that I am 100% neither left nor right. It is possible to be square in the middle, and it is possible to be outside of the spectrum altogether. Perhaps, if you open your mind up to the possibility that it is possible to be entirely non-partisan, you might be able to interpret Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture as it was intended to be depicted, rather than as you intend to depict it.

  30. Bob Burns

    the facts are not in dispute…. the movie lies. not opinion, fact.

    torture is not incidental in the film, the lie it tells is outrageous and damaging.

    (FWIW, I think THL was the best BP of the decade, and, arguably. the best ever.)

  31. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    the facts are not in dispute….

    and yet, here we are, in dispute.

  32. Paddy: ” You’ll find some people who do argue in favour of torture on moral grounds. If such opinions exist, surely they ought to be considered.”

    That’s the difference I believe between you and me. I’m as open to a “moral” argument for torture as I am for a “moral” argument for slavery. I think it’s outragous to even think that such opinion is even worthy of consideration.

    Regarding your political affiliation. Obviously I don’t know you, but as I said earlier I have yet to meet a single independent voter. I’ve met plenty who said they were, but never a single one who actually was when it comes down to it. If there were such people you’d had more than two parties in the United States. Since there isn’t I’m willing to bet that the only independents are those so uninformed and uninterested in politics as to not even bother to care about politics. That’s the only “outside” of the spectrum that can exist. But when one enters the playing field. The pendel swings from Right to Left. Variations exist within one side of the field, but not the middle.

    Here in Norway we have 7 parties in the parlament. Every single one is within the spectrum.

  33. Unless you were/are a witness, the facts should ALWAYS be in dispute; that’s the basis for the judicial systems in most countries. All the rest is heresay and statements motivated by political and personal ends.

    I have a lot of trouble with the suggestion that “independent” thinkers, politically or otherwise, are uninformed or disinterested simply because they refuse to hitch themselves to somebody else’s wagon. I think you may be confusing them with the “undecided”, who, despite the availability of arguments for all sides, can’t or won’t make a decision.

    Good follow-up post, Craig. Hopefully the lights will go on for a few when they read it carefully.

  34. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    John McCain, Dec 18, 2012

    The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Osama bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts.

    White House Official, May 1, 2011

    One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us his nom de guerre or his nickname and identified him , as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammedthe mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.

    It’s curious that this month’s statement by McCain and other senators is carefully worded to ignore the fact that Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti was repeatedly named by detainees.

    John McCain: “No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts.”

    The movie does not portray that.

    John McCain: “No detainee identified the compound in which Osama bin Laden was hidden.”

    Thanks, but the movie doesn’t portray that happening either, you idiot.

    Google “detainee, courier” and you’ll find hundreds of reports about how detainees spoke of the courier by his nickname.

    Google “McCain, Big Lie” if Romney’s lies have made you forget that John McCain has been a shameless pathological liar for years.

    Just sayin, if you’re going to trot out US officials to make claims that a movie is lying, maybe try looking for mouthpieces outside of the US Senate where baldface lying is the foundation of their careers. (And yes, I mean Dianne Feinstein is complicit too).

  35. I think it’s outragous to even think that such opinion is even worthy of consideration.

    All opinions are worthy of consideration. If one is to consider oneself tolerant, one must be tolerant of intolerance.

    Since there isn’t I’m willing to bet that the only independents are those so uninformed and uninterested in politics as to not even bother to care about politics. That’s the only “outside” of the spectrum that can exist.

    I wish you’d stop generalising. I have no political opinions, I am completely apolitical, and I am neither uninformed nor uninterested.

  36. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    “…the terrorists have won because they’ve gotten us to behave as monsters abroad and to impinge upon the rights and freedoms we hold precious at home.”

    You know how I feel about this Craig, because we talked about it on the podcast, though much of that conversation was off the record.

    I’m under no illusion that the American government never behaved monstrously before 9/11. Ask the Vietnamese about America’s moral high ground. Ask the 150,000 slaughtered Iraqi civilians. Ask the kids with the flesh falling off their bones from radiation at Hiroshima. Ask the Native Americans about the rights they had and the freedom they held precious in their own American villages. Thousands of American men have been tortured worse by fellow Americans in America’s federal prison system than anything that ever happened at Gitmo.

    America’s legacy of monstrous acts is as old as America itself. America has a horrific history of behaving monstrously. The terrorists just gave us our latest excuse.

  37. ****America’s legacy of monstrous acts is as old as America itself. America has a horrific history of behaving monstrously. The terrorists just gave us our latest excuse.***

    And there has probably not been a more honest statement than the one in quotes.

  38. America has a horrific history of behaving monstrously.

    I wonder how many Americans would agree with you. Here, outside of the US, this is a commonly-held opinion.

  39. Unlikely Hood. This is really the only part of your point I strenuously disagree with: “And it’s kinda sad that you’re blending filmic exceptionalism with American exceptionalism.” We can argue the merits of ZDT or the damage it does to itself by its flaws, but to take my arguments in favor of the film as an argument FOR American exceptionalism is absurd and offensive to me. It would be just as easy for me to turn it around and argue that anyone who is pissed off about ZDT is unAmerican, and I’d never do that. That is also ridiculous.

    Mohammed. I don’t believe a moral argument can be made for torture, but I do believe there are people who believe it’s probably worth the moral sacrifice. I’m not one of those people. As for Maya, I tried to point out in the piece above that I was ambivalent toward the character of Maya, instinctively rooting for her and being appalled by her at the same time. That’s the remarkable thing for me about the beginning of the movie, the chilling reminder of how we all felt on 9/11. That sense of fear and confusion and disbelief that, as I said in my review of the film morphed into anger and a lust for revenge. Maya is an instrument of that revenge and it turns out the path to satisfy that revenge, up to and including the compound raid is an exceptionally nasty and disturbing piece of work. So here it is. The cost to others and ourselves for this thing that so many people wanted whether they admitted it to themselves or not.

    Bob, I disagree that the facts are not in dispute as long ss there are people who were involved who dispute the facts… and they do. And my point is that even if the facts are exactly as you say they are, the film still has tremendous value.

    Ryan,as I said, there are people who are going to see ZDT and think “Ok so we tortured. Those assholes deserved it.” That’s not how I feel, but I get that POV and my point is that I prefer a movie that doesn’t try to shut out that POV but instead engages it. Telling people what they’re supposed to think is not how you have a debate.

    What was interesting for me, and I tried to make this point a little above, I’m ambivalent about the whole war on terror business. Yes, I was outraged on and after 9/11 and yes I wanted revenge, yet all along I never forced myself to really think of the consequences of that revenge, either on our enemies or on ourselves as a country. ZDT crystalized a lot of that thinking for me in the space of just a couple of hours. Maybe that’s my failing for being ambivalent in the first place.

    It’s funny, I’ve been reading Team of Rivals lately after watching the Lincoln and I’m thinking about the arguments for and against slavery. The argument whether it’s an effective method of economy or not never entered into the conversation, it was a matter of right and wrong. Lincoln rooted his philosophy in principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and he held those principles up as the thing that made this country, to borrow Unlikely Hood’s phrase, exceptional. I feel like we’ve taken a huge dump all over a lot of those principles and it lessens us. Not just in our actions outside our borders, but in our treatment of some of our own citizens.

  40. As for the “facts in dispute” argument. Here’s an interesting paragraph in acting CIA Director Morell’s letter blasting ZDT for its inaccurate portrayal. The bold is mine:

    “The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.

    So did “enhanced interrogation” lead to bin Laden or not? At best, this guy suggests we can’t be sure.

    Besides that, I take issue with his assertion that “The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques… were the key to finding Bin Ladin.” As I said in my original post, I think the movie is a lot fuzzier than that on that point. As with any movie, characters and events are condensed and combined and I think that has led to a lot of the confusion. I also don’t think the movie ever makes the argument that torture is the only or even the best way to get the same information.

  41. Sorry for 3 comments in a row, but I have to say this whole argument we’re having is why deep down I think it’s Lincoln for the win. It’s the only movie among the likely nominees that actually “means” something, and between it and Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln is the one that leaves you feeling good, rightly or wrongly, about what this country is supposed to stand for. That’s also why Lincoln is on its way to $150 million at the box office. Honestly? I’m totally OK with that.

  42. Tero Heikkinen

    “I wonder how many Americans would agree with you. Here, outside of the US, this is a commonly-held opinion.”

    I have a feeling that about half the population (you know which half) have an excuse for all these.

    “Hiroshima? We ended the fucking war with that. It was NECESSARY. Oh, and poor China.”

    “Vietnam? Communism has to be stopped, WHATEVER it takes.”

    “Afghanistan? You mean I-raq? We KNOW that they had WMDs. Saddam gassed his own, that bastard.”

    God bless the Troops!

  43. My view on ZDT and torture is pretty clear, but in quick summation: it promotes the false idea (I know, Ryan, we’ll disagree on this fact) that torture yielded the courier’s name, and the film also promotes the idea that torture works.

    Can we talk about the way the movie was made? I seem to be the only person who doesn’t think it’s that well done on an artistic level. Is there any amazing sweeping directorial moment, or any real sense of singular style? I really really wish Paul Greengrass had made this movie. Bigelow just doesn’t have the style. And the writing? My god, can anyone justify the Stallone-worthy (as an actor, not writer – Rocky is great) moments like, “I’m gonna fucking KILL bin Laden!” or “I’m the motherfucker who got him,” to Leon Panetta. Dear God, some really bad stuff going on there.

  44. CB,the action movie one liners gave me pause, but I liked them ultimately. I think they bridge the gap between the bravado we feel in an action movie to the reality of it. We’re primed watching a movie like this to have our action buttons pushed, and it does that while also reminding us of really how horrible it all is.

    Thank God heavy-handed Greengrass didn’t get within 2 miles of this picture. I don’t think you can define a quality director or their style by “sweeping directorial moments” I don’t even really know what that means, but I suspect Michael Bay is capable of it and I rest my case.

    The style of the film is faux realism. Particularly impressive was the compound sequence at the end. It’s chaotic, but clear. By design you don’t know where the “good” guys are in relation to the “bad” guys at all times, but you always have a sense of what’s going on, or what’s going wrong.

    The other stuff is largely talky. What did you want sweeping crane shots around people talking on cell phones like Tony Scott used to do? No thanks.

  45. Craig, you didn’t like ‘United 93’? Green Zone was a terribly written movie – and even a liberal like me thought it was ham-fisted (especially because the big secret was there were no WMDs – yeah, I knew that in 9th grade). But I really feel like Bigelow has no style at all, at least in this movie. Shaky-cam and dim-lighting. Not really anything to write home about. Greengrass has a kinetic, sharp, and interesting eye, at least I think so. I think U93 is one of the ten best films of the last 25 years, and the Bourne sequels are absolutely amazing. I really hope he makes his MLK movie.

    As for the writing, aside from the one-liners, it really wasn’t a great writing achievement. There were no truly memorable conversations (other than the cringeworthy ones), the structure actually wasn’t as intricate as I would’ve wanted, and the moments of bravado were totally clumsy. Also, the characters were pure stock – and there is a way to make a movie without characters’ personal lives while still maintaining personality. All the President’s Men and the in-CIA characters of the Bourne films are great examples.

  46. I think part of the writing and directing achievement was in making people talking compelling.

    I liked United 93, but when I think of the skaky-cam you mention, Greengrass is what I think of and I usually hate it with him. With Bigelow in ZDT it was much less distracting. Maybe I’m getting used to it? I’m a lesser fan of the Bourne movies than most. Green Zone. Yeah. That’s what I thought of immediately when I said I was glad Greengrass didn’t do this.

    Since ZDT by design is kind of gritty and raw, I’m not sure it’s the best indication of Bigelow’s style, but I think a movie like Point Break (which for the record I don’t like very much and never have) has an abundance of pizazz and her direction of action is also stellar. My favorite Bigelow pre-Hurt Locker is Near Dark and that thing oozes style. ZDT just isn’t that kind of movie, flashy or sweeping. The style is deliberately trying to be discrete so it doesn’t get in the way of what you’re seeing.

    It would’ve been a different but interesting movie if they’d tried to inject characters’ personal lives (as Affleck did to a point with Argo), but I think that would’ve just taken another step removed from the reality it’s trying to achieve. I’m not arguing the movie IS real (I think someone above already made the point it’s not), but by injecting personal lives, you’re just opening up a whole can of worms and taking your eye off what really matters.

    Plus, I like just being thrown into this world and trying to understand these characters just by watching what they do.

    All in all, I think the screenplay is a brilliant job of combining “facts” with drama. Keeping it honest while also making it compelling. Its biggest flaw is what is causing all the controversy. At the very least somehow I think it should’ve made the point that torture is not a settled issue. I think going in Boal wasn’t all that concerned about that particular topic and it’s come back to bite him and the movie on the ass.

  47. Linc4Jess

    Personally I am thinking these terrorist have being imprisoned for a long time so if torture or water boarding or humiliation of the captured terrorists is used in order to get information from them then why did the supposedly info that eventually was taken from them and supposedly help lead us to the capture of Bin Laden why in the hell did it take so long to fine him and kill him. I am thinking they didn’t get very much info and what they did get wasn’t as useful as they would like us to believe and they keep telling us this lie in order to protect water boarding as a means or to defect criticism.

  48. Unlikely hood

    Craig thanks very much for the well considered response.

    You’re right – my comment on American exceptionalism was over the line. I guess it’s part of my feeling that a movie about foreign torturers – say, Last King of Scotland or that Peter Weir film that starts in Siberia – wouldn’t be defended quite so vociferously by Americans even if the torturers got someone we hate in the end. But this isn’t fair to your argument, so sorry.

    I am trying to answer the question I put to you – is there a previous historical docudrama that just “lays out the facts” without giving us a rooting interest or sympathetic character? In Mississippi Burning, willem dafoe is our boy scout. Ditto Kevin Costner in JFK, Redford and Hoffman in all the p. men, the passengers in United 93, etc… I think what we’re looking for is a sort of a French Connection thing, where we think we know we’re right, but by the end we realize everyone is sullied and f*ed. Problem is, that film is made up. Ditto every Vietnam film. Perhaps The Godfather. Solozzo attacking is like 9/11 – he’s wrong first, justifying our revenge. But that film stretches the truth at best, and our moral position isn’t really in question – certainly during one of the most famous montages in history – “I do renounce them” – we are invited to see Michael (and American capitalism) as a failure. ZDT is far more complex.

    I did love ZDT for all the reasons you’ve said. We need more films like it. But I think you were wise when you said Boal jumped in without settling torture for himself and it’s bit him in the ass. It feels like a sort of un-justified justification. And I also agree that if this leads to Lincoln winning, I can handle that. Thanks for all the thoughty thoughts.

  49. “is there a previous historical docudrama that just “lays out the facts” without giving us a rooting interest or sympathetic character…”

    Cannibal Holocaust.

  50. Has anyone discussed anywhere Chastain’s chances? I hope and think they are strong, but I am scared to death about this horror film she is starring in that is being released right in the middle of Oscar season. Could something like that turn voters against her?

  51. ^ doubt anyone will see it, and besides it’s Spanish-y and looks quite decent. And it’s not Norbit.

  52. This thread has gone quiet, but as I just saw Zero Dark Thirty two nights ago, a lot of these thoughts are in my mind. I very much appreciated Craig’s propostion, that the question of whether the US got valid intelligence from torture is irrelevant to the axiom that torture is wrong. The film depicted torture in all its horror. To that I give the filmakers alot of props. That could not have been easy. I think they made a film that is not morally ambiguous, Maya is pretty heartless in her resolve.**SPOILER* If she had been killed in either scene where she is put in harm’s way, I certainly would have been indifferent. Fewer people would have been harmed. I think the way it depicted a nation’s obsessive hunt for revenge was accurate. It confirmed what many of us have known forever; the US is a morally depraved nation, full of jingoistic imperialists, who’s only exceptionalism is in the brutal agressiveness of self interest. Intentionally or not, this is the impression the film left me. A general feeling of disgust. And I think for that reason it is a brave film that people should see.

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