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Zero Dark Thirty – The Finer Points of Torture, the Finer Points of Art

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It hasn’t been easy, these past few days, watching the war rage on about the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. On the one hand, you have people like Chris Hayes, Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, US senators and the chief of the CIA all condemning Zero Dark Thirty for saying, basically, yeah, we tortured, and yeah, it worked. On the other hand, if you live in my world, you have bloggers like David Poland and film critics who are wholly in denial about the content of the film and are trying to find ways to argue that those scenes show torture doesn’t “work.” The trouble is, they are headed right for a brick wall because the film is crystal clear about torture — though it might take a few viewings of it to see.  But it basically says yes, we tortured, and yes, it worked. Them’s the facts as Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have laid them out.

So that takes us back to our government, what they’re willing and unwilling to reveal, how they want our country’s face to be represented globally. Part of their protest comes from fear. They are afraid that a film like Zero Dark Thirty might incite violence the same way that badly made “video” did. I would say that’s doubtful, given that Zero Dark Thirty should not be sold as the truth, but rather, as a glorious work of art, which it is.

The politics of this conflict are clear. The CIA chief himself backs up what’s in the film, too, with his statement that:

“CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” tells the tale of the decade-long pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Calling it a film that “departs from reality,” Morell said “Zero Dark Thirty” had several fictional aspects in it, but emphasized the inaccuracy of three details of it.

“First, the hunt for Usama Bin Ladin was a decade-long effort that depended on the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers,” Morell said. “The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency–and the broader Intelligence Community–to just a few individuals.”

“Second, 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,” Morrell continued. “That impression is false.”
Jessica Chastain responds to Zero Dark Thirty’s pro-torture allegations

“Third, the film takes considerable liberties in its depiction of CIA personnel and their actions, including some who died while serving our country. We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory of them.”

And more quotes:

“The fundamental problem,” they continue, “is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts…. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.”

But here’s the money shot:

“As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden 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.”

The film depicts what the CIA backs up. Yes, torture was used, and yes, it worked.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS 

The “yes it worked” part is what Poland and others are having trouble grappling with. The only reason for any confusion about what is depicted in the film is if you can’t keep the names straight. I will own this, being an American whose ears do not process the names as well as I should. But make no mistake, the film makes it very clear that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used to gain information and a crucial piece of information obtained by these means leads them ALL THE WAY to Usama Bin Laden.

If you care to know what I found out — this is how it goes down:

Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives to help question a detainee with Dan (Jason Clarke). They torture him by chaining him up, water boarding, withholding food and sleep.  They then bring him down and make nice for a bit — orange soda, food, etc. He still doesn’t give up any info. They torture him some more and put him in a box.  Later, they bring him out, give him food and trick him into telling them the name of people around Bin Laden. One of them is the courier who eventually leads them to UBL. The name that surfaces during that moment carries through all the way to the end.

Twice more torture is proven to be an effective method of information gathering. The second time, Maya herself is doing the interrogating. She tortures a guy who won’t break, but that gives her information she needs: he lied about two people and two people only — Usama Bin Laden and the courier. That tells her they are equally important and keeps her lead hot.  She never would have known that if she hadn’t tried to break the guy.  The third incident is when Maya is trying to figure out how many times detainees gave up the name or identified the name of Bin Laen’s courier, each of these incidents occured during torture.

Others have argued that because they got the info while they were having lunch and being nice that it wasn’t gotten from torture. But in fact, it was because that’s how torture works — you deliver pain, then reward, pain, then reward.  Secondly, they are also threatening to hang him back up to the ceiling if he doesn’t talk. He has been sleep deprived and food deprived when they arrive to “trick” the information out of him.  Essentially, the film depicts Americans as willing to do most anything, even if it comes to killing their detainee, to obtain useful information.  Dan says to Maya at one point that enhanced interrogation can mean you either break them or they die withholding.  But nowhere in there, no where in the film does it ever say: the torture isn’t working.

So, these are the facts of the film. The only part that might be difficult for anyone watching it for the first time is keeping the names straight. But once you figure that part out, the rest is crystal clear.

What you are left with is this: the film is a piece of art, it’s not a documentary. It is a great great film. It is a film about America and our bloodlust to capture Bin Laden.  Jardin, at Boing Boing, says the movie isn’t good enough to justify what she calls “torture fantasy.” She’s just flat out wrong. I don’t need all of the critics awards to tell me it’s a great movie. Good thing I have eyes and a thinking brain and can decide for myself what is and isn’t a good film. Zero Dark Thirty is a great film.   Its main character, Maya, is a punk. She’s a dedicated, hard-working, single-minded punk.  She might personify some of the worst traits America has to offer in a CIA agent but she’s also unlike any other character we’ve seen this year or any other.  She’s tougher than Dan, the interrogator. She is the one who wants to “take another run” at the detainee. You don’t often see such a dogged pursuit by a female. This notion that our characters can’t be flawed, especially women, will eventually choke the life out of art.

Americans viewing the film, or anyone viewing it, should watch the scenes of torture with skepticism.  In other words, my earlier post about the torture being “the truth” might not really be the case. The truth might be somewhere in between.  We have no way of knowing. Thus, we can really only look at the film as what it is: a Hollywood movie. And a great one at that.

 

29 Comments on this Post

  1. Scottish Jellyfish

    Excellent points again. Almost every film pertaining historical wartime events has been surrounded by controversy. Some even being banned from the very country they were made in. The hoopla surrounding ZD30 sometimes comes off as feigned political discourse to disguise a more personal grudge against Bigelow’s Oscar chances. “I’ll jump on the torture bandwagon to sidetrack ZD30’s Oscar campaign.” I already know who’s thinking like this.

  2. It’s also a movie, and therefore has to condense everything down to a beginning middle and end that works as a film. They can’t show everything else that went into the hunt for UBL. We did torture. The CIA probably didn’t like it when they told them to stop…that’s what the movie depicts, and? So…we’re upset because they show them getting some viable information out of it? Okay. That seems like a good dramatic choice for the film to me. Thye show a few people instead of hundreds working the UBL case….okay, that seems like a good dramatic choice to me. It’s not a documentary.

  3. torture worked so well that bush got bin laden because of it. oh wait…that’s right, they didn’t catch bin laden for ten years, and not until they stopped perpetrating war crimes. the guys who work in the CIA want to justify what they did, even though they didn’t get anywhere until after it was stopped.

  4. The push-back against the film is expected. I’m surprised that Maya hasn’t been labeled for the immoral character that she is, instead of the “badass” the films supporters are championing her as. Movies about horrible charachters can be fun, but when those characters – specially if they are based on real people- can’t be condemned for their immoral behaviour then that makes us complicit. Maya as much a hero as Henry Hill was.

  5. O.K. Now I’m really confused. Isn’t the CIA director guy saying that the torture did NOT work in getting them the name of Bin Laden’s messager? He is disagreeing with the film right just like John McCain? (“Second, 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,” Morrell continued. “That impression is false.”)

    <On the other hand it is amusing watching all the anti-torture lefties coming to defend torture in defending the film/Bigelow. Shows they are as hypocritical as the right wingers when defending "their guy". If Bigelow made a pro-guns in elementary schools film these same bloggers would be supporting it. We all do it, it's human nature to be hypocrites. Very well written article.

  6. In defense of David Poland, he interviewed Jessica Chastain and she says the aim of that part of the film was to show that torture did NOT work since the information was gained when they were being nice to the detainee and feeding him. However most people would still see that as part of the on-going psychological torture after he had been broken down by physical torture and sleep deprivation. http://t.co/fMgfzyv4

  7. Agreed with Lily. The acting CIA director said that torture didn’t work. It was done and it was technically a part of the 10-year process, but it didn’t work and in many cases inhibited the effort to find bin Laden. This movie promotes the idea that it did work, and bipartisan politicians and some in the press are pushing back against it. Zero Dark Thirty is an enormously flawed film, just on an artistic level, but most troubling is that it does show torture as something that worked. I seriously hope it doesn’t win a single Oscar.

  8. I didn’t read the article–I’m trying to avoid even mild spoilers about the film. I just came to lament that it really sucks that the film isn’t expanding for another few weeks. If Sony was smart, they’d rush it into theatres now to capitalize on the controversy and buzz. I think that the buzz will turn against Zero Dark Thirty by the time it expands.

  9. Agnes Moorehead

    I still don’t understand why so many people seem to have such moral outraage at KSM or Abu Zubaydah being waterboarded or 9/11 conspirator Mohammed Qahtani being slapped around or put in a box or whatever…and yet they seem to have no problem with Obama’s drone program which far beyond waterboarding or temporarily harming known terrorists has actually KILLED hundreds if not thousands of civilians including many children that Obama is soo keen on protecting after what happened in CT.

    Maybe it’s just me but if I have to weigh two things on a scale. KSM being waterboarded 190 times but suffering no lasting damage and being 100% healthy today vs hundreds of civilians being killed and blown up and their lives ending immediately…well, I’ll say the latter is worse.

    I could really care less if KSM was waterboarded. But for the liberals who will protest Bush about it, you’ll see almost none of them go after Obama for his far more damaging and deadly drone program. There are a few such as Glenn Greenwald who have brought it up and talked about how most liberals have forfeited their credibility on the torture issue by giving Obama a pass for a program that had it been carried out by Bush, McCain, Palin, Romney, etc… they’d have ben howling nonstop and calling for their prosecution in The Hague. But most have totally ignored it.

    Many of these liberals and dems also have canonized folks like FDR and Truman who far from waterboarding a few guys actually ordered actions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilans. And folks like JFK who actually used the CIA to kill people, not just scare them and rough them up a bit.

    So just to get it straight FDR and Truman killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, leaving even more homeless, etc… are Dem icons and American heroes, but Bush having KSM waterboarded and leaving no lasting physical damage to him is a war criminal and a monster. Ok.

    As for ZDT, as Sasha stated, even the acting DCI admitted it’s basically true. First of all, we need to keep in mind that we shouldn’t really believe anything anyone associated wuth the CIA ever says. The CIA as an entity was designed to deceive, lie, mislead, and obfuscate. It’s employees, including this guy Morrell have been highly trained by the US Govt to lie about themselves and their business. So anything they say should be taken with a grain of salt.

    That said, even in his statement Morrell conceded that “torture” was used, and that information from it(along with other methods) did help lead to Bin Laden. Full Stop.

    The Ammar character is based on Mohammed al-Qahtani(the 20th hijacker who was stopped at the Orlando airport and later captured in Afghanistan) 3 other AQ terrorists were key figures in identidying the courier: KSM(the mastermind of the operation), Hassan Ghul(an AQ courier captured in Iraq in 2004), and Abu Faraj al-Libi(the # in AQ and successor to KSM caught in Pakistan in 2005).

    If you google all those guys and look them up and read about them you’ll see that enhanced techniques were used, that only KSM was waterboarded, that techniques used on Qahtani led to him disclosing information on Abu Ahmed. Same with Hassan Ghul.

    Here’s a passage from a book by Mark Bowden(author of Black Hawk Down) about the 4 detainees and their role in finding the courier:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Y1dOLQN9hvwC&pg=PT131&lpg=PT131&dq=qahtani+torture+abu+ahmed&source=bl&ots=nWdRb_hE1e&sig=wxcNmMRI-aoX9pJe_kxR2cI9vaA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=VKvXUP3_H4jq0AGXl4GwCg&ved=0CFIQ6AEwBQ

    Even CIA director Panetta admits it happened and was useful. Here’s part of a letter he wrote back in May, 2011:
    http://mobile.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE74D0EJ20110514?irpc=932

    In a letter to McCain obtained by Reuters, CIA director Leon Panetta was equivocal about the role enhanced interrogation played in producing intelligence on bin Laden.

    “Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta wrote. But he added: “Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively.”

    So there it is, in writing, from the head of the CIA a few days after the raid. Some of the detainees(most likely Qahtani, Ghul, al-Libi, and KSM) who provided “useful information about” Abu Ahmed had been tortured. Unequivocal.

    Panetta leaves it up for debate whether or not those techniques were the only way to get that info, though. Basically he syas that yes they were tortured and gave up information but maybe we could have gotten the same information through other means, we’ll never really know.

    So I think enough of the facts are out there. We’ll never really know the full story.

  10. With the tragic shooting in Connecticut, and the debate between about gun laws and gun violence. I wonder if the chances for ZDT have been reduced, this might be the year that the Academy members want to play it safe without being criticized for voting for a film like this. They might just vote for a film that is more inspirational and less controversial like Lincoln, I would not be a bit surprised if that happened. I thought ZDT was going all the way to the night the Oscars, but from all the awards that have been given out so far, some critics groups went for Argo and Master, a few of them went for Life of Pi. NY film Critics and National Board of Reviews went for ZDT. Lincoln got the most nominations at GG and BFCA, and SAG. ZDT didn’t get the best ensemble at SAG, now, I am not so sure ZDT is such a shoo in anymore. We shall see.

  11. I am not so sure ZDT is a shoo in anymore.

  12. It is entirely possible its Oscar chances might have been hurt greatly by its controversial subject matter about the water boarding. This might be the year the Oscar members going for the safe and yet a great choice as well, Lincoln.

  13. “It is entirely possible its Oscar chances might have been hurt greatly by its controversial subject matter about the water boarding.”

    That’s obviously the goal, isn’t it? If it wasn’t in the film, the “good” people speaking about it wouldn’t even be thinking about it, while other “good” people would be crying that its use wasn’t acknowledged.

    Is there a frontrunner that hasn’t been attacked in one form or another?

  14. Ryan, thanks for releasing the pending comments I posted earlier. I don’t know why the waterboarding depicted in this film is such an issue. I do believe that is what happened. Bush and Cheney allowed it to happen. I think it is silly for people to say Bigelow is pro waterboarding. I think Bigelow and Boal just stated what might have happened without being pro or against anything, but I don’t think the waterboarding scenes are that controversial because if that is really what happened, then that is what happened, and I personally think that is what happened, but like Sasha said, we won’t know exactly what happened, the truth may be somewhere in between. It makes sense that Fienstein and McCain(who is out of his mind in my opinion)would say the waterboarding scenes are not accurate because they probably do not want to people in the world to view America as a country that uses “torture” to accomplish anything, that is understandable. However, I think this debate of waterboarding might hurt ZDT’s Oscar chances for best picture, but maybe not Bigelow, but we live in a world of violence, maybe it is a good idea to award a picture like Lincoln.

  15. To Agnes – you raise a great point about drones, and in fact many liberals such as myself are apoplectic over the drone program. A huge fear I have now is that in 2015 we’ll have 30,000 flying over the homeland. Frightening, and awful that a Harvard constitutional lawyer is happy to let it happen. The only voice against it in politics is Rand Paul, and while I certainly can’t stand him, I’m somewhat happy he’s going to talk about it when the rest won’t.

    As for KSM – no, the US should not torture. It is immoral. It is wrong and it produces false intelligence.

  16. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    many liberals such as myself are apoplectic over the drone program. A huge fear I have now is that in 2015 we’ll have 30,000 flying over the homeland.

    Just wait till 2030 when there are nearly as many tiny nano-drones as there are butterflies. And good luck trying to tell the difference between a real butterfly and a nano-drone camouflaged as a butterfly.

  17. Ryan, you are totally right. There is some seriously scary stuff coming down. Hopefully the Singularity will take care of it ;)

  18. Scottish Jellyfish

    “CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.”

    Replace CIA with EOD, and I can only ask “Where have I heard this before?”

  19. It should be easy to tell a drone from a butterfly in 2030 because butterflies will be long gone from the planet, but that’s a whole other discussion.

  20. a war movie with butterfly drones … if Michael Bay reads this, we know what his next film will be!

  21. The torture scenes were dead on but the film as a whole wasn’t very authentic. Also we weren’t allowed to get close to any of the characters. I can’t quite understand why stone thinks this is a great film but then I often feel stone is clueless about films and only panders to her employers (the studios). I’m a veteran and I was there for 2 tours. I know this isn’t a documentary film but you can’t deny that it tries really hard to be just like one. It’s not a bad film but its far from great.

  22. Bob Burns

    the controversy surrounding this film is creepy, in large part because of the claims of the film makers.

    truly admire The Hurt Locker, but hated “War is a Drug”. this is the same but more so.

  23. Bob Burns

    recommend the UP with Chris Hayes segment about ZD30.

  24. 95 on metacritic? Wow, the reviews for this film are off the charts …
    Simply cannot wait to see it!!!!

    With this film, Bigelow has to be considered one of the top 5 directors working today.
    This woman is LEGIT …
    Would love for her to direct a Bond film or the Jack Reacher sequel.
    Don’t let the first Jack Reacher film fool you. The gritty story lines in the Jack Reacher novels cry out for a woman of Bigelow’s talent. She could make that character come to life and surprise a lot of people.

    But that’s just me being selfish of course … EVERYONE is going to want Bigelow after this film …
    Studio heads will be begging her to do movies …

    What a talent …

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