Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Revisited: Kathryn Bigelow Responds To Criticism That She Clearly Does Not Understand.

Recently I reviewed the film Zero Dark Thirty, which centers on the CIA's hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I was one of many reviewers who was frankly appalled by what I saw as the film's fairly obvious justification for the torture regime sanctioned during the Bush Administration, and the criticism of more mainstream like minded people has created something of a firestorm around the movie that the director Kathryn Bigelow has now responded to in a short essay in the LA Times. The link is here and I encourage you to read it before you keep reading this, as I will be referring back to it multiple times.

Bigelow's defense of her film in light of this controversy is essentially that people are unfairly conflating the artistic depiction of a morally reprehensible action with an endorsement of that action, in such a way that is potentially stifling to all stalwart crusaders of truth and justice such as herself from ever trying to deal with morally complex issues through art. The problem with this is that as far as I know, no one is criticizing her simply for showing torture generally, or saying that by showing it at all it is automatically endorsing the act. Rather, the charge is that the specific way in which Zero Dark Thirty depicts the act of torture and its connection to the larger investigation to find Bin Laden suggests that despite all evidence to the contrary, information gained through torture aided in that result, thus justifying the practice.

She's quick to set up her straw man, even going so far as to suggest a gross misalignment of priorities on the part of her critics that might even call into quetion their claimed abhorrance of torture. She writes "But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen." And yet I'm forced to wonder why, if she is a "lifelong pacifist" who "support(s) all protests against the use of torture" as she claims, why none of these sentiments actually showed up in the film. Many pro-torture sentiments show up, with characters continually lamenting Obama's ban of the torture program. The lead torturer practically quotes Donald Rumsfeld's "Unknown unknowns" BS at one point. Why not even one mention of the moral outrage these policies created among many involved at the time? Why was the other side who was ultimately proven correct both morally and tactically not represented?

Her argument is essentially predicated on the premise that her film is as close to the truth of the events as she could possibly ascertain, and yet there is no reference to the fact that torture doesn't actually work as an interrogation technique, at least in terms of attaining accurate information. That's the truth, and it is one we have known for centuries, and one that any interrogation expert worth his salt would have told her if she'd asked. She notes that "Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue," but nobody disagrees on this point except the war criminals responsible and those who apologize for them.

Guess where these can go.

Bigelow's statement of her own beliefs regarding the facts surrounding torture and its supposed intelligence link belie her complete lack of understanding, or perhaps willful ignorance of the claims against her film. She writes: "I think Osama Bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden, It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore." But that's the point. Its not that Zero Dark Thirty posits the existence of a torture regime, we all accept that as a fact. The problem is that the movie does in fact strongly suggest that torture was the key to finding Bin Laden, which we know it wasn't. If this was not her intention, than just say that. Point out where we are all misinterpreting a link that isn't there. She seems to be deliberately avoiding the crux of the issue, which suggests to me that she simply has no defense.

She concludes with the following: "Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation." The emphasis is her's and keep in mind, I don't know what other "moral lines" she could be talking about in this particular context other than torture, so I'm pretty sure she's calling the torturers heroes. The problem with this construction is that those who prosecuted Bush's war crimes, up to the former president himself, are not the same people who heroically used actual intelligence gathering techniques to find Bin Laden after torture predictably failed to do the job. The CIA spooks in the Black Site prisons and the Lindie Englands of the world are not to be conflated with the heroes of this story, like the Seal Team who risked their lives to catch a mass murderer.

Kathryn Bigelow evidently does not understand any of this. Or maybe she just refuses to acknowledge it because it means she just spent a lot of time and effort on a disgusting farce, and now wants to pass it off as art. Or journalism. Or the truth. Or something. To quote a much better film from last year about CIA follies in foreign countries that actually did grapple with the moral complexity of its subject matter (in the first five minutes no less) -

Argo Fuck Yourself! 

UPDATE: Two links of note that I found while perusing Andrew Sullivan's blog. The first, a piece by Steve Coll in The New York Review of Books that is as detailed and thought provoking a critique of the film as I've read, certainly more so than mine. Also, this video, from Sean freaking Hannity of all people.

All you good people who are defending this movie or making excuses for it against people like me, this is who you're hanging with. Breathe that in for a second.

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