By David Poland email@example.com
Jane Mayer vs Zero Dark Thirty
I really don’t want to go through every line of Jane Mayer’s inflammatory, inaccurate piece on ZD30. But it’s much like the many other flavors of inaccuracy and overhype we are seeing in many “thinking” outlets regarding the film. So I will.
“At the same time that the European Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling condemning the C.I.A.’s treatment of a terror suspect during the Bush years as “torture,” a Hollywood movie about the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty—whose creators say that they didn’t want to “judge” the interrogation program—appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?”
1. Is the ruling that torture occurred not in direct step with the first moments of the film?
2. Who said this was meant to be neutral? What has been said is that the filmmaking is meant to be neutral, not the experience, aka “the entertainment.”
“Zero Dark Thirty, which opens across the country next month, is a pulse-quickening film that spends its first half hour or so depicting a fictionalized version of the Bush Administration’s secret U.S. interrogation program. In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government. The debate echoed the moral seriousness of the political dilemma once posed by slavery, a subject that is brilliantly evoked in Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln; by contrast, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.”
1. So what does the FBI’s position on torture have to do with this film? (Apparent answer: She expects a film that includes torture to be about torture. ZD30 is not about torture.)
2. Lincoln? Huh? Lincoln is an excellent movie about an important debate coming to a head. ZD30 is not about the debate over torture or any real debate at all. It is about events, which are not debated on moral grounds, but on tactical ones… as they tend to be in real life.
3. The slap mocking that if Bigelow “were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.” Oh, bullshit. 100% lazy and cheap. It’s unlikely that it would be a film set in Congress where words, not action, rule the day. But my guess would be that the Bigelow slave-era movie would be about some group of blacks and white supporters who fought back.
“…by ignoring the full weight of the dark history of torture, her work falls disturbingly short.”
Well, that’s the whole thing in a nutshell, no? Jane Mayer wanted to see a different film… nothing remotely like ZD30… nothing that could be “fixed” by even significant changes to the screenplay. She’s taking charge of the idea of a bin Laden film and turning it into a Frontline episode, because that is what she wants, it seems, ANY discussion of torture by the US to be.
“It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned…”
There is not a single scene of debate about the value and/or effectiveness of torture. But torture is question by behavior (Mayer will mock this later) and by the primary torturer, who is having some form of post-traumatic stress from doing this work and repeatedly in the film by clear arguments that much of the torture leads to worthless information—including the failure of the specific torture shown in the film to get the information they are trying to retrieve—or information coming out of torture sessions going back to “the terrorists” via lawyers.
If the argument is that ZD30 says they get critical info via torture, shouldn’t there be an acknowledgement that the torture in question fails completely before a nugget of information—which is not the focus of their interrogation—starts the ball rolling towards the courier?
“…even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.”
Interest? I think it reflected through the film. But even if not, this is not a movie about human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers or even internal discussions about the morality or effectiveness of torture within government offices.
“In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.”
So let’s understand the complaint. Mayer claims this confinement box was only used once, apparently. And again… this was not a movie about the debate about torture. Nor is a movie about the debate about whether they should have aimed at bin Laden’s legs instead of his head. Nor is it about how stupid it was for the military to allow a car onto its compound without searching it, regardless of whether the information being chased might be lost.
Did Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal need to make a 10-hour miniseries for HBO be considered worthy of showing CIA-based torture in any way? It seems they have a lot of after-the-fact producers coming aboard.
“The lone anti-torture voice shown in the film is a split-second news clip of President Barack Obama, taken from a “60 Minutes” interview, in which he condemns torture. It flashes on a television screen that’s in the background of a scene set in Pakistan; the movie’s terrorist-hunters, who are holding a meeting, barely look up, letting Obama’s pronouncement pass without comment.”
The change in tactics and rules that Obama’s presidency will bring is discussed, not in the context of policy or morality, but in the functional reality of the lives of the characters/people in the film… just like real life.
““By this point in the film,” as the CNN national-security analyst Peter Bergen wrote recently, “the audience has already seen that the C.I.A. has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama’s opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.”
This is one of the more idiotic comments in this piece. It’s not Mayer’s. But at that point, about 25 minutes into the film, you think the film is heavily invested in the “big win” of torture and are aching for more torture, you are not really watching the movie, but obsessing on your personal agenda.
It would be easy to argue that the matter-of-fact way to which the Obama interview is responded to is offensive in some way. It doesn’t spark a moral discussion. There is a new boss in the office and there will be no more 30-minute coffee breaks or $100 lunches paid for by the company. You don’t like that the film sees the CIA that way? Ok. Not sure how that jibes with the spin that this is all an ad for the CIA, but at least that’s an honest argument.
“Yet what is so unsettling about Zero Dark Thirty is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”
I hate to be all Clinton-y on this, but the guy who is being tortured in the film does not give the CIA the name of the facilitator/courier. The scrap of information he does give is only that the person exists and without a useable name.
There is an inherent idiocy about writing in the idea that Boal ever “excis(ed) the moral debate.” He didn’t include it. Very, very different. Boal didn’t write a movie about the moral debate and even though Ms. Mayer would prefer that film, not putting in the part she wanted is not a act of falsification, any more than not including Sueprman’s father on Krypton in a Superman film is falsifying Superman.
Mayer continues to list somewhat vague comments from politicians that are not specific about the film – since they haven’t seen it – before landing on Lindsey Graham, who says, “I would argue that it’s not waterboarding that led to bin Laden’s demise. It was a lot of good intelligence-gathering from the Obama and Bush administrations, continuity of effort, holding people at Gitmo, putting the puzzle together over a long period of time—not torture.”
Gee… the movie says exactly the same thing. It never argues that waterboarding led directly to bin Laden’s demise. But torture is such a hot button issue that one scrap of info that was not being pursued by the interrogators until one of them had an idea about the courier, which leads to 30+ additional pieces of intel slowly gathered over years, until they finally find the person she started thinking about that day… that has now been reduced to “weatherboarding led directly to bin Laden’s death.” It’s stretching credulity. Did my first look at my wife’s smile the first time I saw her across a room lead to my 3-year-old son? Yes. Sure. But was it the lynchpin or an important moment in our history? No. Four or five days of smiles later, maybe you can make the argument. But it’s still rather dismissive of the reality of how a relationship develops and leads to something solid and permanent.
“As Scott Shane wrote in the Times on Thursday, so little is publicly known about the C.I.A.’s erstwhile interrogation program that it is nearly impossible for outsiders to assess the facts with total confidence.”
And yet, we are seeing a lot of journalists writing in black & white terms who seem to feel they know everything there is to know about it.
“But for the past three years, Democratic staffers at the Senate Intelligence Committee have been compiling six thousand pages of records related to the secret program, and in doing so they have found little to celebrate. It is hard to understand, then, why the creators of Zero Dark Thirty so confidently credit the program.”
Who is f-ing celebrating interrogation? Not the movie. Not its makers.
“n addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture in several other subtle ways. At one point, the film’s chief C.I.A. interrogator claims, without being challenged, that “everyone breaks in the end,” adding, “it’s biology.” Maybe that’s what they think in Hollywood, but experts on the history of torture disagree. Indeed, many prisoners have been tortured to death without ever revealing secrets, while many others—including some of those who were brutalized during the Bush years—have fabricated disinformation while being tortured. Some of the disinformation provided under duress during those years, in fact, helped to lead the U.S. into the war in Iraq under false premises.”
Another show that Mayer was watching something in her head and not this movie. The interrogator says this TO THE GUY HE’S TORTURING. He’s not debating the effectiveness of torture at Harvard.
Mayer then proceeds to discount the other forms of intelligence gathering because they are not impactful enough for her tastes. Thanks for the notes. Could you take a look at Sandler’s next movie?
“The filmmakers subtly put their thumb on the pro-torture scale, as Emily Bazelon put it, in another scene, too. A C.I.A. officer complains that there is no way for him to corroborate a lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts now that the detainees in Guantánamo all have lawyers. The suggestion is that if they are given due process rather than black eyes, there will be no way to get the necessary evidence. This is a canard, given that virtually all suspects in the American criminal-justice system have lawyers, yet their cases proceed smoothly and fairly every day.”
What he says, quite clearly, is that the problem is that the lawyers of the detainees will send the information about what it being asked back to al-Qaeda. It’s not a question of due process. It’s a question of function. And one that makes perfect sense. If you show your cards to someone with a way to get the info back to your target, your target has been warned. Is this confusing in some way? Controversial?
“Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the entertainment industry to convey history accurately.”
Having read this opinion piece, I am still seeing only one actual claim of inaccuracy. So how about laying off the condescension? She thinks torture leads to bin Laden in some tangible way. I don’t see the movie saying that.
“Knowing the real facts—the ones that led the European Court of Human Rights to condemn America for torture this week—I had trouble enjoying the movie.”
Again… irrelevant to this film, as opposed to your personal focus. You are welcome to your personal focus, but to attack this film for its perspective, which is not the one you want, is certainly not journalism… or even intelligent argument.
“I’ve interviewed Khaled El-Masri, the German citizen whose suit the E.C.H.R. adjudicated. He turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, an innocent car salesman whom the C.I.A. kidnapped and held in a black-site prison for four months, and who was “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled, and hooded.” What Masri lived through was so harrowing that, when I had a cup of coffee with him, a few years ago, he couldn’t describe it to me without crying. Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of Zero Dark Thirty should care a little bit more.”
I guess when Bigelow & Boal make the Khaled El-Masri story, they should call you for advice. I don’t think you care to much… but you have zero objectivity, seeing every single thing in the film through a prism that demands you see the movie YOU would make. And about that, neither Bigelow, Boal nor anyone who is not your close friend should care a little bit more or at all.