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How should progressives look at the film Zero Dark Thirty, opening this week, and already causing some controversy and debate? First, I would suggest, remember that it's a movie. As a movie, it succeeds brilliantly. At the end, it takes you inside the raid on bin Laden's hideout in the incredibly super-realistic way that only a film can do. Before we get to that point, the film lays out a ten year history showing just how difficult it was to find and follow the trail that led to that hideout. So judge it as an example of the genre of detective story and thriller, topped off by a war movie style commando raid.

Second, what should be emphasized is that this story is a triumph of feminism. The hero is a woman CIA operative whose dogged focus on her target finally leads to success. Although the film takes some liberties with history for the sake of a good narrative, apparently this part of the story is essentially true. There was a woman at the center of the effort to hunt down bin Laden, and those who want to give credit to the male actors, whether you favor Bush-Cheney, or Obama, or Navy Seal Team 6, must also recognize the key role of a smart, stubborn female detective. And cheers to Mark Boal for a great script, to Kathryn Bigelow for her determination and skill in filming this story, and to Jessica Chastain for bringing this character to life.

What's unfortunate about the film--and perhaps not the film's fault--is that it is going to revive an ugly debate about the efficacy of torture in providing clues that ultimately led to finding bin Laden. For about the first half hour or so, we are treated to graphic depictions of the dark days of secret interrogations of detainees. The filmmakers decided to show these scenes in a neutral or "balanced" way, almost documentary style. But I would not be too quick to condemn the film because it includes scenes of torture. The CIA's brutal interrogation of detainees is after all, part of the history. And the audience is free to decide what to make of this depiction. If you are repulsed, disgusted, and horrified, that is certainly a legitimate reaction that the film allows you. On the other hand, if you see torture as a necessary evil, the movie lets you identify with CIA interrogators who seem to feel that way also. I suppose some members of the audience will even cheer the mistreatment of the bad guys, in this movie mostly focused on one particular mid-level Al Qaeda bad guy, if you believe that no punishment of the people who plotted the murder of Americans on September 11 can be too extreme.

The reason I say it's unfortunate that the movie will open up a new debate about torture, is that this debate is not likely to lead anywhere productive. Those who advocate torture will resort to the following logic: After being tortured, some of the detainees talked. Therefore torture was effective. They can point to scenes in the film that justify this logic. Those who are against torture will say that we would have gotten just as good or probably better information without needing to resort to torture. That side of the debate can also point to scenes in the film showing that bribery was more effective than torture, or that the NSA's advanced surveillance techniques were what really led us to the target. It's an unresolvable argument.

This stale debate doesn't resolve the real issue, because even if we were to grant that torture can sometimes be effective, it must still remain illegal. The civilized world has already made that decision and it is irrevocable. There's no debate about it. Nobody who is taking this question seriously is trying to remove the prohibitions against torture under international law, or set up a new legal code defining under what circumstances torture may or may not be used. Bush and Cheney did make an effort, relying on the Office of Legal Counsel, to redefine some of the harsh interrogation techniques they authorized, as not constituting torture. But the Bush administration eventually retracted those opinions itself, and they never tried to argue that anything that could be defined as torture should be legal. To the extent torture continues to occur, it therefore must remain a shadowy practice beyond the bounds of the law. To the extent the CIA engaged in torture, we must remain disgraced by that conduct, or at a minimum, have grave misgivings about it. It's not a record to be proud of.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks, looking forward to seeing it. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Film-buff friends say it is the best movie of the year.  And I thought Lincoln and Argo were already very strong in terms of Oscar contention.

    •  Jessica Chastain. Daniel Day-Lewis. (0+ / 0-)

      Mail in the Oscars.

      Geniuses, the both of them.

      And this "Lincoln" changes our perception of what he was like. "Team of Rivals" is first-rate and this makes the most of it.

      "We have nothing to apologize for." NRA 12/14/2012

      by bontemps2012 on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 10:34:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  obama has the senate report (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sharon Wraight

    and will hopefully declassify it ... but then again he's pretty centrist and a big lover of executive privelage and state secrets, so maybe we'll have to wait until after the drones stop flying or Manning gets pardoned =(

    The investigation is believed to conclude that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” practices did not glean significant intelligence information. In contention with the narrative depicted in new film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which has renewed the debate over the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin laden, the Senate report is believed to conclude that effective torture did not play a central role in finding the al-Qaida leader.
    Linky goodness

    We haven't met but you're a great fan of mine

    by Great Cthulhu on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:03:26 PM PST

  •  joe - I am eager to see the film (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It is a great story and I am very eager to see how the story was made into a film. I thought the "Hurt Locker" was exceptionally well done and showed extraordinary insight by the director. And I love the title of the new movie. It's so "inside baseball". Whenever we had a night operation the company commander or XO would say "we are saddling up at Zero Dark Thirty" and then give us the specific time in the middle of the night that we would be leaving. With our advantage in night vision technology much of the US military's offensive activity is done at night so I imagine the term is now used even more frequently.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:10:20 PM PST

  •  Wait, what? (7+ / 0-)

    The idea that torture led to detainees talking and us finding Bin Laden has been debunked numerous times. The film deliberately ignores that debunking, likely because the CIA was heavily involved in the production of this film. So now, due to the way that more people get their news about history from films than reading books, it looks like the CIA-approved version of history is what most Americans will believe. I can't believe anyone on this site would endorse that.

    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

    by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:14:19 PM PST

    •  Check your sources (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      NYTimes intelligence sources confirm that some info attained from a prisoner did have a minor impact on the search.
      And you really believe our gov't to confirm that? They'd want to keep it silent.
      You need to see the movie before deciding about it, right?
      One can nitpick aspects of any film version of real life events. You can do that with Shakespeare's histories for the rest of time. But the essential truths of this film are not remotely pro-torture.
      There are other aspects of the story and structure that I won't spoil, but Bigelow and Boal were accutely where they weren't making a heroic story.

      •  *minor impact* (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        No Exit, Lady Libertine, joanneleon

        I have read numerous reviews for this film, and even the glowing reviews have admitted that this film implies that torture was vital to finding Bin Laden. It does not matter whether or not it is portrayed as heroic. If all you do is imply that torture is the primary reason we got Bin Laden, the majority of Americans will think that torture should be allowed.

        The truth is, we found out from the CIA itself that the real break we got that led to us finding Bin Laden, the name of his courier, was gotten from someone who was NOT tortured. Is that in the film?

        I actually do plan on seeing it, though I don't want to. It's exhausting watching propaganda.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:41:49 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Jane Mayer had this to say about the film; (6+ / 0-)
          In [Bigelow's] 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. . . .

          "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 CIA'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. . . .

          "In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, 'Zero Dark Thirty' endorses torture in several other subtle ways. . . . .

          "If there is an expectation of accuracy, it is set up by the filmmakers themselves. It seems they want it both ways: they want the thrill that comes from revealing what happened behind the scenes as history was being made and the creative license of fiction, which frees them from the responsibility to stick to the truth."

          Link to Mayer's review

          GG cuts to the chase;

          There is zero opposition expressed to torture. None of the internal objections from the FBI or even CIA is mentioned. The only hint of a debate comes when Obama is shown briefly on television decreeing that torture must not be used, which is later followed by one of the CIA officials - now hot on bin Laden's trail - lamenting in the Situation Room when told to find proof that bin Laden has been found: "You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program - who the hell am I supposed to ask: some guy in GITMO who is all lawyered up?" Nobody ever contests or challenges that view.

          This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that - whether intended or not - is the film's glorification of torture.

          And this;
          In the Atlantic this morning, Peter Maass makes this point perfectly in his piece entitled "Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty'". That, he writes, is because "it represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking." He continues: "An already problematic practice - giving special access to vetted journalists - is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA)."

          A standing army is like a standing member. It's an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure. Elbridge Gerry - Constitutional Convention (1787)

          by No Exit on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 05:02:03 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yes exactly (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            No Exit, Garrett, joanneleon, bontemps2012

            The film doesn't have to say torture is awesome to make Americans think it's necessary sometimes.

            However, I would disagree with Peter Maass slightly. Government involvement in Hollywood goes back to the very beginning of Hollywood.

            Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

            by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 05:05:38 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  You are so wrong (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          The movie doesn't REMOTELY suggest that the primary reason we got OBL is because of torture.

          It shows the opposite.

          It shows the other failures of torture.

          It shows how horrible it is - it rubs the audience's faces in it.

          There is a purposeful disinformation campaign going on about this film by people for different reasons, some ideological, some for other reasons.

          I've seen the movie. I am ashamed of the torture our country has done. I wouldn't endorse it if it endorsed or encouraged torture.

          Don't believe all the nonsense out there.

          •  Wow (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            So you are saying that the dozens of film reviews which have stated that the film explicitly shows that torture is how we found out the information about the courier are lying? Does the film suggest that we got that information without torture? Are saying that that dozens of people, many who have described certain scenes in detail, are lying?

            As I have already stated, I am planning on going to see this film. I don't just blindly ignore propaganda. However, you are calling far more than me a liar.

            And you seem to keep ignoring how I have explicitly stated that I know that the film depicts torture as terrible, yet ignoring the fact that if the film shows that torture worked, that it led us to the courier, then the majority of Americans who see this film will think torture awful but sometimes necessary.

            Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

            by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 06:49:47 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Please reread my post (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              the movie does NOT say that the primary reason we caught OBL was because of torture
              the movie says it was there, but not the primary reason
              I've read most of the film critics' reviews (by critics who are overwhelmingly progressives and nearly unanimously love the film) - and they say the say thing I do - it contributed, it was not the main reason.

              And sources quotes by the NYTimes and elsewhere confirmed torture-related info did aid somewhat.

              The film doesn't celebrate this; it shows it in the course of showing how awful torture is and how ineffective it usually is.

              There is going to be such a backlash to these reports when people actually see the movie - the misrepresentations have been disgusting.

              Get back to me after you see, please.

              •  You still haven't answered my question (0+ / 0-)

                Does the information about the courier come as a result of torture in the film?

                Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

                by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 09:15:10 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Indirectly (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  it comes after the torture has stopped, and Maya is having lunch with him at a picnic table, the prisoner unshackled.

                  But I despise the idea - the anti-intellectual, knee-jerk, afraid of the truth notions swiring around so many places that if Mark Boal, the screenwriter, a very accomplished journalist earlier, would include deliberately false information. It is far more likely that the present US administration and the Leon Panetta CIA would never, ever admit that information somewhat related to torture would lead to the capture.

                  But how realistic is that? Torture is evil. It is also usually ineffective. But it is the height of absurdity to think it never, ever leads to information.

                  The film, again VERY clearly shows both the inhumanity and mostly inefficacy of torture. It isn't a polemic. It is a work of art (because yes, American studio films can be works of art). But it is also going to be the single biggest factor in making Americans know what was done in their name, that the raid was tainted, the torture is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not every audience is going to get the same response - people react to art different ways, and subtlety will be lost on some people right and left.

                  It is a very sad movie. To spoil further, the raid includes collatoral damage that will give thoughtful viewers pause. It is not celebratory.

                  Again, see the movie yourself. Don't believe me - see it. But also don't believe what you are hearing anymore than you believe me. Because most of it is misleading and misrepresentative.

                  •  So...yes (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:

                    Yes, it does come as a result of torture. They tortured the guy, and he eventually broke. Just because they were not torturing him in that instant does not mean that the torture was ineffective. That's the whole point. You torture them, and then you take the torture away and hope they give up the info.

                    And all of this despite the fact that the guy who gave up the information in reality was never even interrogated by the CIA. Not once. He was never tortured.

                    And I cannot believe that you would argue that journalists, particularly journalists who spent time embedded with troops, should be trusted more than a government official. I am not saying one is better than the other, but I would have thought by now that Americans had learned to be more cynical about journalists.

                    And the reasoning behind why torture does not work is not that torture will never, ever give you accurate information. It is that torture is always highly unlikely to do so. It is far more likely that the information you get is wrong, and you then waste valuable time and resources on a wild goose chase, or that the person dies without telling you anything. Spoiler alert: That's how we got into the Iraq War.

                    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

                    by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 09:44:39 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  See the movie (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:

                      Andrew Sullivan, who is passionate about torture, who thinks Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are war criminals, bought the BS about the movie sight unseen.
                      He wrote a couple columns citing what other people said, titled Kathryn Bigelow, Torture Apologist?

                      What did Sony do?

                      They offered to screen the movie for him.

                      His reaction?

                      An endorsement of the gist and thrust of the movie, under the heading, Kathryn Bigelow, NOT a torture apologist.

                      Sony isn't going to set up a screening for you. But can I ask you to withhold judgment until you see it?

                      Doing it the other way is what the Bill O'Reillys of the world do. I assume you are better than that.

                      The movie is NOT a documentary. Narrative film on historical topics - narrative plays (see under Shakespeare) are never held accountable for using narrative devices that aren't 100% accurate - the key is to get the big picture, the thrust of the story.

                      There will never be a single better vehicle for bringing those responsible for torture to justice, to at least get an accounting for what was done, than this movie if it is a success.

                      Stop fighting it. The movie helps those of us who want justice. It may not get it, better it is better than anything else that is available.

                      And beyond that, it is an amazing movie otherwise.

                      To go back to the beginning - don't believe, but don't believe anyone else.

                      See the movie.

          •  A lot of (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            very credible people disagree strongly with you.  

            You are pitching the same line that Spencer Ackerman is pitching and he's been overruled, by a mile.

            "Justice is a commodity"

            by joanneleon on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 07:23:22 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  Check the Senate intelligence committee (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Garrett, bontemps2012

        No, torture did not have any positive impact on finding bin Laden and in fact may have hindered.

        You need to check your sources.

        "Justice is a commodity"

        by joanneleon on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 07:20:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Have you seen it? I know (0+ / 0-)

      Andrew Sullivan had the same objections, but changed his mind about it being torture apologism after he saw the film:

      Personally, I don't know, haven't seen it, won't see it, cannot stand torture scenes no matter how good the rest of the movie might be.

    •  what most Americans believe (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      What we know about Americans is that they will believe what they want regardless of the facts. Lots of them believed the Hollywood version that the North Vietnamese were still holding prisoners of war decades after the Vietnam war ended. And lots are going to believe that torture was useful in capturing bin Laden regardless of what any film says. For one reason, because a lot of people won't want to give the Obama administration credit no matter what. The point is that this film doesn't endorse one view or the other, but it does provide fodder for both. And I can understand people thinking it is reprehensible even to present a "balanced" view of the issue, because the evidence does seem to suggest that we got little of value by torturing detainees.

      What I'm suggesting is that this whole debate about whether torture "works" or not doesn't get us very far, because even if torturing a detainee gave us the location of a bomb that was about to kill thousands of people, we still can never legalize torture. It really doesn't matter whether torture is effective or not.  The reasons we don't torture go way beyond whether torture is effective or not.

      •  What are you talking about? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Garrett, joanneleon, kaliope

        First of all, all evidence shows that the majority of people believe what they see in films. I am not just talking about people alive today. In fact, I am hardly thinking about them at all. This film will be around for decades. What about kids who are not yet born who will see this in a few decades?

        Second, I am not talking about a "balanced" view. My problem is not with the fact that torture is shown in the film. We all know that is absolutely accurate. The problem I have is that the film implies that it was torture which primarily led us to finding Bin Laden. It might not endorse that method, but if the film implies that torture worked in finding Bin Laden, something the vast majority of Americans wanted, then most Americans will come away thinking torture might be terrible but sometimes necessary. That is not "balanced." That is just plain inaccurate. I have serious issues with that since, as stated, most people believe what they see in films.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 05:02:33 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  If torture worked, would you be for it? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          It is a trap even to get into a debate about whether we learned anything useful by torture. It shouldn't matter whether we did or not. We should still be horrified by torture, and it must remain illegal, regardless of whether or not it is effective.

          Still, I respect the people who have pointed out, backed up by a lot of evidence, that we didn't get a lot of useful information by torture, and we got a lot of wrong information that way also. Jane Mayer's book is tremendous, and everyone should read it. And the people who defend torture don't have much evidence on their side.

          •  Isn't that circular logic? (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            There's no proof it ever leads to anything important. So to just say the argument should be on morality alone, rather than effectiveness, ignores the fact that those standing against torture have both on their side, which is a far stronger argument.

            Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

            by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 06:43:34 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  What standards of proof? (0+ / 0-)

              You are proving my point, which is that this is an unwinnable argument. The defenders of torture will always have examples where they can show that people subjected to torture have confessed to all kinds of things. From the Spanish Inquisition to Turkish prisons to Soviet gulags to American criminal justice before Miranda, we can find many, many examples of confessions procured by torture. So torture clearly "works," according to its defenders.

              On the other hand, the opponents of torture will, regardless of how many confessions have been procured by torture, always be able to say that all these confessions are unreliable, and that we would have obtained just as good or better information by other means. So torture clearly never leads to anything important, as you firmly believe. And I tend to agree with you.

              But we will never be able to convince the supporters of torture of that position, because they have centuries of confessions on their side. So to me it seems like a much stronger argument to say that we must oppose torture regardless of whether or not it is effective, and we have the burden of explaining why.

          •  The thing is, (4+ / 0-)

            more than just having torture be illegal, the illegality of torture needs to be enforced.

            And the basic situation we have in this country now, is that laws against torture aren't enforced.

        •  I agree again, moviemeister76. But... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Garrett, moviemeister76

          Where I agree:

          First of all, all evidence shows that the majority of people believe what they see in films. I am not just talking about people alive today. In fact, I am hardly thinking about them at all. This film will be around for decades. What about kids who are not yet born who will see this in a few decades?
          But the film makers cannot take back the movie. You can argue all you like that the film should never have been made because the public now and in future are likely to believe torture worked in this specific case, but it's already out there, false premise and all.

          Viewing "fake" torture is just like viewing real torture. It's pornography of a horrific sort, in my opinion. I'm really not sure I want to give money to this kind of movie outfit, and I probably won't go see it, just as I have not seen Hurt Locker.

          •  I absolutely agree (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Garrett, bontemps2012

            The die has been cast. I am just horrified that people on this site are defending it.

            I really don't want to see it. I usually have a "no torture" code when it comes to films because I am well aware of the effect it has on the human psyche.

            However, I feel that in this case, I need to see it. Glenn Greenwald's criticisms of the film got exponentially better after he actually saw it.

            Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

            by moviemeister76 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 08:15:39 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Exactly, there's no debate: torture is ineffective (4+ / 0-)

      and wrong. Period.

      (The 'ticking-bomb' is fiction.)

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