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History is about to repeat itself, and for the first time in a long time, the American people don’t have anything to worry about. Three years ago, a vast majority of film aficionados were adamantly certain that James Cameron’s Avatar was going to win Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, despite the film’s heavy reliance on special effects, an embarrassingly in-your-face advertising campaign, and a general lack of artistic originality. Then voters had a chance to see The Hurt Locker—far and away the best film of 2009—and James Cameron was forced to watch his ex-wife take home the two most prominent awards of the night. This year, James Cameron is not a contender, but neither was Kathryn Bigelow—until Zero Dark Thirty started screening. Bigelow captures the CIA’s post-9/11 pursuit of Osama bin Laden with a level of apparent accuracy hardly seen outside of Steven Spielberg’s period pieces—complete with a reenactment of the Seal Team Six raid in Abbottabad that can only be compared to Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach open.

The audio from 9/11 provides an appropriately sober opening, and the audience’s first encounter with the two CIA agents—Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) responsible for the majority of Zero Dark Thirty’s plot is as informative as possible without drifting into on-the-nose territory. It is in the subtleties of Dan and Maya’s emotions—aggression, conflict, certainty, regret—that a mile-wide line is drawn in the sand, separating ZDT from every other film and television show claiming to present a realistic picture of America’s national security (see Homeland). Chastain and Clarke remove all available hyperbole from their characters, making it increasingly difficult not to snicker when presented with over-the-top protagonists like Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. Seven minutes in, the heat gets turned up when Dan asks Maya for a pitcher of water and forces viewers to witness the interrogation techniques US interrogators used—and still use—to extract information from high-value targets. Those who seek to accuse Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow of unequivocally appeasing enhanced interrogation techniques need only keep watching for another fifteen minutes, at which time they are treated to the other side of the torture coin—the side where detainees divulge useless or incorrect information just to make the pain stop. Ineffective as it may be at times, though, there’s no sense in denying—on film or in the historical record—the critical role torture played in the hunt for bin Laden. Additionally, the success of Dan and Maya’s violent back-and-forth with detained al-Qaeda operatives seems to rely as much on basic deception as it does enhanced interrogation techniques. If taken as a statement about the use of torture in pursuit of vital intelligence, the film doesn’t quite deliver the partisan punch many shortsighted individuals have insisted it does. There is no implication that “torture worked” any more than there is a suggestion that bin Laden could have only been caught by a woman.

The film’s only weak point is a lack of explanation regarding how much time each step of the hunt took. Dan and Maya help familiarize us with the tone and techniques involved with information extraction, but the audience receives only hints about the amount of time it takes to “break” a detainee. Any audience member not prepared to act as a diligent student of modern history is sure to have difficulty following the film’s plot, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and the same can certainly be said about Boal and Bigelow’s military masterpiece, The Hurt Locker. Had they simplified the story—or watered down its less overtly admirable aspects—to increase its universal appeal, it would have been regarded as a terrible injustice not just by realists, but by everyone with an emotional attachment to the subject matter.

Even the factual inaccuracies (most prominently, Seal Team Six wearing camouflage uniforms with American flags on them) serve only to prevent the audience from misinterpreting critical bits of information. In truth, the men who stormed bin Laden’s compound would hardly be distinguishable from mercenaries—all black uniforms with no markings. It seems likely that the filmmakers’ choice to fudge this detail was an effort to clarify the point that bin Laden was killed by American servicemen, not private contractors or hired guns.

Long story short—just about every complaint about Zero Dark Thirty is utter partisan nonsense. Boal and Bigelow glorify torture no more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln glorifies political corruption—the President’s most powerful weapon in guaranteeing passage of the 13th Amendment. The presentation of aIn a few months, Kathryn Bigelow will most likely have two more Oscar statuettes on her mantle, Mark Boal will have his second, and Jessica Chastain will have her first (should the tenets of civil service prevail, so will Jason Clarke).

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Comment Preferences

  •  Movies are first and foremost (5+ / 0-)

    about entertainment. If this movie can keep me rapt for two hours then I'll give it a thumbs up. I am against torture in the real world, but in a movie it's fine with me as long as the story makes sense. I like the Jason Bourne movies even though I'd be against it if we actually had a Project Treadstone consisting of programmed CIA assassins.

  •  I haven't seen it, but thanks for your review. nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I share a birthday with John Lennon and Bo Obama.

    by peacestpete on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 05:06:38 PM PST

  •  Not only what you point out, but the (6+ / 0-)

    victims of torture are depicted with enormous compassion.

    No, there's no suggestion that torture is what got the information out of them.  

    The biggest problem the picture has is that we all know the outcome of the raid.  That, and the fact that the last shot is milked for far too long.

    Not much, in the long run.  Don't think it'll beat Lincoln (nor should it, in my book), but it's an outstanding film.  Not as much depth of character as The Hurt Locker, but that was specifically a character study.  This is a record of history.

    "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

    by Yasuragi on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 05:24:21 PM PST

    •  a formula for success (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Yasuragi, brooklyns finest
      The biggest problem the picture has is that we all know the outcome of the raid.  That, and the fact that the last shot is milked for far too long.
      Ironically, speaking of James Cameron not winning an Oscar for Avatar, he did win best picture and best director for Titanic.  If ever there was a movie where we all knew the ending before we walked into the theater, and if ever a well-foreseen catastrophe was milked for far too long (what, something like 3 1/2 hours running time?), well, apparently that's not a fatal flaw.

      "They let 'em vote, smoke, and drive -- even put 'em in pants! So what do you get? A -- a Democrat for President!" ~ Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

      by craiger on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 11:49:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  thanks for post (0+ / 0-)

    enjoyed the piece
    appreciated the take and info

    People who say they don't care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don't care what people think. -George Carlin

    by downtownLALife on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 05:27:04 PM PST

  •  A request for clarification (4+ / 0-)

    On the one hand, you say,

    there’s no sense in denying—on film or in the historical record—the critical role torture played in the hunt for bin Laden.
    But on the other hand, you say,
    There is no implication that “torture worked”.
    Help me out here.  Why isn't that a contradiction?
    •  may have overstated in the former example, but (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the point is that we used enhanced interrogation techniques (much in the way abe lincoln used cronyism) to achieve an outcome, and an accurate portrayal of those events (like ZDT or Lincoln) doesn't endorse these actions simply by presenting them. Similarly, Quentin Tarantino did not endorse the N-word by having his 19th century Mississippi characters use it liberally. Torture played a critical role in the hunt--we tortured a lot of people, many times. But nowhere in the film is the implication drawn that it would have been impossible to catch bin laden without waterboarding his associates.

      torture doesn't appear to have worked any faster or better than any other techniques would have--though there is no way to verify this. still, that's the technique we used, and there's no point in denying this.

      "It is a sin to write this."

      by Ryan Brooke on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 06:19:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Perhaps you misunderstand (4+ / 0-)

        the meaning of the word critical.

        I think this is what you're thinking of...

        4. Forming or having the nature of a turning point; crucial or decisive: a critical point in the campaign.

        No.  It wasn't critical.  The right word was gratuitous.

      •  What critical role? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        teacherken, Mindful Nature, alain2112

        Please explain to me how torture played a critical role in getting bin Laden.

        Have you missed the statements from the intelligence committee?  From the head of the CIA?

        Torture did not provide any of the information that led to finding bin Laden.  Interrogation without torture did.  In fact, torture, according to the experts, may have lengthened the process.

        But the movie has an agenda -- to make viewers think that torture played a critical role when it did not.  So this diary shows that it fulfills its propaganda role in deceiving the people who watch it and in that way elevating the importance of a vile thing like torture.  

        Bravo.  Now imho the best thing you could do is to go and read some more of the accurate reviews of this movie and then read the statements from acting director Morrell and from the Senate Intelligence Committee (who have a thousands of pages report on the torture) and then update this diary with some actual facts about the role of torture in finding bin Laden.

        I really wanted to HR the tip jar of this diary for the ignorance and role it plays in furthering the propaganda that promotes and glorifies torture, but figured I'd leave this comment first and see if the diarist has the decency to updated it with accurate factual information and not just bullshit opinion about how the protest about the torture is just partisan bullshit.  By the diarist's logic, this diary is just propaganda bullshit and for that matter some of the most vile, dangerous kind of propaganda there is -- leading the American people to think that this movie is based on real events and then leading people to think that torture led to the courier and ultimately finding bin Laden, ALL of which is a lie, just a fucking lie.  

        "Justice is a commodity"

        by joanneleon on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 04:50:12 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  considering the cia didn't even have all the info- (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          it's odd that you trust their statements.

          again, that is the partisan trash boal and bigelow avoided participating in. ZDT defends torture no more than lincoln defends presidential corruption, or django defends slavery

          some people are just afraid to admit they're wrong

          "It is a sin to write this."

          by Ryan Brooke on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 06:04:52 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Joanneleon, the movie has no such agenda. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ryan Brooke

          You are, oddly, arguing for the State here, which has called for the censorship of the film! Why do you think the State wants to censor this film? What use is it to them: this entire discourse about the film supposedly being pro-torture (when, objectively, it is not)? Do you think, perhaps, that the State is using that discourse to deflect from and repress the actual history of torture the film exposes (and, ultimately, critiques).

    •  Yeah, I was ready to highlight (10+ / 0-)

      that same quote.

      Ineffective as it may be at times, though, there’s no sense in denying—on film or in the historical record—the critical role torture played in the hunt for bin Laden.
      I'm sorry, but I'm not going to waste my time on this film.  Torture had no real role in the search for Osama bin Laden.  If you want to know why it took so long to find him, it wasn't because they didn't torture people.  It's because the jackass in the flight suit ordered soldiers out of Tora Bora so they could go one a wild goose chase in Iraq that lasted ten years.  

      Films like this are being used by those on the right to say, "See, we had to be badasses to get Osama Bin Laden."  It conflates the over the top gratuitous war crimes of the Bush administration with the following Democratic administration's doggedness in hunting him down and cutting out the bullshit.  In failing to make that distinction, it's a big pile of fail and I'll have no part in rewriting that part of history to make the war criminals in the CIA feel better about what they did.

      •  and that's the sort of partisan trash... (0+ / 0-)

        this film avoided delving into, despite the overtly liberal leanings of the filmmakers

        "It is a sin to write this."

        by Ryan Brooke on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 08:05:39 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Hey Dumbo, the film does not say torture lead to (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        brooklyns finest

        Bin Laden, despite what you have heard, nowhere does the film show or indicate that as a "fact" or does it support it.

        The film does show that we tortured people in horrible ways and the way those scenes are filmed is meant to implicate the audience in that torture (because, you know, we, as a nation, fucking did torture people in the "war on terror").

        There is NOTHING gratuitous in these scenes and the torture is presented (cinematically) in ways that make it clear it is not condoned and is horrific.

        The problem is that "pundits" who have no idea what the language of cinema is or how it works have focused on aspects of the "narrative" of the film and, in turn, jumped to conclusions about the perspective of the filmmakers.

        Bigelow does not make films that tell her audience what to think. Rather, she trusts that the audience will do "their" work and be smart and process these scenes (and their own implication in the historical torture that took place, which is being documented in a narrative film for this purpose).

        In short, what you have heard from Greenwald and Wolf is an awful lot of hooey (and, in the case of Wolf, embarrassing and offensive because her ignorance and stupidity lead her to call Bigelow a Nazi).

        Bigelow is a Democrat who, during the same time as the torture scenes depicted in the film, gave money to the Kerry campaign and the DNC (and given Bigelow's work, one can safely presume with the hope that these tactics depicted in the film would be stopped).

        What you have heard about the film is just wrong and misleading. I strongly suggest you seek out other takes on the film from those who are familiar with Bigelow's work and its contexts.

        •  You know, last night, I was on here (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          alain2112, sponson

          defending the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the week before defending (for the umpteenth time) the novels of Ayn Rand, the music of Richard Wagner, the comics of Frank Miller.  I can be cool with all that.  

          I do that because you should be able to distinguish between the art and the artist.

          But this is too damn soon.  And the ACTUAL politics of the filmmaker are irrelevant, just as they are irrelevant in the case of judging any of those other works I mentioned.  

          The thing is, it presents America's torture of prisoners as part of the process by which Osama Bin Laden was captured, and although it tried to weasel through the controversy enough so people could have it both ways (Abu Zubaydah reveals his info after the torture stops, for instance), I won't grant it even that much weasel room.  

          If you want to spend your money that way, fine.  But I want nothing to do with that crap.

          Some day Americans will again be tortured by a foreign government as they were at the Hanoi Hilton and all that shit in that movie is going to be one of the templates that they will do it by.  They'll say, "American soldier, everything we're going to do to you, we learned watching American action flicks."

          •  This is not what the film is about. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Ryan Brooke

            I've read your work. you're a smart person. I think you can dig a bit more here and not get taken in by what is ultimately a reactionary and thoughtless response to the film being pushed by certain people for their own reasons.

            Since I just shared this with a friend, I'll copy it here. It's from Larry Gross' piece, "Some Ways Into Zero Dark Thirty" in Film Comment:

            There are no liberal bromides condemning the moral or ideological wrongs of the War on Terror in Zero Dark Thirty, and neither is there a shred of confirming feel-good affirmation about the morally justified or purportedly inevitable victory of the American cause. Such banalities of either ideological stripe would be wholly out of keeping with the film’s fascinated, dedicated, immersive closeness to phenomena, events, atmospheres, to the things themselves. The film is in love with the details of what it is disclosing; Zero Dark Thirty shows but refuses to tell.

            And yet it is not, therefore, finally or entirely ideologically neutral, some superhuman expression of pure objectivity, whatever that would be, despite Bigelow and Boal’s disclaimers and perhaps even their wishes. Both are of the conviction that trying their best to show how things actually happen, comes closer to getting at the truth of our decade-long Middle Eastern adventures than dramatizing arguments for and against the policy. It’s easier on an audience to tell them what they ought to think and believe, but the complexity of reality suffers in the process. Zero Dark Thirty shows but refuse to tell. It gives us all the available intel about the prosecution of the War on Terror, leaving it to us to discover, intuit, and reckon with the agonizing impossibility of maintaining some easy and moral ideological superiority to our enemy, or even any conclusive definite knowledge of where our actions are leading us. In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty quite starkly reveals the ultimate futility of our policies precisely by resolving to show and not tell.

            The Hurt Locker, if you recall, never pronounced upon or directly stated the wrongness of our presence in Iraq. It simply dispassionately displayed the insoluble discontinuity between the narrowly defined precision and bravery of its warrior-hero, and the unknowable unmanageable moral chaos of day-to-day conditions on the ground. This is not a humanist moral or ideological condemnation of American wrong doing, but a rigorous elucidation of an inescapable and tragic condition of illusion and error.

            Zero Dark Thirty reiterates the presentation of this discontinuity on an epic scale. It doesn’t moralistically condemn policies and those who enact them, so that we can feel smug liberal superiority, it simply displays the practices and the policy for what they are. If we can’t infer the catastrophes that have been—and probably will continue to be—the result (see today’s front page re: Syria) the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.

            •  Having read that, I don't feel (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              more impressed with it.  I suppose I'll see it some day, although I don't look forward to it.  

              It gives us all the available intel about the prosecution of the War on Terror, leaving it to us to discover, intuit, and reckon with the agonizing impossibility of maintaining some easy and moral ideological superiority to our enemy, or even any conclusive definite knowledge of where our actions are leading us.
              I've never ascribed to that framing of the torture issue.  The one of moral superiority to the enemy actually revolts me as arrogant.  When not-torturing is framed as "the moral high ground," that framing turns into a strategic advantage (and perhaps one of vanity). A strategic advantage is something you may have to sacrifice during the heat of battle.  That's actually the position of the torture supporters.  

              "We don't like torturing people, but gosh oh gee, 9/11 was so messed up we had to try EVERYTHING we could think of and how can you blame us?  It was all so confusing.  And what if it had been a ticking time bomb?"  

              So the quoted review doesn't make me feel more optimistic about the film.

              Prediction: The right is going to spin this as a victory for enhanced interrogation during or after the Oscars.

  •  I could not diagree more strongly (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Goingallout, sponson

    The movie is a propaganda cartoon that plays to every stupid tough-guy cliche in the book.

    Torture gets info from the bad guys.

    Heroic analyst battles inept bureaucratic ticket-punchers to get resources and keep the investigation alive.

    Outlaw biker gang in US Army uniform drops in to do the hit - a characterisation that insults the discipline and professionalism of the SEALs.

    Low information audiences walk away having learned that we could win the War on Terror if only the bleeding hearts would get out of the way.

    Mission Accomplished.

    The White Race can not survive without dairy products - Herbert Hoover (-8.75,-8.36)

    by alain2112 on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 08:37:54 PM PST

  •  I'm sick to death of "obligatory" torture scenes (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alain2112, joanneleon

    But putting one into a movie that falsely claims torture was instrumental in finding Bin Laden (rather than just to titillate) is going even farther and more offensive, because it's lying about our history as a nation.  In a decade or so people will look back on the 2004-201? time period and say "why the hell did every single action or suspense movie have to have a damned TORTURE SCENE in it?"

    •  This comment has nothing to do with this movie (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      brooklyns finest

      It is, based on what you've said, something you'd agree with (the film), which exposes us for who we are and what we've become.

      •  Don't put words in my mouth (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        alain2112, joanneleon

        I'll rephrase this, I'm sick to death of gratuitous torture scenes, and since torture was most definitely not an important or even a significant factor in the success of finding Bin Laden, the only thing worse than a gratuitous torture scene would be one in which its importance is inflated in order to tell a false version of history.  This is what Bigelow and company have done and I think it's a dishonest way to make money.  

  •  Can we just agree that you should not critique (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ryan Brooke

    a film you haven't seen? Or haven't at the very least read the shooting script for?

    "Ah, but then I'll be paying the studio that made it and encouraging torture," you may say.

    Honestly, then, for something this important - at your local multi-screen theater buy a ticket to, say "The Hobbit," and then go to the screening of "Zero Dark Thirty." ZDT will have made no profit on you and you will have actually seen it and have a right to talk about it.

    "Republicans Vote To Repeal Obama-Backed Bill That Would Destroy Asteroid Headed For Earth." 2/2/11 The Onion

    by brooklyns finest on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 09:58:30 AM PST

  •  You're probably in minority (0+ / 0-)

    on this site in defending ZDT so strongly. I liked the movie as a movie - but it did spend a lot of time on torture scenes for a movie that supposedly did not justify torture. Also, it's been written that the FBI and member of CIA were opposed to torture at the time -- that's not depicted at all in the movie, which is dishonest at the very least. Even Senators Feinstein, McCain and Levin have written to the filmmakers calling the film grossly inaccurate. There's no excuse for that.

    The civil rights, gay rights and women's movements, designed to allow others to reach for power previously grasped only by white men, have made a real difference, and the outlines of 21st century America have emerged. -- Paul West of LA Times

    by LiberalLady on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 09:56:56 PM PST

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