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In the wake of the Torture Controversy surrounding her film "Zero Dark Thirty" Oscar Winning director Kathryn Bigelow has posted a vigorous defense of her film on first amendment grounds in the L.A. Times.

First of all: I support every American's 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

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.

Or to put it another way - "Don't Hate the Torture Playa - Hate the Torture Game."

The problem that Bigelow and "Zero Dark Thirty" has though isn't that she simply depicted "what happened" in regards to torture, or that as a self-proclaimed "lifelong pacifist" if her goal was to make a substantive point about the basic immorality and inhumanity of such tactics, the problem is that if this was her goal - she Failed.

Not that she isn't gung-ho now to draw a smiley-face on that failure.  Particularly after other members of the Academy have called for a voting boycott of the film on moral grounds.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) member David Clennon said last week he would not be voting for Kathryn Bigelow's film, which has been nominated for five Oscars, and urged others to snub a movie that he said "promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture, as a legitimate weapon in America's so-called War on Terror". Writing on the website, he added: "I cannot vote for a film that makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture."

In response, Sony president Amy Pascal said she was "outraged" that an Academy member would try to influence the voting process. "Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture," she said on Friday. "To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and [screenwriter] Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in Ampas as a platform to advance their own political agenda."

So Sony claims that it would have been "irresponsible and inaccurate" to not include the fact that some of the detainees were torture.

And it's clear that Bigelow's own defense has now become modeled on the argument made by Sony.  That she and her film were just "telling it like it was", which is thier artistic right to depict and their responsibility to do "accurately".

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

So you see, those who oppose torture have simply got it all wrong. "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't endorse torture any more than "Halloween" endorses the mad rampage of a axe wielding serial killer.  To depict is not to endorse.  Except that what they depict isn't what happened.

In this segment from PBS we have an argument between journalists who've followed this situation for years, one (Jane Mayer of the New Yorker) arguing that the film is completely lacking in moral context, particular the very volatile arguments over torture and it's use that took place and another (Mark Bowen of the Atlantic, author of "Back Hawk Down") who argues that the film largely depicts the torture techniques as a failure.

And to be fair, there isn't any key information gleaned during the use of inhumane techniques in the film - the one key piece from that detainee comes over a bowl of food as he's being treated well --- but only after he's threatened with being tortured again as Michael Moore describes while defending the film on it's anti-torture bona fides.

There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that -- get this! -- we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more???

I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work -- and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture -- no bin Laden. Two years of detective work -- boom! Bin Laden!

And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results -- and that torture is wrong.

Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!

To my mind this is slight-of-hand and bullshit because that didn't happen.  If you're going to use your "artistic license" then you shouldn't use it to create a LIE. Oh sure, it's true that we didn't get the name of bin Laden's courier from KSM even after he'd been waterboarded 187 times - in fact, HE LIED TO US and said the courier was unimportant.

The rapport building techniques they show in the film that scene which provided us with even the smallest bit of information happened before torture, it was FBI Agent Ali Soufan who by simply talking to abu Zubaydah like a human being was able to discover the identities of Jose Padilla and KSM in the first place.  After he was waterboarded Zubaydah dried up as a source.

It's not the case that these guys gave us anything worthwhile after being tortured - even when we treated them well because by that the their trust in us is destroyed.  Once you've crossed that rubicon, you can't go back and get someone to believe what you say or promise anymore.  

Here's a more substantive discussion of Zero Dark Thirty involving both Jane Mayer and Ali Soufan.

Here are what actual interrogators, including Matthew Alexander say about the use of Torture.

The truth about torture isn't a debate about whether is works or doesn't work - the truth is that it generates false confessions and lies.   And further if we were already getting good information via Ali Soufan - WHY did they start using torture in the first place?.

It was through torture that Ibn Sheilk al Libi claimed that Saddam Hussein has helped train the 9-11 Hijackers.  That was a Lie.

So if Boal and Bigelow were trying to "courageously" show the horrors, immorality and failure of torture - then they themselves are the ones who FAILED.

Yet, I'm sympathetic to their dilemma.  They wanted to tell this complex story which involved all these years and all these sources, but the fact is that the story of America's Failed experiment with torture which was fostered in a desire to get information on Saddam Hussein that didn't exist - to get FALSE CONFESSIONS - still has not been told.  Not by Boal, not by Bigelow, not by anyone.

Kathryn Bigelow has been on many televisions shows and has tried to cloak her presentation of the hunt for Bin laden in artistic and courageous terms - but I'd really like to see is Bigelow and Boal being interviewed/interrogated by Ali Soufan and explain to Him that their movie is "accurate" and how not showing torture would have been "irresponsible" - when the fact is they FAILED to show what really happened.

They may have made a great movie, they just didn't make a true one.


10:49 AM PT: And it gets worse when not just the Studio and the Director - who both have their own self-serving reasons to come up with excuses for showing Torture that Didn't happen - now we have a group of 9-11 Families saying that critics of the movie are engaging in McCarthism.

As a group of 9/11 families sharing a rare moment of justice and elation in the viewing of a film chronicling the search for and ultimate death of Osama Bin Laden, we find it deeply disturbing that some of our elected officials want to discourage other 9/11 families and the public from seeing this outstanding film. Politicians who have criticized the movie and made misleading claims about it, stand in the way of engaging a public dialogue for a stirring film which invokes feelings of patriotism and perseverance and honors our military, our country, and the victims of 9/11.

We are greatly concerned that a few pundits, “film critics” and elected officials are badmouthing this movie because of the water boarding scenes and because this film directly confronts the enduring terrorist threat.

We feel this is history – like it or not -and no effort should be made to rewrite or censor it for political correctness. Certainly there should be no organized boycott or suppression of films based on political differences. The word for that is “censorship.” How bizarre that members of an industry that suffered so much during the McCarthy era would even consider doing this to their own members!

The use of the term “torture” by elected officials in hopes of dissuading people to endorse or view this film is antithetical to what our government should be all about.

I think that just as the movie has the artistic license to use composite characters to summarize and simplify complex events for public consumption - that people, politicians, critics and members of the Academy have a right to point out that they have Distorted the Truth by doing this. It's not really the case that people oppose displaying the fact that torture was used, it's that they show it inaccurately.  In fact, according to Ali Soufan, they make it seem even more brutal than it actually was.  Bigelow and Boal are trying to have it both ways, they fail to have the argument both pro and con that actually took place in real life over these techniques, they just show them and walk away and let people make their own inferences.  I suppose you could call that "hands off" film-making that gives the audience some credit for making their own decisions - however when you do that, you really shouldn't complain when some people come to a conclusion that's different from the one you now claim - under pressure - to have been trying to make all along.

If the movie started out saying that was a "Dramatization" and "Composite" of various events rather than "Based on First Hand Accounts" - we wouldn't be having this argument.  But it doesn't, and we are.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Gosh her studio really wants that Oscar $$$ a lot (6+ / 0-)

    Im hoping they dont get it.

  •  And here I thought Bigelow was a tea company. n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chacounne, mungley

    What is truth? -- Pontius Pilate

    by commonmass on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:13:40 AM PST

  •  Ali Soufan on Zero Dark Thirty (6+ / 0-)

    Here Ali says that he actually Likes the movie as entertainment - but that it's simply NOT Accurate.  For example the main subject who is shown as being tortured and waterboarded in the film Is a Real Person and none of that ever happened to him. That Person Wasn't Tortured, but since he was the person who gave us the code-name of the courier - the film-maker chose to show that person being tortured, yet people like KSM and al Libi who actually were waterboarded both DENIED that the courier was important.  That's the truth.  

  •  In the PBS clip Mark Bowen says the film... (0+ / 0-)

    ...uses fictional dialog and a character who's an amalgam of many and "reflects fairly accurately the early stages of the hunt for OBL". He's against torture and says the film is not pro torture like 24 was. Mayer's comments seemed more appropriate if the film was about torture. I haven't seen it but the film has not been represented as a film on torture even as a secondary or tertiary plot line.

    I don't go to movies and don't consider movies as drivers of culture or information but interpretive snippets a discerning viewer gets to further interpret. I do plan on seeing ZDT  on cable and I guess I'll  see then for myself.

  •  I chickened out on writing a diary about this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe

    so thanks for bringing it back up.  I saw it two weeks ago.

    I went into the movie with a unique perspective - I was specifically looking for stuff that would piss me off since I was told by everyone that the movie would show that torture directly produced actionable intelligence that led to finding Bin Laden.  

    What I discovered was that I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite.  Detainees were tortured.  That happened.  But not one of them produced information while under duress.  Only when they were treated well did they talk.  The movie was very specific about this and I'm certain Bigelow was trying very hard to depict that.  So, I'm on Michael Moore's and Mark Bowen's side of the argument.

    The fact (in the film - this is a work of fiction, remember) that they gave up information while being treated nicely but under the threat of future torture is irrelevant.  They had already been tortured in the past.  It was done.  Bush's policies created that culture of torture, and the bell couldn't be unrung.  We can't go back in time to find out what the detainees would have said if we had treated them humanely in the first place.  So, the argument causing all the outrage is that torture works because they are being threatened with it while eating fruit?  The threat of torture is worse than the act itself?  I don't buy it.  They all completely shut down during the process of torture.  100%.  It doesn't work, and the movie exceeded my expectations in proving it.

    I loved the digs on Bush later in the movie.  Iraq wasn't mentioned until about 90 minutes in, and was dismissed as a total failure.  Also, Obama on the TV denouncing the use of torture.  The CIA complaining about not being able to use dark sites anymore under Obama, and being told to "figure it out."  They did, and accomplished in 2 years what Bush couldn't do in 8 years.

    I didn't love the movie, because I don't see it as entertainment.  It made me uncomfortable throughout, but in the best possible way, if that makes any sense.  People will see the movie through their own filters I guess, but my attempt to see it filterless produced this opinion.

    •  This isn't what happened (6+ / 0-)
      The fact (in the film - this is a work of fiction, remember) that they gave up information while being treated nicely but under the threat of future torture is irrelevant.  They had already been tortured in the past.  It was done.  Bush's policies created that culture of torture, and the bell couldn't be unrung.  We can't go back in time to find out what the detainees would have said if we had treated them humanely in the first place.  So, the argument causing all the outrage is that torture works because they are being threatened with it while eating fruit?  The threat of torture is worse than the act itself?  I don't buy it.  They all completely shut down during the process of torture.  100%.  It doesn't work, and the movie exceeded my expectations in proving it

      The fact is that they gave up information BEFORE they were tortured and began giving false information AFTER they were tortured.  That is what happened.  

      The detainees did not give up relevant information after being tortured or under the threat of future torture.  The sequence of events is important to show that the US torture regime not only didn't work, but was counter-productive.  The detainees began giving false information, really ridiculous stuff that wasted a lot of time and man power, after they were tortured.  None of that made the film.  

      If in the movie a detainee gives up information because he does not want to be tortured again - that is in fact a showing that torture works.  And its untrue - it never happened.  

      Regardless, the argument over whether torture works or not is ridiculous.  Whether or not it works doesn't matter - the fact is that the people who engage in torture are immoral - torture is wrong on its face.  People within the CIA and FBI argued that fact in real time, but were ignored.  None of that was shown in the film.  

      Whether or not you like the film is neither here nor there.  

      •  Thank you. Kossack Jennifer A Epps wrote... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        a2nite, Garrett, 714day

        ...a brilliant critique here two weeks ago, Torture and the Dark Side of ZERO DARK THIRTY and I highlighted it in Night Owls.

        Everybody should read that critique.

        Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

        by Meteor Blades on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:36:02 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Meteor Blades

          ...I just read it and agree it is interesting and informative.

          But why should it matter if torture does or doesn't work? Why should it matter if torture is depicted as working or not, or if the victim or torturer is depicted as sympathetic or enemy? And why on earth should a film which can arguably be construed as presenting a CIA perspective be considered as potential influence on prosecutions?

          The case against torture is moral and tactical and those other considerations are not, or at least should not, be pertinent.

          IMO being opposed to torture has to be firm and consistent regardless of how despicable or non cooperative the victims may be, despite if it works or not, and despite the good or evil of the torturers. It's not  transaction.

          Also the power being imbued upon a movie, albeit maybe artistic but without doubt ultimately a commercial endeavor, seems unwise and irrational.  

          •  I agree with your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs... (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            kck, burlydee, 714day

            ...but disagree with your 4th. Perhaps movies should not have the power embued them, but they do, and they have all the way back to at least 1915 when Birth of a Nation helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. Movies help move the cultural and political attitudes of the nation (sometimes the world). They are powerful influences and we just have to accept that reality. If they they weren't, we wouldn't talk so much about them.

            Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

            by Meteor Blades on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 11:31:54 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Why don't you ask the commander of West Point (0+ / 0-)

            about the power of even a purely fictional show like 24 on the torture "debate"?  You know, the one that got Kiefer Sutherland himself to come down and try to convince the cadets that torture is ineffective.  If Bigelow is invited by the commander of West Point to do the same will she do so or will she refuse because it would compromise her "neutral position"?

            You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

            by Throw The Bums Out on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 01:00:07 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The 'torture debate'... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Throw The Bums Out

              ...should be independent of if it works and certainly irrespective of the sage advice of a TV actor or a film director.

              Maybe West Point would be better served by using icons of philosophy, religion, wars, or history to help dissuade cadets from engaging in illegal behavior but TV/film? What a way to debase the whole issue IMHO.

              I get what you're saying but TV and film and any medium used for commercial purposes use exploitation, drama, sex, drugs, violence, greed, lust, etc. to gain audience.

              MB's example of Birth of a Nation having helped revive the Ku Klux Klan is a great example of my error. I can think of a few others. But generally I suspect (no expert here) they're more rare exceptions and am more inclined these days to beg the which-came-first-chicken-or-egg debate when it comes to film and culture. My vote is that film at best reflects our culture and drives little but exploits already deeply held drives.

    •  The problem for starters... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a2nite, 714day

      is that the person they show being tortured - and not giving up any information - but later telling them the code name is a real person who was never tortured.  There was no link between anyone being tortured and al-Kuwaiti.  All of the people who were tortured LIED about him.  Secondly, the film doesn't show the efforts of people in the FBI, State Dept and Military - let alone in the CIA who were also against torture.  Those techniques didn't stop because of President Obama, they were ended in 2005 after the CIA Inspector General's Report determined they were Illegal and Ineffective.

      Obama does deserve credit for restarting the hunt, but the picture the film paints is vastly oversimplified.  If they wanted to do an honest film about America's dangerous foray into torture, they would've addressed Abu Ghraib, they would've address the Bybee Memos, they would have address the fact Ali Soufan was the one who got most of the actionable evidence and personally threatened to ARREST the CIA Interrogators using harsh techniques - they would have pointed out how people Ibn Sheik al Libi and other led us down a rabbit hole of lies that help spark the pointless Iraq War.

      The movie fails on all these counts.

  •  I do think it would have been dishonest (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kck, a2nite

    to pretend we didn't torture a ton of people in the hunt for Bin Laden.

    And I believe Bigelow when she said she intended to show that torture didn't work. I just don't think she did a great job of making that clear in the movie.

    (Just saw it yesterday.)

    As a novelist, I can tell you it's very hard to keep straight what you know of the story in your own head and what you made clear on the page. (Or in this case, on film.)

    As the creator, you know it so well. You know exactly what happened and a lot of stuff that you either never put down on the page or maybe put down and cut later. It's hard to read your own work with fresh eyes and see it as the reader will see it.

    I'm sure it's hard for her to see her own movie and see it only for what ended up in the final version we all saw.

    She was on Stephen Colbert and defended the movie by saying she tried to condense a 10 years of history into a two and a half hour movie. That's true, and that's really hard.

    If she'd just added one scene. Maya maybe questioning why they kept torturing when it wasn't getting them anywhere. You see her putting up with it, getting used to it, hardened to it, but she never questions that this is the method we're going to use to get information or saying that maybe there's a better way.

    Or if there was a scene with the President or whoever made the decision to stop noting that torture hadn't gotten them good information. That they were going to stop.

    What we got was the President on TV in the background saying he was ordering a stop to torture on moral grounds. (And I'm all for stopping on moral grounds.) But we needed a sentence or two. We've been doing this for years, and we're nowhere. There's a better way to do this, a smarter way, and we're starting now.

    Confession time: When I'm not ranting about politics, I write romance novels

    by teresahill on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:53:24 AM PST

  •  When has "based on a true story" ever been (0+ / 0-)

    more than a marketing catchphrase?

    Any film that isn't a documentary is by default "Dramatization" and "Composite". All films, including documentaries, distort the truth to some degree. Its why we shouldn't base real-life policy judgments on what imaginary people do on a big shiny screen.

    If you're going to use your "artistic license" then you shouldn't use it to create a LIE.
    If its an entertaining lie, why not? Lying isn't the Cardinal Sin of film-making, dullness is. Hollywood has been telling you entertaining lies all your life. The Mafia isn't really about honor & family, a white man can't really become the best warrior in a native tribe overnight, hookers don't really get married to rich Johns, and All Dogs in fact DO NOT go to Heaven.

    Andrew Sullivan nailed it. They depicted torture with utter disgust. Anyone who thinks the audience is supposed to be happy during the opening scenes is smoking crack. They just didn't close the deal and make it a real anti-torture movie. Shame, it would've been a lot more interesting. By the time you're halfway through the film, its like "WHEN ARE WE GONNA GET TO THE FIREWORKS FACTORY?!!?"

    Bigelow & Boal got so high on all that research and access - and spent so much effort to get these minute final raid details right - they wound up going overboard when it was promotion time and started talking all this shit like they opened a magic portal to the past. Most of it is standard thriller fare and yes, Greenwald was right to point out that most of it just feels like Homeland with a FAR less interesting female lead.

    The Oscars got it backwards, Bigelow did all the heavy artistic lifting here. She deserved a nomination, not Boal. Probably the best low-light night cinematography I've ever seen.

    "See? I'm not a racist! I have a black friend!"

    by TheHalfrican on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 12:49:46 PM PST

    •  You would assume most of know that Hollywood alway (0+ / 0-)

      fudges the facts, and that if they're biased - it's toward what they Think will keep the audience riveted.  And then again you have people like Joe Scaraborough who no matter how much the film attempts to portray Torture as a futile failure - simply did NOT get that message.

      Scarborough: (the film) presents a narrative that's going to make a lot of people in the mainstream media, the Democratic Party, the Administration uncomfortable and that is the truth that Barack Obama learned the first briefing that he got after he won the eletion.  And that is that the CIA program, whether you find it repugnant or not, action that was effective with KSM and others, were getting actionable intelligence that led to couriers that led eventually - years later - to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
      So what do you do with this dead bird other than lay it at Bigelow's feet and say - obviously their was a problem in the delivery method.
  •  There has been much discussion on DK (0+ / 0-)

    about the discovery of the bones of Richard III and how historical accuracy is frequently tossed from the popular mind with entertainments like Mr. Shakespeare's in his day.
    Everything old is new again.
    Nicely done, Vyan.

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