"Zero Dark Thirty" not good enough to justify torture fantasies

"Zero Dark Thirty," director Kathryn Bigelow's truthy-but-not-a-documentary-but-maybe-it-kinda-is thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opened in New York and Los Angeles this week. I watched a screener last night. I thought it kind of sucked. There's a lot of buzz about what a great work of art ZDT is. I don't get it. In reviews of ZDT, fawning critics reflexively note that she directed Oscar-winning "Hurt Locker." Guys, she directed "Point Break," too.

The film is based in part on documents and interviews provided by government sources who participated in the real deal. In a New Yorker profile of Bigelow by NYT war reporter Dexter Filkins, the director explains, “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.’"

It's not journalism. Strictly speaking, ZDT is drama, not documentary. But it's presented as a grey merging of the two; like "24" with a truthier implied pedigree.

Bigelow and screenwriter/co-producer Mark Boal describe it in a title card as based on "firsthand accounts." Boal told the NYT he approached the film as a journalist.

“I don’t want to play fast and loose with history,” he said.

The film has been blasted by critics of torture (how fucked up is it that "critics of torture" is even a thing?) as elevating and validating the role of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in finding and killing Al Qaeda's number one.

But that criticism isn't just coming from war critics and human rights advocates: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a survivor of torture, went on radio and television to decry the Sony Pictures release, as the LA Times reports:.

"You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That's not the case," McCain said on CNN's "The Situation Room," adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees.

McCain and fellow senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter echoing this statement to Sony on Wednesday. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen at CNN has a piece up at CNN.com about the criticism coming from Washington; his original long-form critique of the film is required reading.

As was been widely reported in the months leading up to the film's release, the CIA granted ZDT's filmmakers unprecedented access to sources within the agency, perhaps believing that "Hurt Locker" was an indication of the likely positive treatment the War on Terror would receive in this project.

But just this week, acting CIA director Michael Morell issued an unusual statement condemning it.

"The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin," the statement reads. "That impression is false."

A pretty bold statement, though even he can't bring himself to use the word "torture."

The film's release comes just after the Senate intelligence committee's approval of a long-awaited report which concludes that "harsh interrogation measures" used by the CIA didn't lead to substantive intelligence gains.

That 6,000-page report has not been released to the public. It should be. It'd do a better job than this film does of explaining to America what if any upside there is to torturing people identified as enemies.

Apart from the semi-fictionalized jingoistic narrative, and the way the whole thing feels like pro-torture propaganda, I just don't see the cinematic greatness.

Yes, it was beautifully shot; yes, there were some solid performances by talented actors.

But as Glenn Greenwald wrote over email, as we were debating the film's merits, "it felt banal, trite, thin, predictable - yeah, some parts were filmed nicely, but overall, just as a film, it was totally mediocre at best."

Glenn was just on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show today talking about the film, and wrote a great piece at the Guardian about ZDT. Snip:

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.

In the LA Times, Steven Zeitchik and Rebecca Keegan point out how interesting it is that "Argo," a leading competitor against "Zero Dark" in the Oscar race, "also centers on a CIA operative and has strong political themes." I loved "Argo." And the Ben Affleck drama on the 1979 Iran hostage crisis takes even greater liberties with history. Snip:

But "Argo" has faced almost no criticism over matters of accuracy, perhaps because, though a poster declares that "the mission was real," filmmakers and marketers have stopped short of using the word journalism in connection with the film.

As I was watching ZDT last night, I also thought, man, it's nice to see a big feature *sort of* pass the Bechdel Test for once (here's a video explainer). But what a lame exception to the sexist norm.

The interaction between Jessica Chastain's lead female character "Maya" and Jennifer Ehle's "Jessica," both CIA analysts, feels contrived and convenient: Thelma and Louise Do Islamabad.

Why is Ehle as a chief CIA operative jumping up and down like a schoolgirl, texting her bestie (over what looks like unencrypted IM! With smiley emoticons!) as if she's waiting for a blind date, when her "source" rolls into Camp Chapman? And this, after "Jessica" had just finished baking a fucking *cake* for the guy? In the actual reports, it should be noted, the base cook made the cake.

And it ended up being a hot date, indeed.

Also this has nothing to do with sexism, I guess, but guys, why is Chastain eating all the time?

In an interview with the BBC, Ehle says: “You have two women in it who are not defined in any way by their relationship with men. They are defined by their relationship with their job and by what they do. What they do happens to be hunting men.”

You've come a long way, baby.*

ZDT is a visually arresting work. It was shot by Australian DP Greig Fraser (remember his provocative "Call of Duty: Black Ops" TV ads?), much of it in a handheld run-and-gun style. One imagines the night-vision scenes to be faithful to the visual experience of those Navy SEALs during the fabled midnight Abbotabad raid. And the atmosphere throughout is lifted greatly by Alexandre Desplat's masterful score.

But as filmmaker Alex Gibney writes in the Huffington Post about those creative high points,

It's all the more infuriating therefore, because the film is so attentive to the accuracy of details -- including the mechanism of brutal interrogations -- that it is so sloppy when it comes to portraying the efficacy of torture. That may seem like a small thing but it is not. Because when we go to war, our politicians will be guided by our popular will. And if we believe that torture "got" bin Laden, then we will be more prone to accept the view that a good "end" can justify brutal "means."

Where are figures like Khaled el-Masri, the innocent German father and car dealer who was kidnapped and tortured at a "black site" over a spelling error that led to CIA agents mistaking him for a bad guy? Are stories like that an okay price to pay for gains that may not even have been gained?

And then there's the biggest unasked question of all: did the extrajudicial assassination of "UBL," rather than bringing him to a Nuremberg-style trial, really serve our democracy best?

My problem with "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't just that it validates the use of torture, and sends a clear message that the systematic violation of human rights, drone strikes, and extrajudicial assassinations are just the dirty truths that "protecting our freedom" requires.

My problem is that its use of accurate documentary detail and artistic verisimilitude seems not merely a weak justification for its inaccurate depiction of torture's value, but a way of drawing the eye to it, a whispering and surreptitious endorsement.

And to borrow a line from the film's protagonist, the pottymouthed CIA torture vixen Maya, that's "kind of fucked up."

# # #


  1. They should have just had a dramatic montage of them reading Seymour Hersh columns and attending his lectures.

    Consistently since the mid 2000’s he had been reporting that Bin Laden was being sheltered by the ISI in Pakistan near the ISI/Army retirement community where he was eventually found.

      1. There are countless interviews with Hersh on Youtube, but you’ll have to do your own wading through the conspiracy site hits that swamp out a search.

        A single quick search only including major publications and bylines results in:

        From January 2002 “The Getaway” (airlift of AQ, Taliban, and ISI before Tora Bora):

        From February 2003, describing the evacuation:

        From 2004, explaining part of the reason the Bush Administration allowed it:

        NYT in 2005 describing the escape from Tora Bora:

        Non-Hersh description of the evacuation of Bin Laden’s family and aides to Pakistan:

        2009 verification of Hersh’s 2003 reporting:

        The best stuff is from his circuit lectures, but you’ll have to do your own digging for those… mostly blog posts on the giant political forum sites by college students summarizing his Q&A.

  2. no surprise to me.  i never understood the exact appeal of ‘hurt locker’. it wasn’t very suspenseful, the dialogue was dreck, and it was about 30 minutes too damned long. i’ll see ‘dark 30′  when it pops up on hbo, amazon instant, or netflix.

    1. I recall the movie as attempting to shed some light (for those who saw it) on what the physical and emotional impact of war is on soldiers, and therefore, why they have such a hard time settling back into civilian life.  The incredible stresses and the effort to remain sane coping with them.  It was ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ x 100000. The problem to me with ‘The Hurt Locker’ was that unless you’re there, that is an experience that is very difficult to convey… although Spielberg’s opening scenes in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ got pretty close to what I imagined.  I was stunned and in tears watching, from the grave to the boat hitting the beach.

      As long as I’m somewhere near the subject… Myrna Loy was a real dish, imho!

    2. same here.  never got the “buzz” over that one at all.  seemed like she was picked ahead of time to have the honor bestowed on her for some reason only known to hollywood insiders or whatever..

  3. Honestly Point Break is much better than The Hurt Locker.

    I think people just feel guilty about not thinking the movie is good because we’re sitting around watching movies while these guys are in a desert getting blown up so we can watch movies.

    1. Why on earth would that be the case? I wouldn’t enjoy the movie because I’m not a fan of torture porn. I don’t feel ‘guilty” about the glorification, I simply don’t wish to participate.

        1. Right Millie, because not fueling the demand for torture porn by not buying it is just a totally worthless choice for C W to have made. The only ‘correct’ action is to not pay taxes (which are used for a lot of good things too, btw)

      1. It seems like an awful lot of opinions from people who haven’t seen the film.
        Torture happened, it would be whitewashing to not have it be part of the story.
        One of the whole points of the film is that no information gained from torture led to Bin Laden, mostly they got was lies and misinformation.

        As for the hurt locker ,  the scene in the supermarket was amazing and summed up the whole point of the protagonist’s inability to be “normal” with no words and no action 

      2. If you wouldn’t enjoy the movie and would say so, then I think AwesomeRobot wasn’t talking about you–sounded like he was talking about people who aren’t that into the movie (and I think he may have been talking about Hurt Locker rather than Zero Dark) but pretend to like it (or convince themselves they do in retrospect) because of the “important” subject matter, or out of guilt about not thinking more about what soldiers are going through.

    2. When it ceases to be an all-volunteer armed force in a quagmire that doesn’t represent a real threat to US citizens, then I will feel bad about my liberties with regard to those persons.

      Until then, I hold that taking liberties is the best defense of them and that Afghanistan and other places could be easily improved and neutralized as “threats” through a long term arms length campaign of rock and roll, blue jeans & big screens with sizable student visa programs to the west. 

      People think the ways of the west are so grand that all should enjoy them, then they fuck up and send the army, not the ways.

    3. these guys are in a desert getting blown up so we can watch movies.

      Let’s get real; These guys for the most part are in the desert so the rich can get richer.  It’s not my patriotic duty to feed blood money to sick megalomaniacs.

    4.  Motion seconded. Given that I’m not from the usa, The Hurt Locker obviously appears as nothing more than propaganda. Overt, jingoist, Riefenstahl/Internationalesque propaganda. Whereas Point Break is a movie about choices, and as a movie it does what it set out to do. The latter, being more honest, is the winner. 

    5. I dunno, I vaguely remember seeing a movie or two in between the Bush Wars, when we weren’t sending people to get blowed up. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the two are related.

    6. I wonder how the rest of the world manages to watch movies without people getting blown up in the desert. I mean it´s practically a basic requirement. I guess they´re just not as free while they´re doing it.

  4. So you’re point is that after The Hurt Locker and Point Break her streak of sure fire hits was bound to misfire?

    1. I think Xeni is implying that we shouldn’t assume that Confederate vampires look like the ones in Near Dark.

  5. Point Break is a great film, a “killer rush,” if you will. But if wonder if Bodhi’s famous (well, famous to me)

    This is our tatic, is we strike fear. Once you get them peeing down ther leg, they submit.

    is a harbinger of this lamentable pro-torture nuttiness?

    1. Kathryn Bigelow has been anti-torture for 30 years or so see the set-up i from 1978
      “The Set-Up is Kathryn Bigelow’s student film at Columbia about the exploration of ‘why violence in cinematic form is so seductive’. It featured two men beating each other to a pulp in a dark alley, while two professors analyzed the philosophy of it all on the soundtrack.”

  6. Bigelow is just a government spokeshole. It’s not surprising to see that they have maintained the continuity of message from Bush to Obama.

  7. Interesting re: the Bechdel test that in Google’s main page return, Jessica Chastain is not top-listed as cast (and on Jessica Chastain’s main page return, ZDT isn’t listed). Given that she’s kinda Oscar bait these days, and is all over the posters, trailers and ads, I wonder what [oddity/fluke/subtle manipulation] of SEO is making that happen, or rather, what SEO is keeping her off. No knock on Chris Pratt, but really, SEO? Chris Pratt has higher recognition value than a woman who has not only Oscar and Golden Globe nods for previous work, but (according to Wikipedia) TWENTY-THREE nods for this role alone?

    I clearly understand neither SEO nor the entertainment industry.

    1. I’m tempted to say it’s just as well, given what a crock of shit this movie is.

      Thanks for this awesome post, Xeni.

      I will never waste my time watching this kind of (ironically) macho, racist, money-grabbing jingoism. 

      And yes, having done a lot of reading around, and listening to fawning interviews with the cast and director, I can legitimately say that without having seen the movie.

        1.  And what is a torture fantasy?  Don’t half the movies in the theaters at an given moment contain moments of human beings committing violent acts on other human beings.  But those acts are justified torture fantasies because why?  Because they are in works of fiction and people love watching violence. This film is a work of fiction.  She didn’t accept money from the government to make this film.  Point Break, Near Dark and Strange Days are all great films, in my opinion, and it feels like every one accusing her of being some kind of propagandist are unfamiliar with with most of her work.

          1.  And not too many people specifically said Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.  All that needed to happen was that the White House had a couple of press conferences where Hussein and Al Qaeda were mentioned within a few minutes of each other and a few weeks later somewhere around 40% of USians thought Hussein was responsible for 9/11.

            Sorry, we live in a society of idiots.  If they’re impressionable enough to believe that torture works because it did in 24 then they’re impressionable enough to believe torture works because it did in this movie that’s supposedly much more realistic than 24.

  8. Point Break is a pretty good movie!  I am sure it is better than this one…  is there any surfing in this movie?  If a war movie has surfing that helps make it great.  Fight or Surf!

    1. I think Bigelow’s best film was the overlooked dawn-of-the-new-century pic Strange Days. It was a note-perfect cyberpunk story with only one SFnal ‘macguffin’, starring Ralph Fiennes as a slimy low-life scumbag and Angela Bassett as his bodyguard. Juliette Lewis wasn’t half bad either. 

    1. It’s just too bad that they took out the homage in this one… Cheney and Rumsfeld doing lemon-wedge body shots and Paul Wolfowitz saying he taught them that.

    1. I really liked Point Break when it came out. And I still like it. What I do remember is when it was released back in 1991 the teaser release posters basically just showed Patrick Swayze & Keanu Reeves profiles with the tagline “100% Pure Adrenaline” and that’s it. Confusing. But it’s still a great movie.

      Zero Dark Thirty seems bad just from the premise. How exactly can any filmmaker control the narrative to an event so major & so recent as the Osama Bin Laden killing? Also, even before the Sandy Hook shootings I was just getting sick of the dark & dour tone of this thing. I mean I am in NYC in the winter.  I don’t want to pay money to see a film about darkness, death & politics right now. It’s the @$!%ing “Holiday” movie season & what’s big at the box office?  Lincoln, Argo & this stuff?  I want to pay money to see a movie that is pure escapism. Bleagh holiday movie season of 2012/13.

      1. Lincoln was pretty awesome. It’s very political, but (despite the politics and the backroom shenanigans) not the typical dark and dour and cynical thing political movies often are. Also, isn’t Les Mis coming out soon? 

          1. Seriously, what is your problem? You think that was condescending? How about your original comment? Instead of engaging with me about it, you decided I needed educating. I’m aware of the problems of the movie, but you know, a comment about movies that aren’t dour isn’t really the place for a 500 word review of my thoughts on the film. You know, this is the single biggest thing I hate about the culture in the social justice community: the goddamn point scoring. You win! I mentioned enjoying a movie without digressing for an hour on how it represents racism in our culture. I lose. 

      2. How exactly can any filmmaker control the narrative to an event so major & so recent as the Osama Bin Laden killing?

        Control? How about “perpetuate?” She’s at the mercy of the information available.

        1. No, she’s not.

          This isn’t journalism, it’s fiction. As such, she can tell any story, in any manner, that she pleases. And that’s the real criticism – given the information she had, she’s chosen to tell an apparently biased story (haven’t seen it, commenting on the criticisms, not the movie).

          1. I believe the goal of the movie was to be “journalismic,” so she is at the mercy of information provided unless she wants to make a different movie.

      3.  “How exactly can any filmmaker control the narrative to an event so major & so recent as the Osama Bin Laden killing?”
        Until I see a shred of physical evidence I’m going to say that the US government did a pretty good job.

  9. I’ll also vote for Point Break as better than not just this (presumably… not seen it not going to) but also better than Hurt Locker.

  10. “the systematic violation of human rights, drone strikes, and extrajudicial assassinations are just the dirty truths that “protecting our freedom” requires”

    They make us less safe.

  11. Ooooh, torture boo-hooo. Hilarious how nobody laments the fact this fucked up government straight up murdered that guy. Due process/Justice? Yea, not for the US.

    1. So you’re concerned with due process for other people but it’s perfectly alright for you to decide who is guilty of murder without holding a trial?  How does that work?

        1. Who’s waiting?  Apparently we’re convicting murderers unilaterally today.  I don’t understand why it’s OK call the people who killed Bin Laden murderers but not Bin Laden himself.  You want to start calling people murders that’s fine.  I just want some internal consistency.

          1. yea he was an alleged murderer and head of a terrorist organization – it would have been interesting to question him and find his financiers and etc etc not go in gun-ho style and shoot half the compound dead. 

  12. Ismael

    i think i’ll go to NatGEO’s and cross my fingers.  what i lose in visual quality maybe i’ll get in the form of some accuracy

  13. Lori Petty was amazing in Point Break. I’d hoped she would have gotten to team up with Keanu in The Matrix.


    However it has been pointed out somewhere in the mess that are my RSS subscriptions, that by juxtaposing the intelligence gained through either torture or classic “spying”, e.g. bribing foreign officials, stakeouts etc, the film makes a point that even if one takes the claims about the necessity of torture at face value, its comparative ineffectiveness is undisputed.

  15. Bigelow peaked at her first film, Near Dark. Hurt Locker was laugh-out-loud bad.  I think a lot of film critics have a concern-troll sensibility that lets them nominate movies that let them display their sensitivity. How else to explain Platoon winning Best Picture?

      1.  Yeah, the Iraq vets laughing out loud at the idiocy on display in Hurt Locker were all crazy too. Thanks for the irrelevancy.

        1.  You could make a movie about a plumber and it could be the best movie in the world with the richest characterization, moving conflict, whatever whatever.  And plumbers would still hate it because of that one scene where the dude’s using a metric wrench but the hardware is clearly standard measurement.  Most of the Iraq vet critiques of that movie seem to be about details on tactics that don’t seem terrible relevant to the movie.

          The reason for this is very simple: realistically-portrayed military service probably wouldn’t make for a very good movie.

  16. “Guys, she directed “Point Break,” too.”

    Whoooaa, hold on there, what’s that supposed to mean?  Next thing you’re gonna tell us that “Plan 9 From Outer Space” was garbage schlock, and not genius meta-critique of cinematic art.

    1.  I thought Plan 9 From Outer Space was Boehner’s failed attempt at countering Obama’s fiscal “cliff” offer

    2. I haven’t seen this movie yet. Does it reveal that Bin Laden really did all that stuff just to further his quest to find the perfect wave?

    1. Yeah, Triumph of the Will is nothing but the worst kind of schlock. And Jet Li’s Hero is one uuuuugly movie.

    2. “Birth of a Nation” is hateful propaganda, but it’s also one of the most visually and technically influential films of all time.

  17. I haven’t seen ZDT yet, so I’ll keep my mouth shut about that one.

    However, I was quite vocal about my reaction to “Hurt Locker”, which though technically accomplished struck me as being pure recruitment propaganda. I kvetched to many of my friends that, despite the horrors the protagonist endures, he’s consistently shown in a heroic golden light, as if to say “this is where he belongs. This is his destiny.”

    I have little doubt that hundreds, if not thousands of young recruits owe their enlistment to what they saw in “Hurt Locker.” And that’s an avoidable tragedy.

    1. “he’s consistently shown in a heroic golden light, as if to say ‘this is where he belongs. This is his destiny.’ ”

      You see, I interpreted that differently. Young men throughout history have sought heroism and meaning and personal glory through war. This is a common theme in war literature, from The Illiad to The Red Badge of Courage.

      What The Hurt Locker is trying to say is that war is a powerful attraction for many men throughout the ages, the thirst and hunger for that personal glory and meaning. For many young men, it feels like it’s your destiny. That’s why the movie opens with a quote from Chris Hedges’ book “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”:

      “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

  18. Xeni, you’re 90% of the way there. Once you realize that the seeding of ideas in Hollywood, especially regarding ideas about how we should worship the military no matter what they do, is 100% intentional, you are then free to understand that a CIA director who IS STILL USING TORTURE AND BLACK sites can wag his finger at torture and say, no, it doesn’t work.

    The CIA is evil. They make torturers and criminals. Again, and again, and again, and again. And every time they are caught they say they have stopped, and NEVER do. Taking their lies at face value benefits no one.

    1. Hollywood is not about worshiping the military. Many of the top names are very anti army. Yes the big movies are pro army but that’s because if you want to use US military equipment in your movies you have to let them review your movie before release. You don’t expect the military would let a movie trashing them use an aircraft carrier? 

      1. If the only way you can tell a story critical of the military is with all the military’s toys, then you are a crap film maker.

        1. I never claimed that. I only pointed out the mechanism behind so many pro military blockbusters. If you want a big budget action movies with big military equipment than it will probably have to be pro military.

          Yes you can make a critical movie and such movies also exist. Where did I claim they don’t? 

        1. I think you missed the point. Their output = there are anti army/ anti militaristic movies. You don’t really have to be very movie savy to even try to google the term. Or even remind yourself the little movie called avatar and it’s stance on the military. Unless you expect the movie that is called” I hate the army”. 

  19. I have a strong suspicion that it’s people’s desire for a well-packaged justification for their torture fantasies that is strong enough to make Zero Dark Thirty seem like a good movie…

  20. How can you trust information obtained from the type of person who’d be willing to perform torture?

  21. I’m not going to rip apart a movie I haven’t seen so I won’t.  I did watch The Hurt Locker however.  Toward the end, when the protagonist is standing in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, staring at the countless colorful saccharin boxes of cereal, I get what Bigelow is trying to do.  It’s supposed to be a cathartic existential moment where he realizes he needs to go back to the life of war and danger because ordinary life sucks.  But you know what?  That’s sophomoric garbage and Bigelow’s small, narrow mind is just the type who would flip reality on its head like that and present the most cynical side of humanity as the superior one – not just from the character’s perspective but from the movie-maker’s. 

    It makes me realize what an insufferable soul-sucking lifeforce-depleting B she must have been while married to James Cameron.  Sure he might be a jerk, but at least the guy presents better stories and better movies. 

    1. Well, that is one way to interpret the scene.  Another would be to see it as an insight into the psyche of a man whose life revolves around experiences far outside of those that we would normally encounter, and for whom a return to ‘normal’ is no longer possible.  He will return to battle, to disarming bombs until it kills him, because he, to use an old saying, can never go home.  He’s Bruce Dern walking into the sea.

      You really don’t do yourself any favours by calling her a bitch either.  Name calling isn’t clever.  Besides, I’ll take a dozen Hurt Lockers over another Avatar.  Now there is a director who has truly lost his way.

      1. It is a propaganda film, the Pentagon is investigating Michael Vickers, the Undersecretary of Defense Intelligence for working with the filmmakers.

        1. Is this a new thing? Because the first part of Republican accusations of improper access turned out to be false.


          Also have you seen the movie ? Because I see a huge crowd of people who decide to bash it before watching it. I had low expectations for the movie. While I thought Hurt Locker to be a good movie to pass some time I didn’t find it very good and I’m not as big of a fan of Chastain as some movie geeks are. This movie lacks a lot of the entertainment value but I was surprised how well it was done from a technical point of view and how neutral it succeeds to feel. That may be one of the reasons why it is bashed from both sides left and right. It’s to leftish for the right wingers and too right wing for the left wing crowd. The outrage comes more from the topic and the fact they showed torture than anything else. There are many more movies which are far more harmfull yet I see far less outrage about them. That’s hypocrisy.

          1. There are many more movies which are far more harmfull yet I see far less outrage about them. That’s hypocrisy.

            It’s only hypocrisy if people agree with you that those movies are far more harmful.  If people disagree then they’re just expressing their opinions without being hypocritical.

            How about some examples?  Which films are worse?

  22. i just did a double-take on the title of this post. How good would the film have to be before the torture fantasies were justified?

    In a similar way, how good would _Pearl Harbor_ have to have been, to justify the country rushing off to war after the 9/11 attacks?

    If a movie is blatant propaganda, that is reason enough for me to shun it  in the theaters. If it also happens to be very pretty or compelling or contain some other artistic content i’m interested in , it’s my patriotic duty to pirate the damn thing before feeding its makers.

    1. point taken, but they were the kind of vampires that would have brought in the Lincoln audience — or at least the A.L.: Vampire Hunter audience.

  23. As much as I agree with many of Your points Xeni I think you missed the point. The movie doesn’t try to show both points of view. It tries to show the point of view of people who were after Osama. They thought torture worked, they thought they needed it. I also don’t think the movie suggests that torture led to info that helped capture Osama. They basicly got the same info from other people without torture. The outrage makes no sense, it’s not a case of if you are not strongly anti torture you obviously must be for it. They tried to make a neutral movie and for me it feels that way. I find the outrage surprising since I am pretty anti army and expected it to be a pro army masturation piece but it isn’t one. It’s a good movie, a bit too technical and bland but you can’t deny in a technical sense it is very good.

    1. They tried to make a neutral movie and for me it feels that way.

      And yet, even the CIA Director has blasted it for being wrong on that very point.

      1. PR. When the controversy started no matter if the problem is real or imaginary blasting the movie was the only reasonable option. The movie is also very anti CIA so I’m sure he did it with pleasure. 

        The only thing that makes me wonder if the whole thing isn’t a black pr job. Look up the “Trust me I’m lying” I think Cory recomended on BB. It explains what is happening around ZDT very nicely. 

  24. “Point Break” was great because Keanu Reeves was so unbelievably awful that beings in other star systems just now receiving our signals are awed at how ghastly he was.  His record was secure until it was finally smashed by Denise Richards in “Starship Troopers.”

  25. Think I’ll just re-watch Team America: World Police instead.  Should be about as jingoistic, but funnier.

  26. There is the mention of a 6000 page report stating there was no correlation to interrogations and information leading to Bin Laden.  I would hope the report would state that.  I don’t want to know critical information as to the how and why we collect information that leads to the safety of this country and the capture of its enemies.  If you want to publish 6000 pages saying we don’t do these things to make people in this country and around the world feel better, fine.

  27. I recommend watching “Seal Team Six” instead. It was supposed to open theatrically in December, but the National Geographic channel bought it & aired it on TV in November instead, so I think a lot of people might have missed it. They did a pretty good job putting it together, I thought.

      1. Yeah, because since the advent of Godwin’s Law, ANY connection made to Nazi Germany, no matter how accurate (like this one is) is automatically a misstep. 


        1. There is nothing accurate in this statement at all.  If we’re talking Triumph of the Will we’re looking at a director hired by the Nazi party to turn one man into a deity.  It was a documentary.  It deleted anything unsavoury (it has long been noted that antisemitism does not feature in the film) and simply (though effectively) glorified Hitler and those around him.  Hurt Locker included weakness and failure on the side of the soldiers as well as the psychological damage done by the work they were doing.  It didn’t turn them into gods, it made them human.  There is pretty much nothing accurate about a comparison between the two directors, any more than there is in saying George Bush or Barack Obama is this generations Hitler.

      2. People often forget that Godwin’s Law simply states that the comparison is inevitable. Not that the comparison is necessarily unfounded.
        I mean, we are talking about propaganda here. The difference is that Germany stopped making propaganda films after WWII.

        1. Indeed – and thus I made the comment.  However I’m not sure that Bigelow’s earlier work (for instance Hurt Locker) could be considered propaganda.  I’m not sure what one-sided argument it is making.  What is it trying to convince us of?  What side does it want us to take, specifically?

          1. You know, propaganda can be a bit more subtle than some guy with a shaved head named Boris waggling his finger and yelling party slogans at the screen.

          2. But it has to present a one-sided argument.  And I ask again, what is that argument in Hurt Locker?  What is it asking us to support?

          3. But it has to present a one-sided argument.

            No it doesn’t. Propaganda need pull only slightly to one side. In fact, that may be more effective that way since it gives a false impression of being “fair and balanced”. And even better if the propaganda aspect of it isn’t the central theme of the film, because then it’s more likely to bypass the viewers’ (dubious) critical thinking functions.

            I’m guessing that you’ve never created any sophisticated propaganda.

          4. You are confusing my question for one of method, rather than outcome.  If propaganda does not present, in its conclusion, an argument favoring one side, one change of behavior, one loyalty, then it has failed in its task.  Now, you can transmit that by a method as subtle or jarring as you like, but the outcome has to be the same otherwise it isn’t propaganda.  Taken at face value, given the information presented by the material, there should be no room for someone to take a meaning other than that which the author intended.  I’m not asking how subtly the message was woven into the material, I’m asking what it was.  Who was it designed to benefit, other than the necessary financial gains required by any commercial film maker.

    1.  Bigelow’s film Strange Days, which has been one of my all time favorite films since it came out in 1995, shows a bunch of police officers murdering and torturing people in a negative light.  It seems unimaginable to me that someone would think of Bigelow as some kind government propagandist.  Seriously, really? 

      1. It’s about “bad apples” within an otherwise benevolent system. It never calls the system itself in doubt. It’s a very common propagandist ploy to scapegoat, to “externalize” it’s potentially unpopular features. My Lai anyone?

  28. I saw a screener of this film this week.  “I don’t get it.” goes for me as well…

     “it felt banal, trite, thin, predictable – yeah, some parts were filmed nicely, but overall, just as a film, it was totally mediocre at best.”

    Yep.  I was thinking, “Gee, this is basically just a really expensive episode of “Homeland”…   Best Film of the Year?  Pfff.  Not even close.

      1. Here’s what *really* baffles me: ZDT leads (at this writing) Best Film of the Year awards from various critics associations:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/editorial/news/1926508/awards_leaderboard_2013/

        1. And, for additional perspective, there’s this tweet from 
          KUMAIL NANJIANI:  Senators are getting upset at Zero Dark Thirty, which is a movie. Wait till they find out what happened in America last week.

        2. As much as in previous years I’d agree this year it has little strong competition. The Master that is 2nd shares the same bad traits as ZDT – it’s good only on technical level but not on a conceptual story level. Amour will probably not get even a best pic nom. 

    1. Academy awards are not really best movie awards. At least they haven’t been for years. In terms of scriptwriting, editing and cinematography the movie is still very good. What you judge here is the story but the story is trying to be as close to real life events as possible. Success or not you can’t make a docu drama that is not predictable if you also want for it to be realistic. 

      Story wise yes I wasn’t entertained. It felt kinda banal, predictable and think but life often is that way. On the other hand it was hard for me not to see it as a properly made movie. Were there better movies this year? Yes. Are there better movies racing for the best pic this year? It’s hard to say, it’s a weak year full of movies that may be properly made but are nothing worth remembering. Though I haven’t seen silver linings playbook, django, rust and bone (though this sounds super oscar bait) and beasts of the southern wild. 

      Amour blew me away but it being a foreign, for many people very depressing movie it has little chances outside the foreign oscar category. 

  29. I have no interest in seeing this movie, and no offense but I am already tired of reading about it. Although I am thankful for your honest opinion. It supports my choice not to watch obvious propaganda films.

  30. I suppose that if torture is “enhanced interrogation techniques”, we can start referring to 9/11 as “politically-motivated demolition”.

  31. If I could make a couple of corrections to your article: Danny Elfman did not compose the score to Zero Dark Thirty, Alexandre Desplat did. Also, you credit Barry Ackroyd as cinematographer, but the article you cite actually credits Greig Fraser, who was in fact the DP on Zero Dark Thirty. Ackroyd was the DP on Bigelow’s previous film, Hurt Locker (it seems they both incorporated the same gritty, hand-held style, though).

      1. No problem, I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I hadn’t just randomly seen the correct info yesterday. :-) (BTW, thanks for your awesome post about City of Hope [“How you do a video PSA about childhood cancer”] from a few months back – I work on the web marketing team and we really loved seeing Gavin’s story show up on BoingBoing!  I’ve really enjoyed you blogging about your cancer journey – all the best!)

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