Bigelow: "I'm a pacifist," so your "Zero Dark Thirty" criticisms are invalid

Kathryn Bigelow: 'Zero Dark Thirty' torture criticism is invalid, because "I'm a pacifist." The problem isn't so much that torture scenes existed; but that their presence in a faux-documentary made the case that real-world use of torture was justified. Argo helmer Ben Affleck has an opinion. (


  1. why is that? The torture didn’t work and the main character was repulsed by it (puking at one point).

    A straight up documentary would not be much different. I doubt you will find many people involved in the finding of Bin Ladden that won’t say that “enhanced interrogation” is both necessary and fruitful regardless of how true that statement is.

    Unless you want a Michael Moore smear job that edits the interviews to make everyone but him look stupid.

    1. Exactly. I don’t see how people can spin the movie as being “pro-torture” the way things like “24” seem to be. Did they even watch it?

        1. There’s another possibility: some people interpreted the movie differently from you.

          Unless your definition of “film-illiterate” is “anyone who interprets a film differently than the way I do”.

    2. why is that? The torture didn’t work and the main character was repulsed by it (puking at one point).

      Makes you really feel for the poor, beautiful agent, uh starlet…
      Somehow this film-illiterate viewer thinks that despite all the stuff she’s seen, she’ll manage to power through, be stronger for it, and maybe once again save the world from the bad guys while zinging a few macho guys in the process…

      1. That wasn’t the point. The point was to show what happened what torture was used. Of course they got some information out of it. Otherwise they wouldn’t have used it. What’s debatable is whether it is moral and is the information useful. The movie doesn’t take the stance on the first issue and the information isn’t any more useful than the same gathered without torture.

        You forget the moment where the most progress in looking for Osama is made after waterboarding was banned.

        1. What’s debatable is whether it is moral and is the information useful.

          No, much more is debatable, including whether the retelling itself isn’t a giant string of cliches.

    3. Were you watching a different movie? The main character was repulsed by it – at first. Then she went back in and continued pushing it, until she proved herself to be a genuine big-girl hardass by running the torture. Doing “Whatever it takes.” And then afterwards others in the CIA are bitching that torture is no longer in their arsenal, because it was so effective. If it just weren’t for those pussy civilians who just don’t get it. 

      A straight-up documentary would be quite different. It would include all the information and evidence that didn’t work out, the innocents who were tortured to death who had no information, The people who knew nothing and told the CIA torturers what they thought they wanted to hear just to stop being tortured…

      1. You’re assuming you’re meant to identify with the protagonist. Did you cheer for Jeremy Renner’s broken character in The Hurt Locker? 

        1. Now I’m confused; who was I supposed to identify with UBL? What makes you think we are not supposed to identify with the protagonist?

        2. No, I’m not assuming that. Lol! I’m *declaring*  that.

          There is no reason ever given or implied in the entire movie, that I’m *not* supposed to root for her. She’s literally never wrong on any important question, and other people are wrong to the extent that they disagree with her. The closest she comes to being wrong is supporting a more competitive and less-talented female co-worker in that co-worker’s own investigation. The same co-worker, incidentally, gets killed when trying to get information in a method that *isn’t* using torture.

          1. The movie is shown from her point of view. That was the point. What I understand the ZDT crew even contacted her (the real agent) so what do you expect?

            The movie is a personal take on the story. How a single agent felt about it. You were not to root for her, you were to understand her (not in a positive or a negative way). It’s not what the director or the screenwriter felt but what the agent felt.

            This is really funny because looking at this what you really expect is to change a personal take on a story for political reasons and you call the movie propaganda. Seriously. I’m as anti torture as possible. Pretty far left politically wise and for some reason I don’t see the reason to jump on the hate bandwagon started by a journalist who hasnt seen the movie.

          2. First, the character is actually a composite. So that is not one person’s point of view – unless the one person is Bigelow. [Edit: whoops. just found out the female lead character is not a composite, but is actually supposed to be one person, with details changed so her identity won’t be revealed.]

            Second, what I expect from a movie that is supposed to be based on reality is that it at least accurately presents more than one side of that reality.

            That is not too much to ask, is it? 

            Thirdly, I don’t see how it is a “hate bandwagon” to criticize (gasp!) a director for incorrectly presenting facts, in a story  that is supposed to be based on real events – but selectively chooses those events in a way that completely whitewashes the CIA *and* torture. 

            I’ve seen the movie, and that’s how I felt about it before I even read this here article.

          3. “The movie is a personal take on the story. How a single agent felt about it”

            Yes, and the choice to put forth her story in such a way was fully intentional, and indicates what the director’s vision was.

          4. Sure, she’s extremely efficient. But, like Renner’s character, there’s not much else to her – she is her job. If you start identifying with her, you’ll start to see the alleged necessity of torture – of getting results by any means possible.

            Bigelow wants you to feel complicit.

            The funny thing about American film-making is the centrality of the “relatable protagonist”, the expectation that the protagonist is a hero. It’s a naive position. Ask Paul Verhoeven about this – he got American multiplex audiences cheering for fascist stormtroopers in Starship Troopers. Boy how he laughed about that in the interviews he gave in Europe.

          5. That’s a great comment. I don’t think you are to relate to her. You are only to see her point of view but I think your generalization about american cinema is unfair. Yes mainstream far is about relatability but that’s because it sells. The same happens for european movies.

            Also her being only her job is the point. There are people like that, many people and we often forget that.

            Though you get kudos for Verhoeven. I’m a fan.

            btw. Is it only me or does the outrage only come from the countries who actively participated in the waterboarding practices?

          6. Nope. If Bigelow wanted us to feel complicit, then  she would have presented more of the actual negatives of torture. Having to go along with something that’s all benefits to us while only hurting enemies who hate us, is not any suitable grounds for feeling ‘complicit’ – that’s all justification and no down side.

            Also, and more to the point, right now she would just say “I wanted viewers to feel complicit”. 

            So that excuse doesn’t wash either.

      2. So because she went back to torturing him it’s pro torture? Even if that was true?
        It’s not a straight up documentary. The format requires a certain structure and yes in case of a documentary what you say would be expected but doing the same in a feature film would be very hard.

        1. Yes. When a movie takes something that is almost entirely negative and presents that something almost entirely in a positive light, with no good guys getting hurt by it and with the main character benefiting from it catch an an evil mastermind – then yes, that movie is being pro that something.

          I mean, you tell me, Are you suggesting that this makes the movie anti-torture?

          And, come on re: drama vs. documentary. This level of nuance is certainly possible in drama. “Argo” was not a documentary. But “Argo” at least had the sense to present the US as not being entirely angelic in its prior treatment of Iran, it’s willingness to be callous to its own treatment of both allies and its own people, and so on.

          1. You’re over-reaching. It presents torture as positive? Torture, as presented in the movie, is abhorrent and vile. (At no point does the visual grammar of the film invite us to side with the torturers.) It happened in real life. CIA goons went along with it. Several former heads of the CIA are on record, in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, as justifying it as an effective means to an end (that was the official line at the time the movie was being written and produced – they’ve downplayed it since, because, y’know, politics). The film depicts that corporate ethos. And, importantly, it makes it clear that torture was NOT a particularly effective intelligence-gathering technique.

            The point is made clearly enough. What more do you want?  Mr. Mackey to step in and tell us that torture is bad, m’kay?

          2. No, you’re overreaching – because your claims about this movie are not backed up by  this movie. 

            Yes, this film presents torture as a net positive. 

            I get that you don’t like this conclusion. If you disagree, please show how you think it presents torture as a negative – with concrete examples from this movie.

            How is the protagonist’s life made worse because of her involvement in torture? In no way at all.
            What innocents are harmed because of America’s use of torture? None.

            How is the protagonist’s main goal, catching Bin Laden, made more difficult because of torture? Not in any way at all.

            And HOW does the film “make clear that torture was NOT a particularly effective intelligence-gathering technique”? The sole comment of this, mentions that the CIA can’t do this any more – and that the CIA’s work is now HARDER because  the CIA can’t do this any more. 

            I  get that you want to *believe* this point is clearly made, for whatever reason. What I’m telling you is that  there is no evidence whatsoever for your belief in this, from seeing this movie. 

            Prove me wrong and show me concrete examples of what you’re talking about. Since I’m so wrong, that should be quite easy for  you. Right?

    4. “why is that? The torture didn’t work and the main character was repulsed by it (puking at one point).” 
      I think, in the movie, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” overwhelmingly do work. I can only think of one scene, involving torture, where the bad guy gives contrary information. The rest of the people interrogated eventually give good info. One guy even says something like “I’ve been through the ringer with you guys, I’m just going to roll over and tell you anything you want to know.”

      “I doubt you will find many people involved in the finding of Bin Ladden that won’t say that “enhanced interrogation” is both necessary and fruitful regardless of how true that statement is.”

      I’m not sure why this is relevant to the conversation unless this movie is less “documentary style” and more “from the point of view of X.”

  2. It’s hard for me to get excited about this when there’s so little actual journalism in actual journalism these days. When’s the last time you saw a Hollywood movie and left thinking that you understood an issue or historical event better than when you went in? Maybe a movie will inspire you to do some digging on your own (like “Lincoln”, maybe), but historical accuracy just seems too much to expect.

    1. These days?  Perhaps you remember a decade I missed, in which the public went flocking to documentaries and came out educated.  When was that exactly?

  3. I love it when critics try to tell me what to think before I’ve even experienced whatever they’re trying to dissuade me from experiencing, because as we all know, critics are always right in their analysis.  

      1. When it applies to movies, music, and books, critics don’t know jack shit about anyone’s tastes except their own, what other people like or don’t like, or even why.  Xeni has been on a tear and obviously doesn’t feel that it’s right to offer her analysis just once, and instead has posted article after article in a campaign to condemn a movie that isn’t going to change the course of history or ensure that those who actually carried out the torture are brought to justice.  I suppose it would have better for everyone involved to do like the Obama administration did and just pretend it never happened, by omitting any mention of torture from a two hour movie about a ten year subject.  

        1. It’s pretty incredibly that you’re simultaneously claiming that critics shouldn’t be interpreting movies for everyone else while trying to foist your interpretation of the movie on everyone else.

          1. I’ve never seen the movie.  How can I ‘interpret it’?  I never said critics shouldn’t be critiquing movies.  How did you arrive at that conclusion?  If you want to chain yourself to someone else’s thinking, you’re more than welcome to do so.  If you want to decide something before you’ve ever experienced it, you’re free to do so.  I prefer to go in with an open mind, rather than submitting to the belief that you shouldn’t see something because it might, well, do something to you.  

          2. I’ve never seen the movie.  How can I ‘interpret it’?

            Fair enough.  I thought you were arguing Xeni shouldn’t be criticizing the movie because the movie didn’t actually endorse torture.  I guess now I just don’t understand why you don’t think Xeni should criticize the movie.

            I never said critics shouldn’t be critiquing movies.

            I never said that you said that.

            As for the rest of your comment, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what I said. Saying “it’s OK to criticize movies” does not indicate that I take all such criticism seriously or let it dictate my thoughts about the movies should I subsequently see them. Believe it or not one can actually read criticism and reviews and still have an open mind.

          3. This isn’t a movie critique, this is a moral crusade…

            There’s an old Zen proverb, that says, ‘Empty your cup’. Go see the movie, if you haven’t already, and before you do, empty your cup.

      1. I would rather hold the actually architects of the torture program accountable, like Yoo, Addington, Cheney, and Bush, as well as the current administration, Obama and Holder, who are responsible for upholding the law (and who let them all get off without even the most minor of rebukes, before turning around and committing their own set of war crimes) than waste my time worrying about whether or not KB got the torture scenes ‘right’.  

        1. They got away with it because of the constant public endorsement regardless of the facts, which the movie isn’t concerned with either.

    1. It sure sucks to hear contrary opinion when you’ve already got your mind made up before watching the movie. Sure makes you sound open-minded and not at all a hypocrite.

      1. Hypocrite for what?  I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about the torture scenes in question because I haven’t see it.  I also didn’t realize that Xeni inspired such religious zealotry in her followers.  

  4. I’m starting to think this is a film literacy issue, pure and simple. As a film, ZDT does not endorse torture. It does not portray it as an effective intelligence-gathering tactic. What it’s saying is that it happened. The events are contextualized. As Bigelow points out, representation is not recommendation. The problem is that the naive viewer often does jump to that conclusion.

    Anyone who thinks that ZDT endorses torture should compare and contrast it with Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, a brilliant film about the eponymous terrorist. Some not particularly film-literate people claimed that Carlos glamorizes terrorism. Yeah, I can see how someone might draw that conclusion – but it’s not supported by the film itself as a whole.

    It’s no wonder that most film-makers rely on tedious sermonizing and main characters that function as relatable audience surrogates – so that there can be no doubt about where they stand on an issue.

    1. Thing is, Carlos pretty clearly presents its subject as a bit of a narcissistic tool.  Does ZDT do anything comparable to undercut its CIA protagonists?  (I’m asking, it ain’t out in my neck of the wood yet.)

      The representation is not recommendation thing seems to be a bit of a canard to me.  Nobody objected to Bigelow depicting torture – the objection centers around the fact that the information is acquired after the guy is tortured in the movie, as opposed to before, which is how it supposedly went down in reality.  So nobody is saying that by representing torture, Bigelow endorses it – they’re saying that the WAY she represents it ( which is in contradiction to the facts) suggests that torture was more effective than it was.  Big difference.

    2. I’m thinking it’s a film literacy issue, in that you don’t see things clearly as they were presented in this movie.

      As a film, ZDT doesn’t say “torture is awesome”. What it does actually do is distort the record by a) only showing the torture that results in useful information, b) not showing any useful information that *doesn’t* come from torture until *after* the torture is stopped, and c) having the characters complain that they can’t torture any more, so now their work will be that much harder.The omission involved in a) and b), then combined with c), very clearly creates the impression that torture is a necessary part of being bad-ass enough to stop Bin Laden. And thank heaven we were able to get enough torture in before the civilians shut it down.

      Bigelow would like to claim that because ‘ZDT’ doesn’t say explicitly that torture is awesome, that means ZDT is not whitewashing and manipulating the actual record of the CIA. That could be true, in a world where subjectivity and implying things was impossible. Since subjectivity and implying things is essential to the nature of all art, and especially film, this claim is really very silly.

      1. This. Although I should point out that I remember one recipient of enhanced interrogation giving bad info and I’m pretty sure it was during the interrogation (could be wrong).

        1. Oh, probably. As I recall they were able to see through it right away, and then zero in on the truth through more torture. Could be wrong though.

          However that was, the overall implication of the necessity of torturing enemies because it makes us safer came through pretty clearly to me.

      2. You’re getting close – but you’re still off the mark.

        You’re assuming that the viewer is meant to identify with the characters. Her protag here is as broken as Renner in The Hurt Locker. What Bigelow is presenting here is a corporate ethos in which “good company people” were convinced torture was a justifiable means to an end. After all, the film was written and produced at a time when former heads of the CIA went on record claiming that torture was valuable in finding the Big Bad. That was the CIA’s official line, even though they’re downplaying it now. (And let me make it perfectly clear – torture is an abhorrent practice that is never justifiable.) 

        You really don’t think the extended torture scenes, the focus on them, wasn’t intended to make you feel dirty and complicit?

        (It’s not the first time Bigelow has played with audience complicity – hell, see Strange Days.)

        And, if the movie was intended to glorify the whole sordid sequence of events, why doesn’t it end with a big-ol’ America fuck yeah? Instead we get soldiers gunning down people. There are terrified women and children. It’s a slaughter.

        That should complicate readings of the film.

        1. I really agree with you. I forgot how upset I was at the last part of the film. It both showed a very unpleasant side of the war on terror. That you send men in a situation where they often face situation where they can kill people without confirmation of their identity or risk being killed.

          Also the unpleasant violence being anti violence is an european cinema thing. In us violence is fun and as I see it most people here interpreted it in this way. Even if the scenes were unpleasant to watch for anyone I know, that includes my far right wing friends.

        2. You’re still off the mark, perhaps even further. You’re assuming that we are *not* supposed to identify with the main character and her plucky struggle. Where do you even get that from? Is she ever shown to have a single, real flaw in the entire movie? 

          Yes, I really do think the intended torture scenes were not intended to make me feel dirty and complicit. I think Bigelow wanted to shock with those torture scenes, sure – to make her point that for us to defeat the bad guys we have to be totally bad ass and shed our bourgeois concepts of “morals” and “not torturing people”.

          If Bigelow wanted us to really feel complicit, she would have also included the information that makes the case for how the torture **wasn’t always effective** and **was sometimes performed on innocents to the point that it killed them**. She would have shown someone being tortured to death who had no useful information, but the CIA didn’t believe them and just kept torturing them anyway. *That* is what makes someone feel complicit – being a part of somethign that’s totally wrong and doesn’t even produce the desired results.

          As for the big ol’ America fuck yeah – again, were we watching the same movie? The final scene – the main character has won and got the villain killed, and also proven herself, through her plucky pursuit of any means necessary. Inside her own special helicopter and close-up against a white background, red straps producing red-and-white stripes and her blue shirt to make her a symbol of valiant America, she finally gets to cry. America has won, because real tough men and women were finally able to convince all the pussies to go and kill Osama Bin Werewolf. 

          Where was **any downside to torture ever shown**?

          1. Find me a single review by a reputable, experienced film critic that describes the movie in those terms. Go on, I’ll be waiting. The closest I can find is David Edelstein in New York Magazine – he makes some good points.

            There are plenty of things about this movie that ARE worth discussing and problematizing – but painting the movie as vile propaganda does it a disservice and is not supported by the film itself.

            And, uh, in the movie itself, torture is shown not to be particularly effective – I don’t know what film you saw! There are scenes of tapes in which none of the detainees don’t give usable information.

            God help me, I actually find myself agreeing with that putz Devin Faraci:

            ‘I’m surprised that so many smart people writing for the smartest publications out there needed to have the film step up and, holding their hand, explain that torture isn’t good. Just showing torture as horrible wasn’t enough. Just having torture be unable to stop multiple terrorist attacks didn’t do it. They needed to have a character, maybe right at the end, looking off into the sunset say “We thought we were torturing them… but maybe we were just torturing ourselves.”’

          2. I’ll go better  than one single review. I present to you every comment on this page and the article itself.

            Every single person who has seen that film is 100% certified valid in having an opinion on that film. Period. 

            I’m aware of no licensing requirement to officially be a “reputable” film critic. I’ll note that many film critics loved “Titanic”, which I regard as one of the most godawful pieces of shite to ever be inflicted on a  culture. And many don’t think much of “Escape From New York”, which is an utter gem.

            This is a discussion about art, which is unavoidably and even necessarily subjective. But it can be discussed and points can be made and received, regarding the observed nature of the film itself. And those points and arguments can and should be weighed on the basis of their merits, and not some farcical authority based on some other peoples’ positions writing columns about romantic comedies. That’s about as relevant as some farcical aquatic ceremony.

        3. “You’re assuming that the viewer is meant to identify with the characters. Her protag here is as broken as Renner in The Hurt Locker”

          Bullshit, you’re “supposed” to identify EVEN MORE with broken characters.

    3. The problem is that the naive viewer often does jump to that conclusion.

      So pretty much everybody then.

  5. Sounds like Bigelow (and partners) want to have it all. When there’s praise it’s an exhaustively researched, deadly accurate, documentary style picture, when there’s pointed criticism and fact checking: “Hey, it’s JUST a fun movie!”

    The always on point Eileen Jones eviscerates ZDT, and contrasts it with the absolutely amazing Battle of Algiers:

    Re: the torture issue — the controversy basically deals with the question of whether Zero Dark Thirty indicates torture is effective in getting reliable info out of people, and therefore “endorses” it. The movie’s brave, straightforward answer to this is: YesWellMaybe? DefinitelyCouldBeUnlessNot?

    Does Torture Work? Zero Dark Thirty Says “YesWellMaybe?DefinitelyCouldBeUnlessNot?”

  6. It’s weird to read all the attempts at dialogue regarding (with the eyes of a Canadian) what appears to be nothing more than overt propaganda via operation Mockingbird. I’m not trying to ‘troll’ americans here — my government does the same thing. Isn’t the film’s nature obvious?

    1. And that’s the issue isn’t’ it? The very idea of controversy is its biggest selling point. If you intentionally make it so it can be interpreted different ways, you can generate a lot of buzz.

      I decided I’m not going to see this movie, precisely because it seems to be merely a cashing in of the events depicted. The controversy so contrived as to be apparently pre planned. It also says its “journalistic” which is I guess in the same category of terminology as “truthiness”, “Misspeaking” and “Enhanced interrogation”.

      I’m not falling for it.

    2. “I’m not trying to ‘troll’ americans here”

      Plenty of Americans are disgusted by our propaganda as well, especially when it comes in a “pacifist”‘s cloak.

  7. Thank you. 

    “My movie didn’t say torture worked and was key to finding Bin Laden, because I’m a pacifist. Therefore freedom.”.

    How someone as actually intelligent as Bigelow can still think this is an adequate defense of her creative choices, really illustrates how the ego can stretch perception all out of shape rather than take the hit of admitting fault.

    1. That’s the problem when trying to understand a piece of work like this at the hands of the author. Especially when its at the stage of making money.

      It seems to me that she is just trying to promote the movie by not making definite statements, if she takes a stance then you lose a part of your audience, if its controversial, then she and the studio are just hoping people will go see the movie just to “see what all the fuzz is about”.

      1. Hey, maybe she has better answers and actual reasons. It’s always possible. I can only go on what is actually presented. So far, those reasons suck.

  8. Argo’s Ben Afflek is appalled, simply appalled that anyone would play so fast and loose with something that purports to be a factual story.

    A mob of outraged-but-polite Canadians, when reached for comment, responded with “At least he’s not torturing anyone, eh?”

  9.  I read all of the reviews and criticisms I could before watching the movie, then settled in to see what the movie itself said . . .what I walked away with is:
    -Her movies are always mildly boring, but intelligently structured
    -She made the kinds of choices one would expect in a commercial film as far as compression of events, changes for dramatic sense, etc.
    -She made an interesting allegory about the single-minded pursuit of vengeance in response to a  horrific attack. The Americans, the protagonists, are compromised from the beginning, engaged in morally debased behavior. They torture, they lie, they have no clear strategy except a direct and un-nuanced response: kill Bin Laden.  Mistakes are made, we get sucked further and further in, we become the monster, we kill Bin Laden, and  . . . what? Nothing. The “war” goes on.

    I don’t think it’s propaganda, I don’t think it’s pro-torture . . . I think ZDT is a deeply flawed attempt to look at what we became as a nation because we were so busy looking for the bad guy that we didn’t pay enough attention to what we were becoming. I understand why people are coming to the conclusions that they are, and maybe the film as it is presentde supports them to some degree, but I I think people are way off in dismissing Bigelow as a propagandist or as pro-torture. She has always been an uneven artist, trying to play with genres to get at genre assumptions and make deeper social comments, but she has always seemed to make interesting efforts. I think she did it again.

  10. Bottom line is, if the vast majority of film critics (who know how to read a film critically and are for the most part left-leaning) see a film as a complex, compelling take on a topic, and all you see is vile propaganda, I suggest that what we have here is a failure to engage with the material.

    There are plenty of things about ZDT that ARE worth discussing and problematizing (such as questions of viewer identification, narrative viewpoint, the problems inherent in dramatizing first-hand accounts/contemporary history, etc.), but that kind of discussion is impossible when people start comparing Bigelow to Leni effing Riefenstahl.

    Frankly, from an artist’s viewpoint, that’s depressing.

    1. Bottom line is, if people are providing you with examples of a problem and you present counter examples which are consistently demolished, while you are constantly shifting arguments, and you end up with a “bottom line”  that’s basically an appeal to authority, then perhaps your own lack of solid evidence should impel you to consider that the people you’re arguing with may actually have a point.

      From this artist’s perspective, your resistance to this as a possibility and your rather dramatic conclusion that this is “depressing” is really just fine. No worries at all, in fact. :)

      1. Demolished? Hardly. I believe I’ve responded to your concerns at least in part. What I’ve been arguing for here is very simple. You’ve made up your mind that ZDT is propaganda. I maintain that’s an incredibly reductive interpretation. It’s like you think this is Taken or something.

        ZDT is a complex, ambiguous and problematic film (for instance, the fact that the narrative is shaped into a thriller means that the investigation takes on a seductive urgency, an amoral thrust). I don’t know what you’re after with your “downsides to torture” thing. Yes, sure, it could include a scene in which a CIA goon kills someone. It could, but it doesn’t. The lack of such a scene doesn’t mean anything. What we’re given should be enough. (Don’t forget that the POV of the film is close-to-the-ground – it’s up to the viewer to take a moral distance from the events. Which Bigelow encourages by opening the film with torture.)

        For specific scene-by-scene details, I’d need access to a screener. Since I don’t, I consult the critics to jog my memory – by which I don’t mean entertainment news hacks, but people who study and write about the medium seriously, and who understand the visual grammar of film. Crucially, I can’t find a single one who says ZDT is propaganda. Nor can I find anyone who contradicts my memory about how the torture scenes were handled and their function in the narrative (you seem to be alone in thinking they’re in there to show how Maya “mans up” or something – nor can I find a single one who interprets the ending as a rah-rah America fuck yeah moment. The images tell us the story. This is dirty work, this is slaughter, you’re complicit in it). Many of the critics raise issues about the film and its aesthetics, certainly. And these WOULD be interesting to talk about. 

        Eh, you want appeal to authority, I’ll give you someone who understands the power of strong, political images – Michael Moore. Here you go: ‘Moore praised “Zero Dark Thirty” both as storytelling and cinema, and told them he thought many liberals had misinterpreted it. He had recently seen the film with his wife, he said, and they “got it.” It’s “the story of what happened,” he went on, but not a story intended to be read as literal, blow-by-blow journalism. That ambiguity, he suggested, had engaged a tendency among many liberals to leap to conclusions and resist deep thinking.’

        1. Great. Let’s go through this comment.

          “Demolished? Hardly. I believe I’ve responded to your concerns at least in part. …
          For specific scene-by-scene details, I’d need access to a screener. Since I don’t, I consult the critics to jog my memory…”

          I.e., as you’ve just stated, you’ve not responded to my ‘concerns’.
          I don’t have access to a screener either. I just saw the movie once. I present numerous specifics for my position. You aren’t presenting much of any for yours.

          Specifically, on this page:

          1) When I present points re: Bigelow presenting torture as useful with no actual drawbacks for the protagonist, you state: “You’re assuming you’re meant to identify with the protagonist. ” I respond with “I’m *declaring* that”, and challenge you to show I’m wrong. You don’t answer this at all, you just continue to imply that she *may* be “unreliable”. As if that possibility means I’m certainly wrong.

          2) Then you additionally claim that Bigelow is just trying to make us feel ‘complicit’. I point out that Bigelow doesn’t even say this in her excuses, and that the way she presents torture – is not presenting us with something to really feel guilty about and thus complict. You don’t respond to this argument either.

          3) Then, in response to another comment of mine, you baldly state that I’m “over-reaching” and that “Torture, as presented in the movie, is abhorrent and vile.”

          I point out once again that nothing bad happens to any good guys as a result of the torture in this movie, that the protagonists only benefit from the use of torture, and that torture is ONLY shown as something that produces answers and is basically presented as being key to the capture of Bin Laden – and that without torture being available, the CIA characters complain that their job is harder now. You have no response to this.

          4) Then, further, after you try to dismiss those who disagree with you as being film illiterates, you challenge me to produce the “America Fuck Yeah!” moment at the end. So, I do produce it for you. You have no response to that either. Instead you fall back on how detractors must be wrong about how Bigelow treats torture, because popular film critics like the movie. Can you see what a non sequitir that is? It’s missing the point almost as much as Bigelow saying her movie can’t be too soft on torture, because she’s a pacifist who happens to make war movies.

          In closing, you misunderstand me. I don’t want arguments by authority. I don’t really care how much Michael Moore loves or hates anything, I care about why – as in, for what reasons based on what evidence.You have decided to love this movie and you have decided that anyone who dislikes this movie for whitewashing torture are simply wrong. Perhaps you are simply sold on the visuals and don’t think anything else matters. If so, perhaps you should consider that other people are seeing things you do not, by going beneath the visuals to the conceptual underpinnings of the movie.

      1. Not what I was saying. Look at it this way: say you want to figure out what Artist X is doing. You go to the gallery, form your own ideas about X’s work, drawing on your own knowledge of art history, theory, context and techniques. 

        Then, to illuminate your analysis, you consult … well, who do you consult? Knowledgable art critics, who are well-versed in the form and techniques? Or some random person who happened to check out the work? I’m not saying this random person’s emotional response is invalid – but it could well be based on a misreading of the work. 

        Say the artist has employed fascist imagery or fetuses or whatever in the work. The way this imagery is framed/problematized/contextualized is key to analyzing the work. Said random person might simply ignore all of that and choose to be offended.

        In the arts, “representation is not recommendation” is fundamental. If someone can’t see beyond that, there’s nothing else I can say.

  11. Oh, come on, this isn’t that complicated. I did answer your questions, but I suppose I was too brief:

    1) Mainstream Hollywood films elicit identification with the hero. The arthouse mode is more complicated. You’re meant to observe a character, figure them out, watch them act in an environment. As in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow is not presenting a simple audience surrogate. She starts the movie with torture – right off the bat, you should be thinking about your relationship as a viewer to this character.

    That is the key to the problem of interpretation. You divide the film into good guys and bad guys. I’m saying the moral scheme of the movie is far more complex. This is a film that is intended to be interpreted, not consumed passively.

    2) Again, starting the film with torture foregrounds that. It’s right there. Bigelow is asking: how do you feel about this? This happened. The crucial question is how they’re shot (this is where a screener would come in handy) – at no point is the viewer invited to enjoy the torture. There is no invitation to enjoy it visually. The imagery is punishing, confrontational.

    3) The CIA keeps torturing people. Key point: they don’t get any information that would prevent bombings. This is your downside right here. The film shows that torture does not obtain information that saves lives. That’s all in the movie. 

    4) About the Bin Laden intel. Here, since I don’t have a screener to break it down for you scene by scene, I’ll quote Andrew O’Hehir:

    Whether Ammar offers up any useful new information pointing toward Osama bin Laden, and what exactly Dan gets out of him through torture, are deliberately murky plot points. Some commentators have made it sound as though “Zero Dark Thirty” offers a clear cause-and-effect relationship, like an outtake episode of Fox’s odious “24”: They torture the hell out of some guy, he gives up Osama, the Navy SEALs bring death from above to that now legendary compound in Abbottabad, and it’s rah-rah USA! But the story this movie spins isn’t anything like that, and we’re a long way from idiotic ticking-bomb scenarios.

    At most, Boal’s screenplay suggests that one detail emerged from this interrogation that would become important a long way down the line – but that it was actually information the CIA already possessed from other sources. Even that vague connection is contentious, since virtually everything about this story is. I suspect Boal’s intention is more like this: Torture was absolutely employed by CIA interrogators on presumed al-Qaida detainees, and the people who practiced it apparently believed it was working. Therefore it’s an important part of the story whether or not it really produced “actionable intel.” “Zero Dark Thirty”absolutely does not imply that torture interrogations led directly to the shadowy bin Laden contact who in turn led the CIA to “the Sheik’s” Pakistani hiding place. It’s just as plausible to say that “Zero Dark Thirty” suggests that torture became a grotesque and unproductive sideshow that gummed up the works and slowed down the more normal forms of surveillance, coercion and subterfuge that constitute intelligence-gathering.

    1. Again – I’m not saying the film isn’t problematic. What I’m taking issue with is how it’s being framed as propaganda. That interpretation is not borne out by textual analysis of the film itself.

      1. By YOUR analysis. A film critic and observer of any form of media would realize that there’s not one analysis of any movie.

    2. Well, maybe we have some difference on opinion as to what constitutes an answer. 

      From what I’m seeing, I presented theories and backed them up with specifics from the film – and you’ve presented theories, I’ve challenged them with specifics, and you have responded with more theories. I don’t see that as a substantive answer..I don’t see what’s complicated about giving specifics from the movie for your theories. But that’s your choice, and that’s fine. I just think it’s quite reasonable that not answering points loses that point by forfeit.

      So, leaving that but going to this supposed ambiguity. Where you are seeing ambiguity among the supposed ‘good guys’, I am seeing not enough of it. I am not seeing the supposed good guys in this film as having done *any* mixed deeds, as they are presented by Bigelow. I am not seeing any complexity in their presentation to interpret. I see only justification for doing it, and I see only up-sides shown.

      Maybe your position is “Well of course we as viewers already know that torture is bad, so just showing the torture itself is enough.” Perhaps that’s the key point we disagree on.

      You have a) protagonist with no real flaws, going up against b) an enemy with no presented virtues, using c) methods that aren’t even acknowledged by any one in the films as having flaws. I don’t see how you find some sort of artistic ambiguity in that.

      We do have ticking time-bomb scenarios in the movie. What if Bin Laden moves before we get him? What if we don’t have enough time to track him down, now that the civilians have gone all wussy-chicken and outlawed badass torture? 

      As stated in another comment, just because it’s case for torture is not as baldly stated as “24” was, doesn’t mean it’s not making a case for torture.

      1. We’ll have to disagree on this, then. The positioning of the viewer (his/her relationship to the protag) is the key to understanding the movie. The visual language of the movie encourages us to question how fully we should identify with her. I provided examples of this. 

        I also pointed out that the POV is down-on-the-ground. Some of the things you would want to be in the movie are out of the scope of this limited POV. (And this can be a problem.) Hina Shamsi from the ACLU (who does not think the film is pro-torture) made an apt observation – it’s a story about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.

        I also questioned your reading of the ending in particular. As I’m not in a position to do a shot-by-shot breakdown, I can only refer back to the critics for close readings of the film grammar (they take notes during screenings and/or have screeners of the film). And, almost without exception, they interpreted those sequences in a way similar to mine. This ain’t no America fuck yeah movie.

        Okay, that’s all I have – this is dancing about architecture, and it’s especially frustrating because I would like to give shot-by-shot examples from the film, but can’t until the thing is out on DVD.

        1. Sure, we’ll disagree. : ) Also, you haven’t presented any evidence to support your very specific counter-claims. So, I do think it’s reasonable to consider that my claims stand.

          But people can disagree on art and that’s all fine. My initial response was a bit more testy, but I’ll take it down a notch.

          I do feel like asking, though – you have seen the movie, right? You do seem very reliant on the opinions of official reputable critics, as opposed to what you saw watching the movie.

    3. “2) Again, starting the film with torture foregrounds that. It’s right there. Bigelow is asking: how do you feel about this? This happened. The crucial question is how they’re shot (this is where a screener would come in handy) – at no point is the viewer invited to enjoy the torture.”

      No, they’re made to think “torture is terrible… but it gets results”.

      Fuck this lowbrow cinema, anti-war movies have apparently been co-opted by the government.

  12. This reminds me of when we did Lolita in a university lit course. Predictably, a number of students in the course were all, OMG, pedophilia – this is sick, yuck, Nabokov is pro-pedophilia. 

    They way they read it, Humbert Humbert = Nabokov. They’d made up their minds. They’d chosen to be outraged and not engage with the novel.

    Again, the representation is not recommendation thing.

Comments are closed.