"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."

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