Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography, Pernicious Propaganda
As it turns out, the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned
I've now seen "Zero Dark Thirty". Before getting to that: the controversy triggered this week by my commentary on the debate over that film was one of the most ridiculous in which I've ever been involved. It was astounding to watch critics of what I wrote just pretend that I had simply invented or "guessed at" the only point of the film I discussed - that it falsely depicted torture as valuable in finding bin Laden - all while concealing from their readers the ample factual bases I cited: namely, the fact that countless writers, almost unanimously, categorically stated that the film showed exactly this (see here for a partial list of reviewers and commentators who made this factual statement definitively about the film - that it depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden - both before and after my column).
Of course it's permissible to comment on reviews that are written.That's why they're written - and why they're published before the film is released, in this case weeks before its release. I discussed the film's depiction of torture as valuable in finding bin Laden because I did not believe that the New York Times' Frank Bruni, the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, New York's David Edelstein, CNN's Peter Bergen and all sorts of other commentators had simultaneously hallucinated or decided to fabricate on this key factual question.
That it's legitimate to opine on the factual claims (as opposed to the value judgments) of reviewers is not some exotic or idiosyncratic theory that I invented. All kinds of writers who had not seen the film nonetheless similarly condemned this singular aspect of it based on this evidence, including: Andrew Sullivan, twice ("Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie" and torture techniques "were not instrumental in capturing and killing Osama bin Laden - which is the premise of the movie"); Mother Jones' Adam Serwer ("The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture"); NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen ("WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn't used to get Bin Laden?"); The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky ("Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11. . . . According to reports, I haven't seen the film, so maybe it's handled well, that decisions [sic] seems to make the film automatically and definitionally a work of propaganda"), and so on.
None of us was "reviewing" the film but rather rebutting and condemning its false assertion that torture was critical in finding bin Laden. As Sullivan put it in yet another post about the film: "the mere facts about the movie, as reported by many viewers, do not require a review. They demand a rebuttal." Indeed (and all of that's independent of the primary point I examined - regarding critics who simultaneously acknowledge that the film falsely depicts torture as valuable yet still hail it as "great": an abstract discussion on the obligations of filmmakers that obviously is not dependent upon the film's content).
Having now seen the film, it turns out that Bruni, Filkins, Edelstein, Bergen and the others did not in fact hallucinate or fabricate. The film absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden - exactly as they said it did - and it does so in multiple ways.
Zero Dark Thirty and the utility and glory of torture
I'll explain why this is so in a moment (and if you don't want "spoilers", don't read this), but first, I want to explain why this point matters so much. In US political culture, there is no event in the last decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
This event has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. The news of his death triggered an outburst of patriotic street chanting and nationalistic glee that continued unabated two years later into the Democratic National Convention. As Wired's Pentagon reporter Spencer Ackerman put it in his defense of the film, the killing of bin Laden makes him (and most others) "very, very proud to be American." Very, very proud.
In this film: X = torture. That's why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step - the first, indispensable step - in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America's most hated public enemy.
For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is - by definition - to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That's why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step - the first, indispensable step - in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America's most hated public enemy.
The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don't support it because they don't realize it's brutal. They know it's brutal - that's precisely why they think it works - and they believe it's justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.
Indeed, here is how Slate's Emily Bazelon, who defends the film even while acknowledging that it "reads as pro-torture", describes her reaction to the torture scenes:
"At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, [the CIA agent]'s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to US interests."
That's the effect it had on a liberal who proclaims herself to be adamantly opposed to torture and is a professional journalist well-versed in these issues. Imagine how someone less committed to an anti-torture position will regard the message.
If you're a national security journalist who studies and writes about these issues, then you can convince yourself that the film focuses on the part of the bin Laden hunt that you like: all the nice "police work" that ultimately led the CIA to find bin Laden's house. But the film dramatically posits that this is possible only because of the information extracted from detainees who were tortured. The unmistakable and overwhelming impression created is that, as Bruni put it: "no waterboarding, no Bin Laden."
Everything about the film reinforces this message. It immediately goes from its emotionally exploitative start - harrowing audio tapes of 9/11 victims crying for help - into CIA torture sessions of Muslim terrorists that take up a good portion of the film's first forty-five minutes.
The key evidence - the identity of bin Laden's courier - is revealed only after a detainee is brutally and repeatedly abused. Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: "I can always go eat with some other guy - and hang you back up to the ceiling." That's when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden's courier - after he's threatened with more torture - and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden.
But the film touts the value of torture in all sorts of other ways. Other detainees whose arms are shackled to the ceiling are shown confirming the courier's identity. Another detainee, after being threatened with rendition to Israel, pleads: "I have no wish to be tortured again - ask me a question, and I will answer it."
And worst of all, the film's pure, saintly heroine - a dogged CIA agent who sacrifices her entire life and career to find bin Laden - herself presides over multiple torture sessions, including a waterboarding scene and an interrogation session where she repeatedly encourages some US agent to slap the face of the detainee when he refuses to answer. "You do realize, this is not a normal prison: you determine how you are treated", our noble heroine tells an abused detainee.
This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists.
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.
This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that - whether intended or not - is the film's glorification of torture.
CIA propaganda beyond torture
As it turns out, the most pernicious propagandistic aspect of this film is not its pro-torture message. It is its overarching, suffocating jingoism. This film has only one perspective of the world - the CIA's - and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration.
All agents of the US government - especially in its intelligence and military agencies - are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network (the sole exception being a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information; the only good Muslim is found at the CIA).
Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a "mother of three", has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan.
News footage is gratuitously shown that reports on the arrest of the attempted Times Square bomber, followed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's pronouncement that "there are some people around the world who find our freedom so threatening that they are willing to kill themselves and others to prevent us from enjoying them." One CIA official dramatically reminds us: "They attacked us on land in '98, by sea in 2000, and by air in 2001. They murdered 3000 of our citizens in cold blood." Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.
The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain - so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves - and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.
From start to finish, this is the CIA's film: its perspective, its morality, its side of the story, The Agency as the supreme heroes.
None of this is surprising. The controversy preceding the film arose from the deep access and secret information given to the filmmakers by the CIA. As is usually the case, this special access was richly rewarded.
In the Atlantic this morning, Peter Maass makes this point perfectly in his piece entitled "Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty'". That, he writes, is because "it represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking." He continues: "An already problematic practice - giving special access to vetted journalists - is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA)."
Indeed, from start to finish, this is the CIA's film: its perspective, its morality, its side of the story, The Agency as the supreme heroes. (That there is ample evidence to suspect that the film's CIA heroine is, at least in composite part, based on the same female CIA agent responsible for the kidnapping, drugging and torture of Khalid El-Masri in 2003, an innocent man just awarded compensation this week by the European Court of Human Rights, just symbolizes the odious aspects of uncritically venerating the CIA in this manner).
It is a true sign of the times that Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America's National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade. Like the bin Laden killing itself, this is a film that tells Americans to feel good about themselves, to feel gratitude for the violence done in their name, to perceive the War-on-Terror-era CIA not as lawless criminals but as honorable heroes.
Nothing inspires loyalty and gratitude more than making people feel good about themselves. Few films accomplish that as effectively and powerfully as this one does. That's why critics of the film inspire anger almost as much as critics of the bin Laden killing itself: what is being maligned is a holy chapter in the Gospel of America's Goodness.
The "art" excuse
A common objection to what I wrote about the film is that even if it falsely depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden, those kinds of "political objections" do not and should not preclude praise for the film because "art" need not accommodate ideology or political agendas. Time's critic James Poniewozik accused me of having "a simplistic way of looking at art" which, he said, is "not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art." Salon's critic Andrew O'Hehir, gushing about the film, opines: "I'm not suggesting that the moral and ethical deconstruction doesn't matter, but the movie is much bigger than that."
It is a true sign of the times that Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America's National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade.
Contrary to Poniewozik's insinuations, I don't think fictional works must reflect or advance my political beliefs in order to be worthy of praise. As but one example, I've defended the Showtime program "Homeland" - despite some valid criticisms that it promotes some heinous viewpoints - on the ground that (unlike Zero Dark Thirty) it includes a full range of views on those issues and thus avoids endorsing or propagandizing on them (as but one example: a US Marine Sergeant becomes an anti-US "terrorist" after he watches the US government knowingly slaughter dozens of Iraqi children in a drone attack, including one to whom he had become close - the 10-year-old son of a bin Laden-like figure - only to lie about it afterward). I agree with Poniewozik and other film critics who insist that it's perfectly legitimate for works of fiction to depict, without adopting, even the most heinous views.
But the idea that Zero Dark Thirty should be regarded purely as an apolitical "work of art" and not be held accountable for its political implications is, in my view, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral claptrap. That's true for several reasons.
First, this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the "journalistic" approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film's first screen assures viewers that it is all "based on first hand accounts of actual events". You can't claim you're doing journalism and then scream "art" to justify radical inaccuracies. Serwer aptly noted the manipulative shell-game driving this: "If you're thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is 'history'; if you're a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it's just a movie."
Second, the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade: the 9/11 attack (which it starts with) and the killing of bin Laden (which it ends with). George Bush got re-elected running on the former, while Obama just got re-elected running on the latter. It was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House. Everything about this film - its subject, its claims, its mode of production, its implications - are political to its core. It does not have an apolitical bone in its body. Demanding that political considerations be excluded from how this film is judged is nonsensical; it's a political film from start to finish.
Third, to demand that this movie be treated as "art" is to expand that term beyond any real recognition. This film is Hollywood shlock. The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.
While parts of the film are technically well-executed, it features almost every cliche of Hollywood action/military films. The characters are one-dimensional cartoons: the heroine is a much less interesting and less complex knock-off of Homeland's Carrie: a CIA agent who sacrifices her personal life, disregards bureaucratic and social niceties, her careerist interests, and even her own physical well-being, in monomaniacal pursuit of The Big Terrorist.
Worst of all, it does not challenge, subvert, or even unsettle a single nationalistic orthodoxy. It grapples with no big questions, takes no risks in the political values it promotes, and is even too fearful of letting upsetting views be heard, let alone validated (such as the grievances of Terrorists that lead them to engage in violence, or the equivalence between their methods and "ours").
There's nothing courageous, or impressive, about any of this. As one friend who is a long-time journalist put it to me by email (I'm quoting this because I can't improve on how it's expressed):
"I also feel like there's this tendency of critics to give credit to artists (argh, novelists, too) for simply raising uncomfortable issues, even when they don't bother to coherently think them through, as though just wallowing in the gray areas of the human condition is a noble thing (and sure, it can be, but it can be lazy, too)."
Perhaps film critics are forced to watch so many shoddy Hollywood films that their expectations are very low and they are easily pleased. But if this is high-minded "art", then anything produced by turning on a camera is. As one friend, who works in the film industry, put it:
As that blog you linked to said - it's perfect for people who are so called PC and cool liberal types. Everything about it - how it's framed and branded as some cool Traffic-style movie so people feel as though they're smart by watching it."
But despite all that, this film deserves the debate it is attracting. It matters. Huge numbers of people are going to see it. Critics are swooning for it and it will be lavished with all sorts of awards. Mass entertainment has at least as much of an impact on political perceptions as overtly political writing does - probably more so. It's reckless to insist that a film that will have this big of an impact on matters so consequential - the commission by the US of grave war crimes both in the past and potentially in the future - should be shielded from discussions of its political claims and consequences.
That doesn't mean it has an affirmative responsibility to preach or propagandize. If the torture claims it makes were actually true - that torture played a key role in finding bin Laden - then there would be nothing wrong with depicting that (although opposing perspectives should be included as well).
Emily Bazelon is right when she says that "we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture . . . without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything." In all the years I've been arguing about torture, I never once claimed it never works - because that claim is, to me, both untrue and irrelevant. Torture - like murder - is categorically wrong no matter what benefits it produces.
The issue here is falsity. The problem isn't that they showed torture working. The problem, as Adam Serwer and Andrew Sullivan amply document, is that the claims it makes are false. Given the likely consequences of this fabrication - making even more Americans more supportive of torture, perhaps even making the use of torture more likely in the future - that this is a so-called "work of art" does not excuse it (notably, Bigelow is not defending the film on the ground that she showed torture as valuable because it was; she's disingenuously denying that the film shows torture as having value).
Ultimately, I really want to know whether the critics who defend this film on the grounds of "art" really believe the principles they are espousing. I raised the Leni Reifenstahl debate in my first piece not to compare Zero Dark Thirty to Triumph of the Will - or to compare Bigelow to the German director - but because this is the debate that has long been at the heart of the controversy over her career.
Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I've actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl's films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.
But I always perceived myself in the minority on that question due to that ambivalence. It always seemed to me there was a consensus in the west that Riefenstahl was culpable and her defense of "I was just an artist" unacceptable.
Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?
I have a very hard time seeing liberal defenders of Zero Dark Thirty extending their alleged principles about art to films that, unlike this film, are actually unsettling, provocative and controversial. It's quite easy to defend this film because it's ultimately going to be pleasing to the vast majority of US viewers as it bolsters and validates their assumptions. That's why it seems to me that the love this film is inspiring is inseparable from its political content: it's precisely because it makes Americans feel so good - about an event that Ackerman says makes him "very, very proud to be American" - that it is so beloved.
Whatever else is true about it, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressively political film with a very dubious political message that it embraces and instills in every way it can. David Edelstein, the New York Magazine critic, had it exactly right when he wrote that it "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible", though I think it crosses that border. It's thus not only legitimate, but necessary, to engage it as what it is: a political argument that advances - whether by design or effect - the interests of powerful political factions.
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