As Frontline PBS promotes it’s new documentary airing tonight, “Secrets, Politics, and Torture”, it once again links director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to supporting torture via its depiction in their film, Zero Dark Thirty. Many politicians and journalists say the filmmakers make it clear that information gained during torture led the U.S. to bin Laden. This interpretation of the film led to a months-long controversy when the film was released in December 2012. It seems that controversy has not completely gone away or been resolved. In “Secrets, Politics, and Torture,” the documentary apparently addresses the fact that Bigelow and Boal worked with the CIA to get information for Zero Dark Thirty. Frontline PBS has thus concluded that because the filmmakers worked with the CIA, Zero Dark Thirty is a propaganda film which promotes the use of torture. I’d like to remind Frontline PBS and the documentarians that Zero Dark Thirty was written mere months after the raid of the OBL compound occurred. Much like any journalist would, Boal interviewed government officials to piece together a timeline of events. Mark Bowden and Peter Bergen, both journalists, have written books about the post-9/11 decade and the hunt for bin Laden and have not come under the same fire as Bigelow or Boal. I would guess that both Bowden and Bergen probably interviewed and worked with the same government sources that Boal did. Are we going to call their accounts of the events propaganda too? (Well, Sy Hersh did.)
Everyone is entitled to their opinions about Zero Dark Thirty. Film and art are meant to be interpreted and as creators of a work, you know that the way the audience interprets your work is out of your control. Below, I’m including quotes from an academic paper I wrote on the controversy surrounding the film and the ethics of journalistic film. I admit that I’m annoyed when Zero Dark Thirty is continually brought up in the context of being pro-torture or propaganda. If you interpret the film that way, fine. But remember that the CIA and the American government are the ones who are complicit in creating and allowing the torture program to happen. In order to do that, we have to hold the government accountable.To me, preventing torture from occurring in the future is more important than placing the blame on filmmakers who were simply trying to shine a light on a dark decade.
Here’s how politicians and journalists who interpreted ZDT as being pro-torture influenced the reading of the film. They did not allow for any other possible readings of the film, which goes against the very idea of interpreting art and film. (Please find the attachment of my complete essay at the bottom of this post.)
Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Guardian, said: “The fact that [director Kathryn Bigelow is] presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her ‘journalistic approach’ to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible” (qtd in Poniewozik). However, it was later revealed that Greenwald blasted the film without even having seen it. Rather, he recorded his comments on the film based on film critics’ reviews. Indie Wire film critic Matt Singer wrote an article defending the film and numbering Greenwald’s inconsistencies. Citing Greenwald’s claim that those the CIA tortured did not help the United States find Osama bin Laden, Singer posits the journalist would agree the U.S. tortured suspects hoping it would lead to helpful intelligence. He goes on to interpret the torture portrayed in the film, saying, “in Bigelow and Boal’s approach, that action must be acknowledged and dealt with.” However, Greenwald’s comments had done their damage. Zero Dark Thirty was already being called “pro-torture,” a label that would influence audiences’ perception of the film before they even viewed it.
Another investigative journalist Jane Meyer, wrote about the film for The New Yorker, stating the movie had “no conscience” and using a quote from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to back up her claims about how the torture is falsely portrayed. Graham, a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, stated, “I would argue that it’s not waterboarding that led to Bin Laden’s demise. It was a lot of good intelligence gathering from the Obama and Bush administrations, continuity of effort, holding people at Gitmo, putting the puzzle together over a long period of time—not torture.” But that’s exactly what the film does show. The waterboarding scene produces no information from the detainee. In the published version of Boal’s screenplay, at the end of the waterboarding scene, the stage directions state: “They’ve [Dan and Maya] learned nothing” (6). The enhanced interrogation techniques are only one part of the hunt for Bin Laden. Just as Senator Graham credited “continuity of effort,” in Zero Dark Thirty, it is only Maya’s dogged determination in tracking the courier over the next eight years which leads, ultimately, to the Abbottabad raid.
In his Huffington Post piece about Zero Dark Thirty, Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), a documentary which focused on the United States’ policy on torture, lauded Bigelow for the strength of the opening sequence, but objected to the absence of debate in the film: “So give points to Boal and Bigelow for not pussyfooting around. They make it clear that the CIA tortured people as part of a ‘detainee program.’ But what’s distressing is that the filmmakers don’t ever question the efficacy of torture. We don’t see how corrupting it was, how many mistakes were made.” It’s true that Zero Dark Thirty does not contain scenes of the characters having moral debates about the interrogation methods used by the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, but the film was never intended to be a movie debating the use of torture. The film was advertised as “the greatest manhunt in the world” and that is exactly what the film focuses on. Bigelow spoke about the story she was interested in telling on Charlie Rose: “We really wanted to give the audience a look at what it might be like to work in the intelligence community on a hunt this important. To peel back the curtain and get a glimpse at a person, the process. What is the psychology behind someone who dedicates ten years of their life exclusively to finding one person” (“Zero Dark Thirty”). While the characters in the film aren’t sitting around having moral debates about their work, there is an emotional toll….Although many film critics categorized her as an unemotional protagonist, Maya is the only character in the film to have a visceral reaction to the enhanced interrogation techniques. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan says of the early scenes in the film, “Though the overall result is to induce repugnance in the viewer, these scenes exist because of the effect they have on fresh-off-the-boat Maya”.
Whether or not viewers of Zero Dark Thirty believe the film shows torture which resulted in information that led us to Bin Laden or whether it simply portrays torture as part of the hunt, it is the type of film that lends itself to a larger discussion about art and truth….
By condemning Zero Dark Thirty and not looking past the torture issue at the larger themes or message of the work, many who criticized the film missed the layers and nuance within Zero Dark Thirty. Cohen of The New York Times believes that by showing audiences America’s post-9/11 actions, including torture, Zero Dark Thirty does an important service. Although the details may be debated, Cohen insists it is the nuance and the broader message of the film that are important and were mostly overlooked and ignored by those who criticized it. He raises the example of Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica, which is a representation of the violence wreaked by a bombing in a Basque village in 1937. It is not a factual account, but “it does say something eternal and essential about war.” Cohen calls the film’s portrayal of torture powerful and truthful, saying that sometimes it [torture] was helpful, but most of the time it was unproductive. The trail that led to Bin Laden was discovered after Barack Obama banned the CIA’s interrogation program: “The nuance of this movie builds a much stronger case that, whatever torture’s marginal usefulness, it is morally indefensible….The charge of inaccuracy is a poor thing measured against the potency of truth. Zero Dark Thirty is a truthful artistic creation.” Critic James Poniewozik points out why ideologues, whether it be politicians who practice partisan politics or political writers, have difficulty understanding controversial art: “Art engages good and evil and leaves its audience to continue the argument when the story is over. And this is where ideologues get uncomfortable with art. Because art also leaves the troubling possibility that the audience might choose wrong.” Bigelow and Boal are also the rare creators who trust the audience to interpret their work. Bigelow is comfortable with the notion of not telling viewers what to think, but rather, illustrating a story or topic and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. New York Times film critic Dargis points out the way in which Bigelow’s trust in the intelligence of the audience is extremely rare in Hollywood today: “Trusting the audience in this fashion is gutsy and all too rare in a movie released by a major studio. But it is an article of faith in Zero Dark Thirty that viewers are capable of filling in the blanks, managing narrative complexity and confronting their complicity.” In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow portrays the day-to-day of those who were part of the intelligence hunt for Bin Laden, but does not offer opinions on the politics of the “war on terror.” The scenes of torture are presented without commentary or debate and it is precisely this quality of the film which turned it into a cinematic Rorschach test. Different viewers see what they want to see. Film critics say the movie’s lack of commentary towards these acts of brutality shines a light on the murkiness of the morality of the hunt and its methods without doing so in a heavy-handed way. Critic Hanna Rosin sites the voyeuristic quality in Bigelow’s films as being an extremely effective tool in Zero Dark Thirty. Since The Set Up (1978), Bigelow’s student film, she is forcing the audience, to “view extreme violence and reckon with our visceral feelings about it.” Just as Maya is a witness to the torture of Ammar, the audience, too, has been watching. Rosin points out how the Navy SEAL raid at bin Laden’s compound, an event which would become a triumph for the United States, does not have a celebratory feel: “Bigelow doesn’t exactly invite us to cheer, the way most war movies would, nor to feel outrage or despair. She just invites us to witness.”