The ZDT controversy heats up: Director Kathryn Bigelow defends her indefensible Zero Dark Thirty


Bigelow: The devil often wears seductive masks.

Editor’s Note: This post offers our readers two additional views on the growing debate about Zero Dark Thirty, a film liable to win some Oscars this year. The first is by David Walsh, house critic at, a socialist organization, and, for my money,  perhaps one of the most perceptive movie evaluators in the anglophone world. As a socialist, David brings to his readers the advantage of a sophisticated class analysis, a feature that, all by itself, makes his commentary that much more insightful than the rest. The second is by Jonathan Kim, critic for ReThink Reviews and the HuffPo. Here we deal with a liberal, with all the incomprehensible and exasperating myopias of that tribe, a social tier which, while blabbing criticism always strives to keep one foot firmly planted in the system. This posture inevitably leads to confusing statements like this (pay special attention to the bolded part):

Zero Dark Thirty ignores the fact that America’s torture program inspired anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, causing many to vow revenge on the U.S. and its allies. It ignores the fact that torture scandals like Abu Ghraib caused support for the U.S. occupation in Iraq to plummet, inflaming the insurgency, prolonging the fighting, and putting U.S. troops at increased risk. It ignores the possibly irreparable damage to America’s reputation as a country that respects the rule of law. It ignores the damage torture did to America’s relationships with its allies, who became reluctant to hand over possibly valuable detainees to the U.S. for fear of being accomplices to war crimes and were furious when the U.S. detained and tortured their citizens without charge. It ignores the fact that if CIA agents such as Maya and Dan — two of Zero Dark Thirty’s “heroes” — were actual people, they deserve to be tried and convicted as war criminals under international law for their unrepentant participation in the torture of detainees.

You may wonder what I can possibly object to in the above para, which looks and smells like an impeccable call to support the nation’s highest moral standards.  At the risk of sounding picayune, that’s precisely what sticks in my craw, and it happens often when dealing with the liberals’ version of America’s history. Kim does not seem to realise that it’s been a very very long time (if ever) that America truly respected the rule of law, especially in foreign affairs, as opposed to the simulacrum thereof.  While the brainwashed —among which I naturally include liberals, not to mention the countless fucktards that America incubates by the millions— may think that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Mr Bushoma’s sneaky wars and invasions have done “irreparable damage to the (supposedly) sterling reputation of the United States,” we must offer the following correction: You can’t damage what doesn’t exist. On that basis I must conclude that what Kim is actually deploring is the fact the shocking revelations about torture and other inconvenient subjects have damaged the propaganda image the US ruling circles have carefully cultivated for more than a century. Their dismantlement should be cause for celebration, not concern.

Second, while the debate rages, most critics like Kim continue to take at face value the notion that Pres. Obama ended all torture. This is entirely false. Torture in one form or another continues, and will go on till the rotten but extremely hypocritical imperial system is defeated globally. That will only happen when America finally becomes a real democracy instead of a plutocracy pretending to be one. Third, if the ruling cliques based in Washington are a criminal enterprise, and in my view they are, why should we lament that other countries will now fail to collaborate with it?—P. Greanville

Director Kathryn Bigelow defends her indefensible Zero Dark Thirty

By David Walsh, Senior Arts & Film critic,

Director Kathryn Bigelow took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times Tuesday to defend her pro-CIA film Zero Dark Thirty which has provoked opposition inside and outside the film industry. Bigelow’s column, which reveals her as a slavish admirer of the US intelligence and military apparatus, only sinks her—deservedly—deeper in the mire.

The filmmaker and her screenwriter Mark Boal, in their political blindness and misreading of the current state of American public opinion, thought they could get away with murder, as it were. They assumed that wide layers of the population would be as excited as they were by contact with torturers and assassins and would be enthused about a version of events essentially told by the latter. They were mistaken in this.

Bigelow now finds herself in the unenviable position of claiming that her film, which clearly offers a justification for torture and other war crimes, does not advocate torture. One can only conclude from her ludicrous and incoherent LA Times piece that Bigelow was unprepared for criticism and protest.

The filmmaker begins by noting that her goal had been “to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history.” She acknowledges that she started, in other words, by accepting everything that any serious artist would have subjected to criticism and questioning.

Bigelow betrays no interest (in the LA Times or in her movie) in the history of US intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia over the course of decades, of the CIA’s relations with Osama bin Laden and other Islamist elements in Afghanistan and elsewhere from the late 1970s onward, of the first war on Iraq in 1990-91, of Washington’s support for the oppression of the Palestinians, or, for that matter, of the murky events leading up to and surrounding the 9/11 attacks. In general, Bigelow indicates a lack of concern with anything that might disrupt her tale of “counterterrorism” and its courageous warriors.

The award-winning director presents herself in the following manner: “As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.” As a devotee of counterterrorism and classified military-intelligence missions, Bigelow has already indicated that she is a unique sort of “pacifist,” but there is more to come.

She then notes disingenuously, “But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately [?] expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.” As it turns out, although Bigelow apparently hasn’t noticed it, such sentiments have been directed at those who instituted and ordered these criminal US policies for more than a decade.

Bigelow eventually gets to the heart of her argument, which has been echoed by such apologists as filmmaker Michael Moore: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

Driving home the point, she asserts that “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.”

Something important is revealed here about a generation or generations of artists and semi-intellectuals nourished on post-structuralism and postmodernism, cold, empty “conceptual art” and social indifference, and made affluent as a by-product of the stock and art market booms and related economic trends of the past several decades.
No, depiction is not endorsement, as though anyone with a brain would ever suggest that it was. However, whether the representation of torture and other inhumane acts amounts to endorsement, on the one hand, or criticism and outrage, on the other, depends on the artistic treatment (context, juxtaposition of images, the artist’s attitude) in the given instance.

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the evidence is clear. The film begins, as the WSWS review noted, with “a dark screen and a sound track of fire fighters’ radio calls and frantic cries for help from the upper floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11 … The juxtaposition of the 9/11 soundtrack and the harrowing scenes of torture are presented as cause and effect, with one justifying the other.”

Zero Dark Thirty was created with the intimate collaboration of the CIA, the Defense Department and the Obama White House (including the personal intervention of John Brennan, formerly the chief of the drones assassination program and current nominee for the post of CIA director). It tells its tale from the point of view of a female CIA operative.

As was the case with The Hurt Locker (2008), where the central figures were US soldiers in Iraq, Bigelow concentrates in her latest work on how exhausting and difficult it is to be a victimizer. There is no indication that Jessica Chastain’s Maya seriously questions her work or that she would not preside over the same horrific acts in the future.

The suggestion that critics of her film are not “adult” enough to deal with the world’s unpleasantness or, as Bigelow puts it in her LA Times piece, are “ignoring or denying the role it [torture] played in US counter-terrorism policy and practices,” is another cynical effort to divert attention.

Films dealt with the most nightmarish events in history, including Nazism and the Holocaust, long before Bigelow picked up a film camera.

For instance, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) includes scenes of Gestapo torture of Italian resistance fighters and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966) depicts the torture of Algerians at the hands of the French colonialist military. A more recent work, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) vividly shows the British military torturing Irish republican detainees.

The important difference, of course, is that Rossellini, Pontecorvo and Loach, through their dramas, offered an indictment of the torturers and the forces that stood behind them, whereas Bigelow’s film takes the side, with whatever qualms, of the oppressors.

Other, better films on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have dealt with the brutalities of those conflicts. Gavin Hood’s Rendition (2007), commented the WSWS, “depicts unflinchingly the simulated drowning technique now known to the entire world as ‘waterboarding,’ as well as the beating and electrocution of the torture victim.” However, Hood’s film, a protest against US policy, met with a generally hostile reception from the media, which criticized the movie for its “slanted” and “one-sided” and “deck-stacking” arguments.

Philip Haas’ The Situation (2006), Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha (2007) and Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007) were serious efforts that did not shy away from the realities of the US invasions, nor did the documentaries Gunner Palace (2004), The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (2006), How to Fold a Flag (2009), all co-directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), directed by Alex Gibney, and Standard Operating Procedure (2008), directed by Errol Morris. For the most part, the US media saw to it that these films, critical of American policy, were buried.

Bigelow concludes her piece in Tuesday’s LA Times by paying sycophantic tribute (a cruder expression comes to mind) to the American military and CIA. “We should never forget,” she writes, “the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation’s safety and security.” Bin Laden, we are told, “was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

The “brave professionals” in the CIA and military, the “defense of the nation”! Who writes and speaks in this manner? This is the language of the extreme right. Bigelow is appealing to and aligning herself with quasi-fascistic elements.

But this is the trajectory of the social element she speaks for and to. Perhaps not entirely happy about torture and assassination, which may even disturb its sleep for an hour or two, this upper middle class layer instinctively identifies the defense of its wealth and privilege with US military operations around the globe. There is no other way to explain a work as repugnant as Zero Dark Thirty or a “defense of the indefensible” as crude and transparent as Bigelow’s.

David Walsh is’s senior art/culture & film critic. The site is an information arm of the Socialist Equality Party.


Take Two

Jonathan Kim, Film Critic for ReThink Reviews and the Uprising Show
A Response to Kathryn Bigelow’s Latest Statement on Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

Dear Kathryn Bigelow,

I would like to start by saying that I am a fan of your Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker and thought it was masterfully done. I appreciated the fact that you were able to express your disapproval of the Iraq War not with polemics, but by showing its futility. I was also glad that you eschewed America’s customary and bipartisan worship of soldiers as demi-angels by showing their more human side and that there are people serving in the armed forces not for God, freedom, or patriotism, but simply as a job they committed to or for their own personal and idiosyncratic reasons. I’ll admit that I was greatly disappointed when you did not speak out more forcefully against the war when you took the stage to accept the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in front of a televised audience much larger than those who had seen The Hurt Locker, but I understand how that would’ve been a nerve-wracking thing to do which might alienate potential paying ticket buyers.

I read your January 15 response in the Los Angeles Times to people like myself who have said that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. I would like to address it.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that criticism and blame for America’s torture policy should ultimately be directed at George W. Bush and his administration for creating and implementing it. I believe that Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, possibly White House legal counsels Alberto Gonzalez and John Yoo, Condoleeza Rice, and commanding officers who ordered soldiers to torture should be charged with war crimes and thrown in jail. I am appalled that the Obama administration has not held them accountable while low-ranking solders who followed orders to torture have been jailed, punished, and had their lives and livelihoods ruined. However, I’m capable of being critical of the Bush and Obama administrations as well as you and Zero Dark Thirty at the same time. It’s not a case of either/or.

I understand the difference between depiction and endorsement, and I find the implication that I don’t to be insulting. I have enjoyed many violent films and video games while understanding that they do not endorse the violence they depict, and I also understand the cathartic and entertainment value of simulated violence while recognizing that it does not encourage violence in the real world. And I hope that in your championing of the First Amendment, you are not implying that my criticism of your film means that I am against free speech or artistic expression, for to do so would not only be insulting, but dishonest and cowardly in its attempt to turn me into a pro-censorship straw man.

I agree with you that it is vitally important — as well as an artist’s unique privilege and duty — to “shine a light on dark deeds.” However, I feel that Zero Dark Thirty almost completely fails in doing this, to the point that it actually endorses the continuation of the “dark deeds” it depicts. I find this to be reprehensibly irresponsible. My problem is not that Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture, it’s how it depicts torture.

I am not, as you said, “ignoring or denying” that torture was used by the Bush administration in the search for Osama bin Laden. It was used, and it’s an outrage and a tragedy that destroyed countless lives and is something America’s reputation and security may not fully recover from for generations, especially in the internet age. I’m saying that as far as I know, torture did not produce accurate information that led to bin Laden. My stance is backed up in statements by senators Dianne Feinstein (chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee), Carl Levin (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee), and Senate Armed Service Committee Ranking Member John McCain who have criticized the way your film depicts torture as being effective in gathering truthful information that was instrumental in finding bin Laden. Acting director of the CIA Michael Morell has also stated that Zero Dark Thirty’s “strong impression” that torture was key in finding bin Laden is “false”, though he left the door open slightly for you by saying “Some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques,” adding that “whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.” Feinstein, Levin, and McCain called the last part of Morell’s statement “potentially inconsistent” with the over 6 million pages of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Here is my evidence that Zero Dark Thirty does in fact endorse torture as an effective way to obtain truthful intelligence. Ammar (Reda Ketab), the character we see tortured in the film’s first half hour, is tricked into thinking that he gave CIA agents Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) information that prevented a terrorist attack, but he doesn’t remember doing so because he had been tortured, including 96 straight hours of sleep deprivation. This leads Ammar to divulge the name of a high-ranking al Qaeda member, Abu Ahmed. We then see Maya use confessions by tortured detainees to confirm what Abu Ahmed looks like by showing them photographs. Later, Maya tells a detainee that she will have him sent to Israel (where he will surely face torture or worse) unless he gives her information. The detainee plainly states, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it.” He proceeds to her the pivotal piece of information that Abu Ahmed is bin Laden’s most trusted courier. Locating Abu Ahmed eventually leads the CIA to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

You stated that despite these scenes, it “doesn’t mean [torture] was the key to finding bin Laden”, but I don’t see why an audience member would think otherwise considering how effective you depict torture as being in gathering the key pieces of information that ultimately lead to bin Laden. What’s more, Zero Dark Thirty goes on to consistently portray the banning of torture as a blow to the CIA’s vital intelligence-gathering capabilities, and those who seek to ensure the U.S. does not torture are painted as out-of-touch bureaucrats.

In one scene, Dan tells Maya, “You’ve gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” When Maya’s fellow CIA agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) sees Barack Obama in a televised interview saying that America does not torture and that banning torture is “part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world”, she shakes her head in what appears to be disbelief, disdain, dismissal, or disgust. A CIA official known as the Wolf (Frederic Lehne) laments to Dan, “As you know, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us. The detainee program is now flypaper. We’ve got senators jumping out of our asses, and the director is very concerned that they will not stop until they have a body,” causing Dan to proudly and confidently declare that he’ll defend the CIA’s torture program. When a National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) tells a CIA official named George (Mark Strong) that he needs confirmation before the White House can approve a strike that the mystery man in the Abbottabad compound is bin Laden and not a Saudi drug dealer, George tells him, “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program.” In other words, the CIA is incapable of obtaining a vital piece of information about bin Laden’s location because they are no longer allowed to torture. This lack of certainty leads to the risky decision to send Navy SEALs into the compound instead of simply bombing it, which Maya describes as treating the SEALs as “canaries”. Put another way, not being able to torture puts the lives of American servicemen at risk.

Ms. Bigelow, in light of the scenes I just described, I do not understand why you continue to maintain that Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture, since your film consistently portrays torture as an effective (or perhaps the most effective) way to gather intelligence from detainees, and that banning torture hampered the CIA’s ability to gather vital information on bin Laden’s whereabouts. Your statement that torture was not the key to finding bin Laden is totally inconsistent with your film, where torture and the threat of torture are used to learn and confirm the identity of the courier who leads the CIA to bin Laden.

Ms. Bigelow, you said in your statement that torture “is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.” However, your film completely ignores the most important facts about torture, which has long been known by interrogation experts, psychologists, and military officials to be an ineffective, often counterproductive way to gather accurate intelligence. In fact, even the Army Field Manual describes the use of force as “not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” Your film ignores the fact that of the tens of thousands of people detained by the U.S. in the War On Terror — many of whom were tortured (or “softened up” or “broken” to use the military’s euphemisms) before they were even interrogated — the vast majority of them had no connection to al Qaeda, were eventually released without ever being charged of a crime, and some have even been awarded cash reparations for being tortured and falsely imprisoned. Sadly, over 100 detainees died while in U.S. custody, many as a result of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty ignores the fact that America’s torture program inspired anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, causing many to vow revenge on the U.S. and its allies. It ignores the fact that torture scandals like Abu Ghraib caused support for the U.S. occupation in Iraq to plummet, enflaming the insurgency, prolonging the fighting, and putting U.S. troops at increased risk. It ignores the possibly irreparable damage to America’s reputation as a country that respects the rule of law. It ignores the damage torture did to America’s relationships with its allies, who became reluctant to hand over possibly valuable detainees to the U.S. for fear of being accomplices to war crimes and were furious when the U.S. detained and tortured their citizens without charge. It ignores the fact that if CIA agents such as Maya and Dan — two of Zero Dark Thirty’s “heroes” — were actual people, they deserve to be tried and convicted as war criminals under international law for their unrepentant participation in the torture of detainees.

By repeatedly showing torture to be effective in obtaining intelligence and CIA agents bemoaning their inability to gather intelligence due to the ban on torture, while omitting nearly all of the flaws and devastating repercussions America’s torture program caused, Zero Dark Thirty clearly endorses the use of torture.

Ms. Bigelow, you claim that you and the makers of Zero Dark Thirty “were not interested in portraying [torture] as free of moral consequences.” However, I saw few instances in your film where characters grappled with the “moral consequences” of the war crimes they were committing. Maya seems a bit shaken after her first time watching Ammar being tortured, but she quickly quashes her emotions, telling Dan, “I’m fine,” and recommends that instead of taking a break, they immediately return to torturing Ammar, which she actively participates in. In fact, Maya’s comfort with torture and her willingness to commit it seem to be shown as evidence of her toughness and her growth as an agent. After directing the brutal torture of a detainee named Abu Faraj (Yoav Levi), we see a brief moment where Maya retreats to a bathroom, breathing hard, to gather herself. It seems like she may indeed be grappling with the “moral consequences” of the war crimes she’s committing, but with the scene lasting just seven seconds and Maya’s face mostly obscured the whole time, I can’t know for sure. In the very next scene, Maya encourages Dan to torture Faraj and is surprised when he refuses. Dan tells her that he’ll be returning to the U.S. because he’s “seen too many guys naked, it’s got to be over a fucking hundred at this point. I need to go do something normal for a while.” Perhaps this is meant to show that Dan is indeed wrestling with the “moral consequences” of torture. But as I mentioned earlier, we later see Dan proudly take ownership of the CIA’s torture program and confidently vow to defend it.

Earlier, in the same sentence where you declare your commitment to showing the “moral consequences” of torture, you state that “War, obviously, isn’t pretty”. To me, this implies that you see torture as simply an unpleasant reality of war, just as killing another human being, even an enemy soldier during wartime, would inevitably cause some degree of soul searching. But torture is hardly an inevitable reality of America at war, which is why the U.S. helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed the War Crimes Act, and is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions and other conventions banning torture. The U.S. has rightly condemned the use of torture by other nations, militaries, and organizations and has long used it as a way to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.

But because of the Bush administration’s narrow and politically expedient redefinition of what constitutes “torture” along with its willingness to break international law, the U.S. can no longer honestly condemn torture. We have been exposed not as a nation of laws, but one for whom the ends justify the means, regardless of laws or morality. And I believe that your film will contribute to the U.S. remaining such by reinforcing the discredited notions that torture is effective, morally justifiable, was instrumental in finding bin Laden, and is necessary to keep America safe. Just days ago, far-right wing conservative Sean Hannity cited Zero Dark Thirty as proof that torture “ultimately did help lead” to Bin Laden. Just as the TV show 24 convinced millions of Americans that torture is effective and should be legal, Zero Dark Thirty is poised to further confuse Americans about the realities of torture and keep us on the deeply immoral, illegal, and tragic path the Bush administration placed us on after 9/11.

Ms. Bigelow, in light of what I see as Zero Dark Thirty’s clear endorsement of torture as well as your statements defending your film’s depiction of torture, its effectiveness, and its importance in locating bin Laden, I would like to submit the following questions to you and your screenwriter and producing partner, Mark Boal:

1. Do you believe that torture is an effective way to obtain accurate information?
2.    Do you believe torture was used to gain accurate information that led to finding Osama bin Laden? If so, who told you that? Did they provide any evidence?

3.    Do you agree that, in your film, the reason that Maya and Dan are able to trick Ammar into falsely believing he gave them information that prevented a terrorist attack is because he had been tortured to the point where he couldn’t remember what he had told them?

4.    In the scene where an unnamed detainee tells Maya, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it,” then proceeds to give Maya accurate information that Abu Ahmed is bin Laden’s most trusted courier (which ultimately leads to bin Laden) after she threatens him with more torture in Israel, is it unreasonable to think that an audience would infer that torture is an effective way to get a detainee to provide accurate information and that torturing detainees was instrumental in finding bin Laden?

5.    Do you feel that if characters such as Maya and Dan were real people that they should be charged as war criminals for torturing detainees?

6.    Do you feel that the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, prolonged sensory deprivation, and sexual humiliation should be classified as torture, or are they simply “harsh,” “brutal,” or “enhanced” interrogation techniques that do not meet the definition of “torture”?

7.    How do you define torture?

8.    Do you believe President Obama’s decision to ban torture hampered the CIA’s ability to find information that would lead to bin Laden?

9.    What is your response to pro-torture pundits like Sean Hannity who cite Zero Dark Thirty as evidence that information obtained through torture helped find bin Laden, and that the U.S. should be free to torture in the future for reasons of national security?

10.    If you believe that the U.S. used torture as an effective way to gather accurate information for the purposes of national security, shouldn’t it then be permissible for U.S. soldiers to be tortured using the same techniques by other nations? Why or why not?

11.    Ultimately, do you think the Bush administration’s decision to allow torture was worth it?

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