FILM/ SOURCE FOR THIS ITEM: PBS NEWSHOUR
Thursday on the NewsHour: Examining Torture in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
With appendix by Jonathan Kim’s ReThink Review: Zero Dark Thirty – Yes, It Endorses Torture
Academy Award nominations came out Thursday, and “Zero Dark Thirty” claimed five of them, including for best picture, adding to a number of other recent accolades. The movie hasn’t opened around the country yet, but chances are you’ve heard a lot about it.
Jessica Chastain, nominated for best actress, plays the role of a young, tireless CIA analyst named Maya, who is obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden. The film sweeps from the haunting days of 9/11 straight through to the successful raid on his compound in Pakistan in May 2011.
Behind the film is the team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. Their 2009 film “The Hurt Locker” won six Oscars, including for best picture, best director for Bigelow — the first woman to win that award — and best original screenplay for Boal.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is also a very difficult film to watch, and that’s where the controversy begins.
Critics argue that the film’s graphic and gritty depictions of torture — and the role it played in America’s anti-terror policy — distort the truth and imply that the CIA’s use of aggressive, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including water boarding, produced information that lead directly to the discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts — and his death.
There’s been considerable controversy — from both sides of the political aisle — in Congress.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Senate Armed Service Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., and others sent two letters recently to the acting CIA director seeking information provided to the filmmakers and have subsequently begun a review of their own.
At a screening in Washington, D.C., Tuesday night, protesters, including some aligned with Amnesty International, showed their objections, while inside the filmmakers told the PBS NewsHour they stood by their work of the last five years:
Watch Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow on Torture in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
On Thursday’s NewsHour, we get two views from a pair of journalists who have written extensively about the 10-year-hunt for bin Laden:
Jane Mayer is with the New Yorker and is the author of “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.”
Mark Bowden wrote the book “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.” He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and teaches journalism at the University of Delaware.
Watch their discussion with Jeffrey Brown here or below:
Watch ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Catches Criticism Over Torture Depictions on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
Jonathan KimFilm Critic for ReThink Reviews and the Uprising Show
ReThink Review: Zero Dark Thirty – Yes, It Endorses Torture
Posted: 01/11/2013 9:31 am
I was dreading the announcement of the 2013 Oscars nominees, in large part because it felt like Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the manhunt to find Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, was peaking at the right time and had emerged as the frontrunner in a fairly unsettled Oscar race. The source of my dread was what ZD30 says about torture (more on that below), and it both saddened and infuriated me that a film that attempts to rewrite history and validate one of the darkest sins of America’s recent history might be given the world’s highest storytelling honors.
ZD30 ended up nabbing five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture — a major achievement by any measure. However, I was delighted to learn that Bigelow had not been nominated for best director. Normally, I wouldn’t take pleasure in something like that, especially since I greatly admired Bigelow’s Oscar-winning bomb-defuser film The Hurt Locker, but I was very glad that the Academy members who voted for Best Director were informed enough to realize that Bigelow was ultimately responsible for the three enormous, destructive lies ZD30 asserts: that torture is an effective way to gather information, that it was instrumental in locating Osama bin Laden, and that America should have never stopped doing it. Watch my ReThink Review of Zero Dark Thirty below (transcript following).
The makers of Zero Dark Thirty clearly want it to be the definitive film about the ten-year manhunt to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, claiming the film is “faithful to the facts,” “truthful,” “journalistic,” and “living history.” But if that’s their claim, how come the first 30 to 40 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty are about how torture was instrumental in locating the courier who eventually led the CIA to bin Laden, despite the fact that the acting director of the CIA and the chairmen of both the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committees have publicly stated the opposite? And should the film’s seeming endorsement of torture disqualify it from awards consideration?
The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a hard-charging young CIA agent who has devoted her professional life to finding bin Laden. It’s Maya who believes that the path to finding bin Laden is through the courier who helps deliver his messages to Al Qaeda leaders and the media, since bin Laden would be too wary of surveillance to use phones or the internet. Maya and her colleagues attempt to locate this courier, an eight-year odyssey that involves surveillance, battles for resources, frustrating delays, life-threatening risks, and old-fashioned detective work. When the courier is finally located and leads to a suspicious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Maya is convinced that this must be bin Laden’s hideout.
Based on a real person, Maya is a fascinating character that Chastain handles wonderfully, both because of and in spite of the fact that we know so little about her, she isn’t the most likable person, and her single-minded dedication to her mission increasingly borders on obsession. The supporting cast — including Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, and Harold Perrineau — are all good and reflect the hundreds of people and the multiple organizations involved in finding and killing bin Laden. The film’s natural lighting, verité shooting style, and attention to detail successfully builds tension while also showing the often unglamorous nature of intelligence work. And when the Navy SEAL raid to get bin Laden finally occurs, it happens in almost real-time over 40 gripping minutes in a carefully reconstructed replica of the actual Abbottabad compound.
But it’s this attention to detail that makes the torture aspect of Zero Dark Thirty so baffling, infuriating, and unforgivable. It’s been accepted for decades within the intelligence and interrogation communities that torture simply doesn’t work and mostly leads to false confessions; strained relations with allies; prisoners made belligerent, insane, or useless; and victims’ families, friends, and sympathizers turned into sworn enemies. At one point, Maya says that getting bin Laden would protect the homeland. But after Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, and the photos from Abu Ghraib, no one needed an order from bin Laden to justify attacking Americans or our allies.
Some critics have claimed that the torture scenes in the film reflect the “moral ambiguity” of the torture debate. But since the torture in Zero Dark Thirty is shown to be so effective, with one prisoner actually saying “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it,” and we’re shown none of the many downsides to torture, the “moral ambiguity” amounts to “torture is ugly… but it works.” For way too many people, that’s not morally ambiguous at all, and is instead seen as the dirty but necessary work of war.
But it’s a claim as factually wrong and repulsive as saying, “Rape is horrible…but some girls are asking for it.” In reality, there is no debate and no “moral ambiguity” about torture. Not only is it illegal, immoral, and counterproductive, IT DOES NOT WORK. But Zero Dark Thirty, like the TV series 24, claims that torture does work, or at the very least, revives the myth that the jury is still out on torture, just as oil companies and republicans want you to think the science of global warming is inconclusive. Zero Dark Thirty works as a crime procedural, but its irresponsible, destructive, dishonest stance on torture absolutely ruined it for me, and I feel Zero Dark Thirty should not be on any best-of-the-year lists, nor is it deserving of Oscar consideration.