Earlier this week, we wrote about the growing controversy over the use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. Some believe the film glorifies torture by showing that it was used to acquire information that started the characters on the path to find and kill Osama bin Laden. With the film coming out next week in New York and L.A. (it doesn’t open wide until January 11), the debate has only intensified, with many new writers joining in.
On Monday, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman came out against the film’s detractors, writing: “If this is the case for the utility of torture, it’s a weak case — nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.” He argues that the film doesn’t glorify torture; it shows it for how terrible it is. He points out that in the movie the information gotten from torture was ultimately a bit flawed, adding, “Nor does Bigelow let the CIA off the hook for the torture. ‘You agency people are sick,’ a special operator tells Dan [the main torturer].” These points counter the argument that the film shows torture to be perfectly effective and completely supported: “Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet.”
Also coming to the defense of the film was Tom Carson, who argued in Salon: “Depicting torture as an effective intelligence tool isn’t the same as endorsing it by a long shot.” He questions the philosophy behind the argument of the film’s detractors: “As Andrew Sullivan should certainly know even if Dick Cheney doesn’t, the minute asking whether torture ‘works’ is accepted as the right yardstick for approving of it, the moral argument is lost.” His point is that the film uses torture, so we can see the “moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid” in the process of finding bin Laden. Carson finishes by questioning the alternative: “Can you imagine the outcry if an anodyne version of ZD30 had just left all of that out — the black sites, the brutalized detainees, the whole “enhanced interrogation” nightmare? Wouldn’t a lot of the same people pillorying Bigelow now be accusing her instead of whitewashing the CIA and the Bush-Cheney administration by omitting those dirty deeds?”
Also around this time, the film’s star Jessica Chastain weighed in on the debate. She was quite befuddled by it, making the point that the information that Maya got “didn’t come under duress — it actually comes over hummus.”
Today, however, two of the early critics, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald, wrote pieces after actually seeing the movie. Sullivan doesn’t admit he was wrong, but he does speak fairly positively about the movie, calling it a “brilliant piece of film-making.” He commends the portrayal of torture: “The film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects - innocent and guilty - in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of ‘enhanced interrogation.’” He does question why they showed torture at all if “it played no role in finding any clues as to the whereabouts of bin Laden in the movie and in reality.”
Greenwald, on the other hand, seems to be even angrier about the film than he was before. He writes: “The film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned.” He saw something even worse in how the CIA is portrayed: “As 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.” He points to Peter Maass’s piece for The Atlantic that argues that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were influenced by their relationship with the CIA. He writes: “It represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking … 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).” (Also weighing in this past week with views that echo Greenwald’s were The New Yorker and Mother Jones.)
Greenwald ended his post with a comment about the merits of having this debate at all: “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.”
The film opens wide on January 11, 2013, likely not coincidentally a day after the Academy Award nominations are announced. At that point, what will be louder: All the awards and critical praise or this controversy?