Posts Tagged ‘academy awards’

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by Jennifer Epps

I normally hate to make Oscar predictions. It usually depresses me. By the time the predictions start proliferating, it’s a cold matter of analysis of the awards already given out by the guilds, BAFTA, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and (to a certain extent) the critics’ associations, like predicting presidential nominees by counting poll numbers and delegates before the conventions. You wouldn’t even need to have seen the movies first, because it tends to be a simple numbers game. I don’t much like thinking along those lines; I’d rather keep my mind on what should win.

This year is different. I actually think that, rather miraculously, 12 Years a Slave is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. This may be the one time in Oscar history when the film which so unquestionably deserves to win actually does win.

Moreover, the selection of 12 Years a Slave brings a great many other precedents with it. It is the most uncompromising of the movies likely to be on the list of Best Picture nominees. It is not comfort food. It is not the kind of film which requires nothing of the audience, or reassures them about their own complacencies. Although the performances are amazing, they can’t be separated from the crystal-clear relevance of the film — unlike for instance, the striking, masterful, 8-category nominee There Will Be Blood (2007), when everyone talked about Daniel Day-Lewis’ fearless performance but overlooked the damning psychological portrait of an American oil baron. The directing, acting, screenplay, cinematography, editing, and music of 12 Years a Slave are all astonishing, but none of them let the viewer forget that this is a true story — an adaptation of a first-person slave narrative published in 1853 — and that it is a history churning with urgency about politics, race, and justice in America.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that director Steve McQueen would be the first black director to helm a film that receives the Oscar for Best Picture.

I won’t go into whether he will automatically win the Oscar for Best Director too, since we know very well from last year that the two categories are not necessarily in lockstep, but he should. He would be the first black director to do that as well: John Singleton and Lee Daniels are the only two to ever even be nominated in that category. (It’s hard to believe, but Spike Lee has never been nominated for an Oscar for Best Director — only for Screenplay and Documentary — though he did get a well-deserved Golden Globe directing nom for Do the Right Thing.) No black director has won the Golden Globe for film directing before either. If McQueen wins the top Directors Guild prize leading up to the Oscars, he would also be the first black director to achieve that honor.

It’s certainly a year with an abundance of talented, thoughtful, and fiercely independent directors. (Alfonso Cuarón’s technical skill, graceful style, and boldness of vision in his gorgeous Gravity are especially impressive. Even more notable is the degree to which he turned a potentially “Hollywood-ized’ sci-fi actioner into a compelling meditation on space, our dependence on Mother Earth, and the insignificance and significance of a human life.) I feel rather sorry for Steve McQueen’s competitors, in fact, simply because they might have had better chances another year.

The director, who is about as far removed in attitude and appearance from the cocksure 1960’s movie star Steve McQueen, has actually only made 3 feature films. (Although he has directed an incredible number of shorts.) Yet this British filmmaker’s first feature clearly showed him to be an extraordinary artist, idiosyncratic and visionary. Hunger (2008), a biographical drama like no other, was jaw-dropping. He has simply continued to get better with each feature, single-mindedly carving out his own path with utterly unique projects on rock-serious subjects that few would touch. Hunger is about the 1980’s IRA prisoners’ hunger strike led by Bobby Sands: McQueen makes the concept completely visceral by boldly showing us what it looks like for a person to starve to death. His second film, Shame, mercilessly examines sex addiction, incest, and psychic pain with a minimum of dialogue and a shortage of easy answers.

McQueen’s latest, 12 Years a Slave, is a searing period drama adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northrup’s memoir. It’s a story that, as McQueen himself has said, was crying out to be made into a film. Northrup was a free, educated, black father and husband; a prominent member of an upstate New York community; an engineer and respected violinist. Then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south.

By focusing on a protagonist who has grown up free, the film is able to expose slavery anew: we can feel the horrors of it more vividly and acutely because the victim is so confident, so used to self-determination. He goes through enormous suffering, his faith and hope are destroyed, and he finds himself unable to philosophically reconcile the horrendous crime against him — yet in this way he’s a kind of witness for all slaves. Though Northrup’s kidnapping is part of an illicit commerce between the states (the process of abolition in the Northern states gave slave owners ample time to divest from their slave holdings, thereby leading many to just sell their slaves to the south), the 12 million Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas before Northrup’s story even began were themselves ripped from their homes, loved ones, and sense of their own humanity in very much the same way.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face, no matter how devastated, always reveals the free man inside. And McQueen makes clear the inner dignity of those born into slavery as well, in a variety of scenes with black supporting players — the fact that some are used to this mistreatment certainly doesn’t make it any easier on them than it is on him.

Black men on the boat traveling south try their best to overcome their terrible situation, but the odds are against them. The price of rebellion is death. Another angle is presented by Alfre Woodard, in a cameo as a privileged apple of a white man’s eye; though she plays house rather like a society matron, she bears no illusions about her status or the meaning of the slavery project as a whole — unlike the cartoonish Candyland toadies which Quentin Tarantino had so little sympathy for in Django Unchained.

It is Lupita Nyong’o, however, in a truthful and heartfelt performance as the charming, spirited, much-tormented slave Patsey, who deeply enriches the moral significance and complexity of the world Northrup encounters — and whose continued captivity when Northrup is finally freed helps ensure that we don’t regard it as an unalloyed happy ending. McQueen doesn’t let the audience off the hook.

The movie lays bare in chilling detail a great many of the mechanics of slavery, and even familiar tropes like the masters’ rapes, the wives’ jealousy, and the backbreaking toil are brought home in ways that seem fresh. McQueen’s special ability to invoke the audience’s empathy in Hunger and Shame are even stronger here, where Ejiofor’s raw emotion and spiritual pain lend a depth to his suffering that is almost Shakespearean.

Indeed, the acting is tremendous with the exception of Brad Pitt, and the visiting Canadian he plays too close to the vest (though Pitt should be commended for his vision in producing the film — getting it made in the first place.) Paul Giamatti is first-rate as the slave trader who slaps and shoves his “merchandise’ around and makes domination his business. Paul Dano is quite brave as an overseer who seethes with resentment over Northrup’s intelligence — Dano’s willingness to dig into the ugliness of such a mentality is profound . Sarah Paulson is intense as a brooding, tightly-coiled, wronged wife, full of perhaps the most virulent race-hatred in the movie. And Michael Fassbender (in his third collaboration with McQueen) is wonderful — as he always is — in a colorful, eccentric role as a depressed, alcoholic, hands-on master; his villainy is also Shakespearean, by turns red-hot and soft-spoken, powerful and needy. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that his character’s last name is Epps. Since this is based on a memoir and that might be the real slave master’s name, I pray that there’s no relation.)

There’s such a subtle, wide-ranging understanding of racism in the film, it really is provocative in the way it challenges viewers on issues of personal accountability for social wrongs. The versatile Benedict Cumberbatch is Ford, Northrup’s first master after the kidnapping. Ford is an intelligent and feeling man who admires the special musical and engineering skills of his slave — but he still gives him a violin instead of freedom. Ford’s complicity in the injustice against Northrup is one of the finer points made by the film; Ford sees how much suffering the slave market creates, but he makes only the merest peep and then drops his complaint. (The agony caused by separating parents from their children is an extended topic of the film.) Ford is also impressed, and takes advantage of for the benefits to his business, Northrup’s exceptional levels of education. But when Northrup tries to tell him that he’s a free man, Ford exclaims “I cannot hear that!”

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My take: Wolf: Scorsese’s Best Film?

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Better late than never–

Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night
Posted by Amy Davidson

The New Yorker reamed Seth MacFarlane up his ass, narrowly avoiding his brain, for his hateful performance at the last star fest. Personally I don’t watch the fucking Oscars, nor anything featuring MacFarlane, so this was quite off my radar.

But it’s telling that they can get away with it in front of a global audience, and seemingly oblivious to what they themselves are doing. I say flush them fools, all of them.

 

With quite a bit of luck compiling all the Zero Dark Thirty files into one place, I thought I’d do the same here for Argo, the 2013 alleged “Best Picture” according the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Is there any kind of actual academy, or is it more of an elite club, btw?)

The problems with Argo are of two main strands:

  1.  A pro-CIA propaganda bent that ignores way too much to be redeemed.
  2. Demonization of the Iranian people, reducing them to a frothing irrational mob, rather than the desperate people with real grievances they were.

 

Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry? by Kieran Kelly
Argo’s Truth Problems by Nima Shirazi
Imperial Propaganda: Oscar Edition by Joe Giambrone
Target Iran: Argo’s CIA Heroes vs. A Separation by Jennifer Epps
Can Argo’s Best Picture Win Stop War with Iran? by Ruth Hull
“Argo, Fuck Yourself” by Kim Niccolini
Argo in Context by Patrice Greanville
Argo (2012) by Eric Walberg
Timely CIA/Iran Propaganda Film: “Argo” by Danny Schechter
The Lies Screenwriters Tell Themselves by Joe Giambrone

 
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By Dennis Loo 

During Jack Nicholson’s announcing the Best Picture Oscar last night he brought in direct from the White House First Lady Michelle Obama as his co-presenter to announce the winner. Flanked by men and women in full military dress complete with awards regalia, Michelle congratulated Hollywood for its work.

Behind Michelle we don’t see a group of actors, creative types, children, regular Americans or even distinguished civilian Americans. This isn’t a Veteran’s Day broadcast either. This is the Academy Awards, the principle awards show for films.

In helping to introduce the 2013 Best Picture, the First Lady looks like she’s about to announce the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Cross.

This tableau isn’t so inappropriate after all, for when she opens the envelope, the winner is (drum roll please): Argo! A film that depicts the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of the CIA, the people who brought the tyrant Shah to power in Iran through a coup in 1953, overthrowing the extremely popular Mossadegh who tried to nationalize the oil fields (which sealed his doom from the perspective of Big Oil and the U.S. Empire). The CIA provided torture instruction and equipment to the Shah for decades so that he could torture and kill his opponents in Iran (his opponents being the vast majority of the people). The 1979 Iranian Revolution drove him and the U.S. and the CIA out. As one of the film’s producers, Grant Heslov, says in a half an hour “The Making of Argo” piece: he’s proud of the film because it humanizes the CIA and makes us proud of them.

So Michelle Obama’s chosen backdrop of a military entourage does make sense after all in this season of all things military and secret agents/special ops. It’s just jarring to see it if you’re not completely seduced by the Military Security State.

***

I was very pleased to see that Zero Dark Thirty, despite being touted heavily by major movie critics upon its release a few months ago as the best film of the year which they said would sweep multiple awards at the Oscars, including Best Picture, was shunned by Hollywood, garnering only one Oscar, a tie for sound editing with the James Bond flick “Skyfall.”

A funny thing happened on the way to the podium for the makers of ZDT: people smelled a rat and wrote about it. This was something that took some time to build because as late as the Golden Globes, the biggest pre-Academy Awards show whose winners frequently predict the Oscar winners, Jessica Chastain (who played Maya the CIA torturer/killer in ZDT) won the Golden Globes’ Best Actress.

The shunning of this film that revels in torture came about clearly because of the stinging criticism and protests against it by a number of writers and activists, including notably actors such as David Clennon and Ed Asner, columnist Glenn Greenwald, director Alex Gibney, Jane Mayer, and others including myself, and World Can’t Wait which, among other things, staged a sarcastic first annual Leni Riefenstahl Award by the Committee for Sanitizing Crimes Against Humanity in Film outside of the Oscars yesterday, which I was pleased to join as, playing against type, John Yoo, to give out the First Annual Leni. Actor David Clennon, whose work in breaking ranks in Hollywood publicly condemning the film for its immoral endorsement of torture, played a signal role, joined and helped to make this counter-awards’ event.

We had trouble finding a place to do our performance piece, however, as a wide swath of the areas around the Hollywood and Highland area where the Oscars were happening were closed down to traffic and the foot traffic severely restricted by the police, another example of the Military Security State exercising its muscle to make sure that the spectacle occurred without the public having more than a glancing opportunity to be physically present or even very proximal physically.

Bigelow and her co-writer Marc Boal did not help their cause when criticisms of their docu – propaganda (docu-ganda?) piece were aired. Bigelow and Boal purposefully mischaracterized their critics as attempting to censor their film and mischaracterized what was in their film, as if people couldn’t recognize these misstatements after seeing the films for themselves. In this case it wasn’t Hollywood itself that pressed the attack on ZDT but mostly political writers. Hollywood, however, responded to that and it’s a good thing.

In a related matter, The New York Times is reporting today in its top story that the Afghan government has banned U.S. forces from operating in Maidan Wardak Province. Maidan Wardak is southwest of Kabul and is “the American military’s main source of offensive firepower from the area.” It is also a staging area for Taliban attacks. The reason for the ban from the Karzai government, a puppet of the U.S.? Fury among Afghans for the U.S. Special Forces torturing and killing villagers.

Our Special Forces? Our military? The kind of people that First Lady Michelle Obama surrounded herself with during the Academy Awards announcing the Best Picture?

By announcing the ban, the government signaled its willingness to take a far harder line against abuses linked to foreign troops than it has in the past. The action also reflected a deep distrust of international forces that is now widespread in Afghanistan, and the view held by many Afghans, President Hamid Karzai among them, that the coalition shares responsibility with the Taliban for the violence that continues to afflict the country.

Afghan officials said the measure was taken as a last resort. They said they had tried for weeks to get the coalition to cooperate with an investigation into claims that civilians had been killed, abducted or tortured by Afghans working for American Special Operations forces in Maidan Wardak. But the coalition was not responsive, they said.

The provincial government in Maidan Wardak expressed support for the ban. “There have been lots of complaints from the local people about misconduct, mistreatment, beating, taking away, torturing and killing of civilians by Special Forces and their Afghan associates,” said Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial government.

He cited a raid on a village on Feb. 13, when American troops and Afghans working with them detained a veterinary student. “His dead body was found three days later in the area under a bridge,” Mr. Khogyani said, prompting protests against foreigners.

Mr. Faizi said that villagers in Maidan Wardak had reported a number of similar episodes in recent months, including the disappearance of nine men in a single raid. “People from the province, elders from villages, have come to Kabul so many times, and they have brought photographs and videos of their family members who have been tortured,” he said.

So while Hollywood both rejects and accepts the CIA’s preferred view of itself, the fact of U.S. military and CIA activities are emblazoned on the front pages of The New York Times again. Efforts to combat falsified history and the promotion of crimes as heroism and patriotism made and make a difference, as evidenced by Hollywood’s shunning of the pre-Academy Awards favorite in ZDT. Much more, however, must be done.

Continue Reading

The Academy shied away from endorsing torture lies. I’d like to think that the noise we all made had some real effect on their decisions. ZD30 ended up tying for sound — what-ever. Other than that, empty handed in every category.

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Ang Lee takes home Best Director, and it is much-earned. Life of Pi is being compared to a religious experience by a whole lot of people, and it really is powerful and unforgettable.

Argo remains a poor substitute for an honest look at America’s role in the world. And we’ve talked enough about that.
 

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Alternative Oscars happening today at 3pn.

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Download Flyer

 

I actually addressed the Leni Riefenstahl / Kathryn Bigelow comparison here.

 

[See full coverage at: Zero Dark Thirty Scandal Files]

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The Assassination Bureau: the CIA and Zero Dark Thirty

by Jennifer A Epps

The cover of the Feb. 4 issue of Time features Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, and dubs her new film ‘the year’s most controversial movie’ in its headline. The article inside makes an even bigger claim, calling Zero Dark Thirty “the most politically divisive motion picture in memory.” Though Bigelow has made a point in interviews to condemn torture as “reprehensible”, her depiction of torture in the Oscar-nominated dramatic thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has created a firestorm, and could create some frissons at the 85th Academy Awards telecast later this month.

I’ve written a separate article on how Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal portray CIA torture of terror suspects in the movie, and this huge issue deserves the attention it’s getting. But it’s far from the only reason to be concerned about the content of Zero Dark Thirty.

In interviews about ZD30, Bigelow has taken to citing Oscar-winning political classics of past decades to suggest that this is the heavyweight context in which her film should be seen, films such as: All the President’s Men, In the Heat of the Night, and, though they are thematic opposites when it comes to the Vietnam War, both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. She has also included in the list the guerrilla warfare docudrama The Battle of Algiers (itself nominated for three Oscars), perhaps because of the scenes of torture, or perhaps because it is obvious that when Marxist director Gillo Pontecorvo shows the brutal repression of the Arab independence movement by French forces, “depiction is not endorsement,” as Bigelow says of her own movie.

But I think a more useful comparison with which to view Zero Dark Thirty is not the high-minded auteur-driven films of that rebellious age, but a commercial, inconsequential, big studio, romcom-adventure from 1969, called The Assassination Bureau.

Though the movie is just an excuse for Oliver Reed, with intrepid girl-reporter Diana Rigg at his side, to dash around foiling assassins with smirking British aplomb, The Assassination Bureau also happens to be about a secret mercenary firm of international hit men. The refined businessmen on its board of directors have happily influenced world events for decades by murdering dictators and other political figures. If it weren’t for the explicit commissions from clients, the private sector status, and the lack of government endorsement, they could remind one of the CIA.

The tone of the comedy is set minutes into the film when the bureau’s board, led by Reed himself, meets in an imposing star chamber. Ivan (Reed) directs their attention to large paintings of historic assassinations adorning their round boardroom: “Look around you at the great deeds recorded on the walls, gentlemen. Each one of them performed in the course of bettering the world, purging it of evil, striking down tyranny. In those days we were all ruled by my father’s basic principle that our bureau would never kill anyone without a sound moral reason.” A board member instantly responds: “He was a saintly man.” Ivan’s only qualm is that they might have begun to stray from “the high moral principles” of their founding — “the torch we once held so high.”

It’s tongue-in-cheek, this proud talk about ethical murder; the poised board members talking rationally in their elegantly appointed star chamber accept murder as completely civilized, and take their right to commit it as a given. (Intriguingly, the film was derived from an unfinished novel by socialist author Jack London, in turn developed from an early 20th-century story by anti-fascist novelist Sinclair Lewis.) But in Zero Dark Thirty, we get very similar scenes, and this time they’re not comedic. Though the CIA operatives in ZD30 don’t bring up ethics at all, they do sit around a conference table discussing, in a very professional and business-like way, whether they’re ready to green-light murder, or whether they should wait until they’re 100% certain they’ve got the correct target. Their authority to go around the world assassinating people is never up for debate.

ZD30 is a far more serious and ambitious film than The Assassination Bureau, but the broad characters in the ‘69 fantasy are (briefly, at least) more honest. When their ethics are questioned, they retort: “Everyone from some point of view deserves death,” and “It’s always possible to find a moral principle for killing someone.” By contrast, the CIA’s philosophy of killing is not on the table in ZD30: the agents certainly engage in analysis, but it’s not any moral or legal justification for their actions that they consider. They only analyze intelligence: photos, videos, interrogations, clues. Meanwhile, the movie’s momentum is very powerful, with everything building toward Act 3 and the climactic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. It is easy to get sucked into this suspenseful forward drive. This risks obscuring the realities behind the system and policies depicted.

Remote-controlled Execution

ZD30 hits theaters at a time when the drone industry is booming, when more and more of the U.S. strategy in the (still underway) ‘War on Terror’ is about using unmanned drones to take out pre-targeted individuals from control rooms on the other side of the globe.

The U.S. multiplied the number of drones in their arsenal 100-fold in the decade after 9/11. In occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, these strikes have been conducted by the Pentagon; in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, where we are not technically at war, they are handled by the CIA. And the next gambit in the ever-expanding drone playbook is Mali; the U.S. has apparently already arranged to base drones in Niger to be flown over its North African neighbor.

Now, ZD30 doesn’t make drone warfare an overt part of its subject, but the ‘targeted killing’ program – the belief in ethical murder — is very much a part of the CIA culture which ZD30’s filmmakers embraced, or at least got into bed with, and the central event of the movie is a pre-planned assassination.

The film does show protests in Islamabad leading to the ouster of the CIA’s Pakistan station-chief, but Bigelow lingers over the station-chief’s defeat, and lead actress Jessica Chastain’s words of comfort to him – accusing the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, of letting him down. The direct relationship between the drone strikes and animosity toward the U.S. is not made clear.

ZD30 also runs news footage on the 2010 Times Square bombing incident that was staged by a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin. Though in real life the bomber referred to the missile strikes on Pakistan as part of his incitement, the movie bypasses that explanation. Instead, NYC Mayor Bloomberg reads the man’s mind, sloganeering on a TV in the background of a shot that it was ‘our freedoms’ which motivated the terrorist plot.

Much later in the film, after CIA agent Maya (Chastain) has discovered bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan and struggled mightily to get an attack on it launched, she declares to a Navy SEAL that she’d really prefer to just drop a bomb on the compound. She has a proud, defiant air at the time that she says it: she scoffs at her supervisors’ concern that ‘UBL’ might not really be there. Since she turns out to have been right about UBL’s location, viewers are given little reason to distrust other people like her, people who prefer to drop bombs and skip all the pesky red tape.

Maya’s attitude is not really much different from that of maverick-warrior types from many mass-appeal movies  — like Rambo, The Dark Knight and 300 – in which the man or woman of action is held back by small-minded bureaucrats or worse. (A kind of detective, Maya is also akin to on-screen sleuthers who obsessively follow their hunches, like the heroes of Chinatown, Dirty Harry and Zodiac.) The usual result is that the audience roots for the maverick. Indeed if they didn’t, they’d be rooting against the very resolution of the story itself.

Bigelow and her screenwriter Boal have repeatedly sworn that they were scrupulous about not judging the methods of the professionals they were documenting. But the trouble with Bigelow and Boal’s pretence of detachment is that Maya’s obsession is the only game in town; again, if the audience were to detach from it, they’d have to go home. There’s more backstory in an Antonioni film. Bigelow and Boal’s previous drama, the Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, felt like a character study despite an intense, action-heavy main storyline. But ZD30 does not delve deeply into Maya’s psyche, and her reactions to events are fleeting and inscrutable. Thus, by default if not by design, the movie lends itself to the well-worn grooves of commercial movie-making, and encourages the audience to side with Maya and her agenda. This is further strengthened by the fact that there are only two other alternatives in this film: a) timid supervisors who just want to delay action, and b) terrorists. Whistleblowers, diplomats, lawyers, human rights observers, and non-terrorist Muslims or Arabs are basically invisible. (When Muslims or Arabs are shown, they are often alien and mysterious – one may admire the beauty of a shot in which chador-clad figures suddenly surround a man in a formal garden, producing rifles from their dark drapery, but Bigelow really ought to know better than to perpetrate the same kind of tired images of exoticism that Edward Said condemned 45 years ago.)

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[Editor's Note: See our extensive coverage of the Zero Dark Thirty torture scandal here.]
 

File photo of U.S. Army Military police escorting a detainee to his cell in Naval Base Guantanamo Bay
 

Torture and the Dark Side of ZERO DARK THIRTY

by Jennifer A Epps

 
The new movie about the hunting-down of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, is currently a box office leader, thanks to the judicious timing of its wide release to coincide with Jessica Chastain’s Golden Globe win as Best Actress and the announcement of the movie’s five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also happens to be the subject of attention in Washington, which creates some negative publicity but also stirs up buzz and curiosity at the same time.

It is safe to say that a lot more people will see this movie than saw director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s previous film, the character study and war drama The Hurt Locker, the little-movie-that-could: a film with, to this day, the smallest total box office take of any Best Picture-Oscar-winner. Both these Bigelow films derive from Boal’s journalism, as all of his movie credits – including the article that inspired the splendid Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah – stem from his reporting on the U.S. military or security apparatus. The Hurt Locker emerged from what Boal witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq; similarly, his latest script most likely reflects with accurate faithfulness the information shared with him by CIA sources. Some people have made a big stink over those CIA briefings and demanded to know exactly what the CIA shared with Boal. This has led to the release of an interview transcript through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded conservative group Judicial Watch (whose outrage seems to stem from the filmmakers’ Democratic affiliation), as well as to a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin to the acting director of the CIA, requesting all pertinent documents on how the film team was briefed.

But what the ruckus obscures is the one-sided nature this action thriller was set up to have from the start. Since Boal himself was embedded with the military in 2004, he has already been influenced by the ridiculous practice of embedding – the only one on offer by the Pentagon at the time and the only one they’ll offer in the future, since the mainstream media bought it hook, line, and sinker. The Alice-in-Wonderland logic of embedding, which pretends truth can be even remotely glimpsed when a reporter is immersed in only one group’s point-of-view in a bitter and hugely complex conflict, had a virulent effect on Iraq War reporting — and there’s research to back up just how pathetic that reporting became.

Nonetheless, thanks to the power of artistic imagination and sensibility, Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker still led to a very nuanced film which many of us felt was a humanistic cautionary tale that respected individual warriors while criticizing what war does to them. Lightning has not struck twice, however, and Zero Dark Thirty does not inherit its predecessor’s wisdom just by mimicking its attention to details. In the filmmakers’ desire to unearth every step of the bin Laden manhunt, they have overlooked the concept of balance (or convinced themselves that refraining from commenting on their subject matter is the same thing). Boal probably knows more about the inscrutability of truth than some of his moviemaking peers – his educational background is in Philosophy – but he does not seem worried that becoming the confidante for CIA officials could possibly skew his view. He did not, after all, counter the high-level access he got to CIA officials by ‘embedding’ himself with, say, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, or the Red Cross, World Court, or UN Commission on Human Rights. Nor did Boal hang out with the staff at the European Court of Human Rights – the court which, a week before Zero Dark Thirty opened, set a precedent by ruling in favor of German citizen Khaled El-Masri’s lawsuit that the CIA broke the law in subjecting him to torture.

So it is no wonder that Boal serves up Dan, the CIA torture specialist portrayed in the film by Australian actor Jason Clarke, as rational, decent, and perfectly capable of going back to paper-pushing when he’s done stripping Muslims’ clothes off. At no point is Dan conveyed as sadistic or out-of-control: his actions are deliberate. Moreover, he and Maya, the dedicated CIA protagonist played by Chastain, get along fine; Maya’s female colleague (Jennifer Ehle) even chit-chats with her about how Maya and Dan should “hook up”. Granted, Maya is initially very disturbed to see Dan inflicting a smorgasbord of pain and suffering on a detainee – waterboarding, sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, starvation, enclosure in a sealed wooden box the size of a suitcase (a tactic almost identical to one used on slaves in Django Unchained.) But she makes no complaint over the actions or the scars and welts on the prisoner’s body. In fact, she eventually becomes a torturer herself, fully accepting waterboarding and employing henchmen to punch prisoners on her command to ‘enhance’ her interrogation. It seems the operatives’ only real concern about torture comes later on, in reaction to President Obama’s public disavowal of it; they look uncomfortable when it sounds like the rules are going to change. “Don’t be the last person holding a dog-collar,” Dan warns Maya when he gets out of the racket.

At the same time, the film rewards CIA certainty that detainees are withholding information in the face of denials. Though one detainee who is tortured becomes so distraught he starts jabbering nonsense – thus underscoring experts’ assertions we’ve heard in real life that torture leads to unreliable information — this moment is unlikely to stick with viewers. It is not a plot point, and certainly the agents are not worried about getting false leads (though even Shakespeare understood four centuries ago the uselessness of torture)1. What will impact the audience much more is that the same detainee who is tortured so much finally does reveal important information. Yes, he’s sitting at a meal with his torturers and they’re being nice to him at the time – but the implication is obviously that he ‘broke’ after the grueling succession of tortures he’d endured. Feeding him is just the follow-through phase of the torture.

And how differently the main torture victim in Zero Dark Thirty is depicted from the innocent, Egyptian-born, Chicago resident married to Reese Witherspoon in the unjustly-overlooked 2007 film Rendition. In that film, engineer Anwar (Omar Metwally), mistaken for someone else, is kidnapped from an airport terminal by the CIA and vanished to North Africa to be tortured – the script is said to be inspired by the El-Masiri case mentioned above, as well as by the similar case of Syrian-Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

In Rendition, the torture sequences are clearly empathetic to the victim, and they are seen from his point-of-view. Moreover, the CIA agent who witnesses the torture (Jake Gyllenhaal) isn’t merely uncomfortable, he’s beside himself, and he ultimately rebels against the system. By contrast, in Zero Dark Thirty, the interrogation scenes are from the interrogators’ perspective, and are part of the forward-movement of the movie: the viewer is, by dint of the dynamics of a detective story, co-opted into rooting for the interrogators. At no point do those interrogators we side with seem to have the slightest twinge of conscience (Maya’s initial discomfort is when she is green; like a kid learning how to skin a fish, she gets over it)2. And the false leads that cause delays are not shown as being the result of torture, but as understandable mistakes.

Furthermore, none of the detainees are portrayed as innocent or out-of-the-loop. While it may well be that a crime drama feels it’s necessary for dramatic economy to focus on criminals and accomplices only, the psychic effect of this emphasis is to make us side with the authorities – as our protectors – and to perceive that the world is full of dangerous hoodlums. In this case, which is no quaint PBS Mystery but a living-newspaper moment with influence over our current policy choices, this emphasis obscures the fact that the U.S. government was ‘disappearing’ people and hiding their very existence from human rights observers, that at least 100 prisoners are known to have died in U.S. custody as a result of interrogation and detention procedures during the Bush regime, that even some American citizens in custody have been subjected to torture, and that the Bush Administration kept scores of inmates imprisoned at Guantánamo for years despite knowing they were innocent (including an 89-year old villager, a 14-year boy, and a journalist).

As Andy Worthington, a British reporter who researches Guantánamo, told Democracy Now in 2011 after thousands of documents from the prison were released by Wikileaks:

“all along, it’s been apparent that there’s only been a very small number of genuine terrorist suspects at Guantánamo and that the rest of the people included large numbers of innocent people who were swept up… [T]here were a lot of low-level Taliban foot soldiers in there, as well, which is really at the heart of the failure of the war on terror to make a distinction between, on the one hand, terrorists and, on the other hand, soldiers in a military conflict…Major General Dunlavey, who was the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, complained about the “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, the number of “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, as he described them, that he was being sent from Afghanistan. Here they are. Here are the farmers and the cooks and the taxi drivers and all these people who should never have been rounded up in the first place and who ended up in Guantánamo because there was no screening process.”

The large number of innocent people at Guantánamo is in fact relevant to Zero Dark Thirty despite what the filmmakers might think because it’s all part of the same system, and because what’s being presented to us is also similar. First of all, Guantánamo was supposed to glean intelligence to thwart terrorism, and secondly, because it was a massive torture operation. Or in Andy Worthington’s words again: “what these files reveal in detail is that when people didn’t have anything to tell, because in so many cases they were nobodies, the Bush administration actually introduced torture techniques in an attempt to extract information from them.”

The makers of Zero Dark Thirty seem to be ignorant of this big picture, and their understanding of the actual practices of torture in the Bush Administration seems as misguided as the familiar lines dished out by the mainstream news. As Glen Greenwald wrote for Salon in 2009: “The reality — that our ‘interrogation tactics’ killed numerous detainees, who, by definition, are people confined helplessly in our custody, virtually none of whom has been convicted of anything, and at least some of whom are completely innocent — is virtually never heard as part of these debates.”

When we meet the detainee who Zero Dark Thirty will submit to an extended buffet of coercive brutality, he is already openly hostile to his torturer. He is clearly not a neutral party, but someone who actively dislikes his captors and their cause. Thus his defiance makes the audience instantly see him as their ideological enemy, perhaps even one who needs to be brought down a few pegs. I realize that other entertainments have been much more overtly pro-torture and gotten away with it (24, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds), but Bigelow’s film is supposed to be a serious drama ‘based on a true story’ and this makes it potentially even more influential.

I take Bigelow at her word that she is “a lifelong pacifist” who “support[s] all protest against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind”,  even if she says she’d prefer they didn’t protest her movie (as groups like the orange-jumpsuit street demonstrators World Cant Wait have been doing). She has argued in a piece in the L.A. Times that “depiction is not endorsement” and 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.” This would be a valid point, except for the fact that, whether purposefully done or not, sometimes depiction is endorsement. Sometimes depiction is encouragement — and that is why critics and scholars have spent as much time as they have decrying the depiction of violence against women in much mainstream entertainment, or the depiction of the LGBT community in ways that promulgate gay-bashing (there being a big difference between Cruising and Brokeback Mountain), or the depiction of sadistic murders in ways that make them seem cool, or the glamorization of battle, or various other media trends that harm society. It’s all a matter of tone.

Bigelow goes on to state that “War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” That is a noble sentiment, but where does Bigelow think she showed those consequences in her film? Zero Dark Thirty is no Casualties of War. Sure, she rightly avoids an overtly rah-rah-rah tone, and she doesn’t end on a triumphant peal but on a somber, quiet note. And Maya is consistently grim and joyless. But all these CIA operatives merely seem to be doing their jobs; their conduct is normalized by their banality, and moral considerations don’t seem to come into it. Unlike Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker, who demonstrably goes a little crazy under the pressures of an impossible war, these characters always maintain an aura of professionalism and rationality.

Boal has alleged that the “torture scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental”, which is in the eye of the beholder, since each type of torture shown is quite brief and the extent of the prisoner’s suffering is not fore-grounded. But he also adds that “what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” Now, this extraordinary statement bears no relationship whatsoever to the actual movie playing in theaters. As journalist Jane Mayer (the author of the torture exposé The Dark Side) remarks in The New Yorker, the movie “doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned.” If Boal thinks he’s showing a debate, it must be a debate between those who believe in torture – the ones he shows – and some invisible opponents he assumes must be answered. None of the characters mention that proscriptions against torture have been codified in fundamental international and U.S. documents for decades; it’s hard to tell if they even know. Mayer underscores the irresponsibility and inaccuracy of the movie’s lack of criticism of torture:

“the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.”

By positing that torture helped the CIA track down bin Laden while at the same time taking an uncritical stance toward the practice, the filmmakers have drawn a great deal of ire. (Recently, noted activist-actors David Clennon, Ed Asner, and Martin Sheen have brought the fight to the Academy by publicly opposing the film as an Oscar contender.) Bigelow and Boal may very well find torture abhorrent themselves, but if they do, they’ve really bent over backwards to hide it. What seems more likely is that their outrage has diminished because of their closeness to the culture which did those deeds. This comes out in small ways. Concerned about investigations, Boal has now enlisted the help of Jeffrey Smith, the attorney who represented Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara – hardly scions in the cause of human rights. Smith also happens to be former CIA general counsel, so Boal is picking an apple not far from the tree. Meanwhile, Bigelow’s L.A. Times piece defending her film salutes the “ordinary Americans who fought bravely” to defeat bin Laden “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.” She may call herself a pacifist, but no pacifist I know has so much equanimity about crossing ‘moral lines’ like these.

Ironically, Bigelow’s chief public defense of the portrayal of torture in the film is that we need artists to show us unsightly parts of our history, that sweeping our shameful deeds under the rug serves no-one. This is a remarkably specious argument, since it must be clear to her that the complaints against the movie by opponents of torture are not over the fact that it shows torture, but the way it shows torture. And it is a pretty spry contortionist’s act to a) claim moral high ground as a courageous truth-teller revealing dark secrets, while b) overtly championing the people and system you claim to be critiquing, and c) simultaneously adopting a non-judgmental, neutral-observer pose.

L.A. Weekly film critic Scott Foundas writes in his thumbs-up review of Zero Dark Thirty that “Bigelow and Boal come not to judge but to show”, but why would anyone assume those are the only two choices? There are actually ways to tackle problematic, raw-nerve historical subjects without being preachy or black-and-white. In fact, The Hurt Locker had seemed like an exemplar of that type. Beyond that, the British TV movies Bloody Sunday (2002) and Battle for Haditha (2007) are even more complete paradigms of that achievement. Both are documentary-style, ensemble-oriented features which follow characters with viscerally-divergent viewpoints. Both are scrupulous recreations of actual incidents, and portraits of how certain cultures (i.e. counter-terrorism forces and the military) breed certain mind-sets. But these two Brit pics don’t take objectivity so literally that they seem blasé about atrocities. It’s true that Bloody Sunday and Battle for Haditha are both about senseless, avoidable massacres (Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972 and Haditha, Iraq in 2005) and that they were both tragedies whose victims were innocent civilians, whereas Zero Dark Thirty is something altogether different. But the point is an aesthetic one: there are precedents already in the can to prove that reprehensible actions need not be filmed with a moralistic, condemnatory tone in order to make a moral argument. Those two fine U.K. films try to understand all their characters, even the worst of the bunch, but they do not accept all of their actions.

It is not to suggest that movies should talk down to the audience to say that filmmakers really need to think about media psychology more. It is merely to acknowledge that the images they create have extremely powerful effects on our psyches. Perhaps none of the CIA sources Boal interviewed had any lasting problem with torture and Bigelow was intent on verisimilitude, so the torture isn’t protested in the film. But when those characters are also the good guys in the movie, when the active protagonist who pursues her goal and finally achieves it is presented as a positive force (not as an anti-hero like, say, Michael Corleone in The Godfather films), then our human psyches taking in the film will not generally compute “wait a minute, remember the torture? Didn’t those people break a truck-load of laws? I feel ambivalent about this woman who is so morally compromised.” Instead, the human mind will compute: “The end justifies the means.”

It’s true that Bigelow is, as she declares, “part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition”, but that same Hollywood community has also made plenty of movies that the Pentagon loves – which is why the Pentagon and Hollywood have been such happy collaborators for so many decades. Likewise, Hollywood and the CIA have also been very willing partners on many entertainment projects–not just the current crop of prominent ones. This enduring marriage makes a mockery of MPAA President Christopher Dodd’s warning to Washington that the fuss about CIA cooperation with Zero Dark Thirty might frighten the military or other government agencies from working with Hollywood in the future. That is highly unlikely; those agencies know a good thing when they see it. Last year the U.S. military literally commissioned its own action movie, Act of Valor; it has been developing its own video games since 2002 and now has about two dozen games in use; and there is even an entertainment liaison office in Los Angeles for the DOD and Armed Forces.

And when CIA officials cooperated with Zero Dark Thirty, they were certainly not acting as whistleblowers. It wasn’t “X” in a trenchcoat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial whispering secrets his boss might have him killed for. No, CIA big guns met with Bigelow and Boal, on record and above board, “to ensure an appropriate portrayal of the Agency’s mission as well as the dedication of the men and women of the CIA who played a key part in the success of the mission,” as they told their Senate overseers. The CIA maintains that the relationship with the Zero Dark Thirty team was nice and cozy, and included the filmmakers agreeing to let the agency read drafts of the screenplay. This runs counter to Boal’s assertions, since he denies that he ever let the CIA officially vet the script, but even if did maintain the independence he has avowed, it’s not like there’s anything in the movie that might offend the agency.

The letter sent to the CIA’s acting director by Senate Select Committee chair Feinstein and ex-officio members Levin and McCain asks an interesting question: whether the CIA agents who met with the filmmakers lied to them about the role of torture in the hunt for bin Laden. This is one trail worth following, because if it is discovered that these Hollywood liberals were in fact guided into making the kind of exculpatory movie they made in order to influence public opinion – and perhaps to protect torturers from future prosecution – then this is a scandal that could last for some time.

One can only hope that the movie might lead to very different results than those which its depiction of torture would otherwise engender. This week, John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism consultant to national media outlets, will be sentenced for disclosing classified information to the press after pleading guilty to one of five counts against him in October. Kiriakou was the first government official to expose the use of waterboarding during the Bush regime, revealing the actions of another CIA officer to a New York Times reporter in order to bring to light how al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. In other words, Kiriakou has been prosecuted because he was a whistleblower about U.S. torture – whereas none of his colleagues who actually committed the war crime of torture have been so much as indicted. Nor are they likely to be, since Attorney General Eric Holder concluded a three-year investigation last August by declaring that no interrogators would be prosecuted for the abuse of prisoners (even though the abuse resulted in corpses).

It is obviously a grave injustice that these people not only get to walk away free but also get their own movie. (Where’s the movie in which Kiriakou is the hero?) But still, if it turns out that Zero Dark Thirty was derived from lies told by CIA officers to shape a narrative they wanted to see, maybe that could make at least the more conscientious members of Hollywood less eager to cooperate with them in the future. And one can always hope that such revelations could bring on renewed calls to prosecute the torturers — and repercussions for those who may have pulled a psy-op on the American people by manipulating some gullible filmmakers.

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1 In The Merchant of Venice Portia uses the knowledge for casual metaphor in a love dialogue:
“I fear you speak upon the rack,
Where men enforced do speak anything.”

2 This analogy is not meant to advocate fishing as a harmless activity. Scientific research has proven that fish feel pain.

 

 

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Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style
Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again Palatable

By Karen J. Greenberg

On January 11th, 11 years to the day after the Bush administration opened its notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s deeply flawed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opens nationwide. The filmmakers and distributors are evidently ignorant of the significance of the date — a perfect indication of the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the film, which will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans.

The sad fact is that Zero Dark Thirty could have been written by the tight circle of national security advisors who counseled President George W. Bush to create the post-9/11 policies that led to Guantanamo, the global network of borrowed “black sites” that added up to an offshore universe of injustice, and the grim torture practices — euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — that went with them. It’s also a film that those in the Obama administration who have championed non-accountability for such shameful policies could and (evidently did) get behind. It might as well be called Back to the Future, Part IV, for the film, like the country it speaks to, seems stuck forever in that time warp moment of revenge and hubris that swept the country just after 9/11.

As its core, Bigelow’s film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11. Zero Dark Thirty — for anyone who doesn’t know by now — is the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who believes that information from a detainee named Ammar will lead to bin Laden. After weeks, maybe months of torture, he does indeed provide a key bit of information that leads to another piece of information that leads… well, you get the idea. Eventually, the name of bin Laden’s courier is revealed. From the first mention of his name, Maya dedicates herself to finding him, and he finally leads the CIA to the compound where bin Laden is hiding. Of course, you know how it all ends.

However compelling the heroine’s determination to find bin Laden may be, the fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists. It’s as if she had followed an old government memo and decided to offer in fictional form step-by-step instructions for the creation, implementation, and selling of Bush-era torture and detention policies.

Here, then, are the seven steps that bring back the Bush administration and should help Americans learn how to love torture, Bigelow-style.

First, Rouse Fear. From its opening scene, Zero Dark Thirty equates our post-9/11 fears with the need for torture. The movie begins in darkness with the actual heartbreaking cries and screams for help of people trapped inside the towers of the World Trade Center: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?… It’s so hot. I’m burning up…” a female voice cries out. As those voices fade, the black screen yields to a full view of Ammar being roughed up by men in black ski masks and then strung up, arms wide apart.

The sounds of torture replace the desperate pleas of the victims. “Is he ever getting out?” Maya asks. “Never,” her close CIA associate Dan (Jason Clarke) answers. These are meant to be words of reassurance in response to the horrors of 9/11. Bigelow’s first step, then, is to echo former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s mantra from that now-distant moment in which he claimed the nation needed to go to “the dark side.” That was part of his impassioned demand that, given the immense threat posed by al-Qaeda, going beyond the law was the only way to seek retribution and security.

Bigelow also follows Cheney’s lead into a world of fear. The Bush administration understood that, for their global dreams, including a future invasion of Iraq, to become reality, fear was their best ally. From Terre Haute to El Paso, Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, Americans were to be regularly reminded that they were deeply and eternally endangered by terrorists.

Bigelow similarly keeps the fear monitor bleeping whenever she can. Interspersed with the narrative of the bin Laden chase, she provides often blood-filled footage from terrorist attacks around the globe in the decade after 9/11: the 2004 bombings of oil installations in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 22; the 2005 suicide bombings in London that killed 56; the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad that killed 54 people; and the thwarted Times Square bombing of May, 2010. We are in constant jeopardy, she wants us to remember, and uses Maya to remind us of this throughout.

Second, Undermine the Law. Torture is illegal under both American and international law. It was only pronounced “legal” in a series of secret memorandums produced by the Bush Justice Department and approved at the highest levels of the administration. (Top officials, including Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, evidently even had torture techniques demonstrated for them in the White House before green-lighting them.) Maintaining that there was no way Americans could be kept safe via purely legal methods, they asked for and were given secret legal authority to make torture the go-to option in their Global War on Terror. Yet Bigelow never even nods toward this striking rethinking of the law. She assumes the legality of the acts she portrays up close and personal, only hedging her bets toward the movie’s end when she indicates in passing that the legal system was a potential impediment to getting bin Laden. “Who the hell am I supposed to ask [for confirmation about the courier], some guy at Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?” asks Obama’s national security advisor in the filmic run-up to the raid.

Just as new policies were put in place to legalize torture, so the detention of terror suspects without charges or trials (including people who, we now know, were treated horrifically despite being innocent of anything) became a foundational act of the administration. Specifically, government lawyers were employed to create particularly tortured (if you’ll excuse the word) legal documents exempting detainees from the Geneva Conventions, thus enabling their interrogation under conditions that blatantly violated domestic and international laws.

Zero Dark Thirty accepts without hesitation or question the importance of this unconstitutional detention policy as crucial to the torture program. From the very first days of the war on terror, the U.S. government rounded up individuals globally and began to question them brutally. Whether they actually had information to reveal, whether the government had any concrete evidence against them, they held hundreds — in the end, thousands — of detainees in U.S. custody at secret CIA black sites worldwide, in the prisons of allied states known for their own torture policies, at Bagram Detention Center in Afghanistan, and of course at Guantanamo, which was the crown jewel of the Bush administration’s offshore detention system.

Dan and Maya themselves not only travel to secret black sites to obtain valuable information from detainees, but to the cages and interrogation booths at Bagram where men in those now-familiar orange jumpsuits are shown awaiting a nightmare experience. Bigelow’s film repeatedly suggests that it was crucially important for national security to keep a pool of potential information sources — those detainees — available just in case they might one day turn out to have information.

Third, Indulge in the Horror: Torture is displayed onscreen in what can only be called pornographic detail for nearly the film’s first hour. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty eerily mimics the obsessive, essentially fetishistic approach of Bush’s top officials to the subject. Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s former Chief of Staff David Addington, and John Yoo from the Office of Legal Counsel, among others, plunged into the minutiae of “enhanced interrogation” tactics, micro-managing just what levels of abuse should and should not apply, would and would not constitute torture after 9/11.

In black site after black site, on victim after victim, the movie shows acts of torture in exquisite detail, Bigelow’s camera seeming to relish its gruesomeness: waterboarding, stress positions, beatings, sleep deprivation resulting in memory loss and severe disorientation, sexual humiliation, containment in a small box, and more. Whenever she gets the chance, Bigelow seems to take the opportunity to suggest that this mangling of human flesh and immersion in brutality on the part of Americans is at least understandable and probably worthwhile. The film’s almost subliminal message on the subject of torture should remind us of the way in which a form of sadism-as-patriotic-duty filtered down to the troops on the ground, as evidenced by the now infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib of smiling American soldiers offering thumbs-up responses to their ability to humiliate and hurt captives in dog collars.

Fourth, Dehumanize the Victims. Like the national security establishment that promoted torture policies, Bigelow dehumanizes her victims. Despite repeated beatings, humiliations, and aggressive torture techniques of various sorts, Ammar never becomes even a faintly sympathetic character to anyone in the film. As a result, there is never anyone for the audience to identify with who becomes emotionally distraught over the abuses. Dehumanization was a necessary tool in promoting torture; now, it is a necessary tool in promoting Zero Dark Thirty, which desensitizes its audience in ways that should be frightening to us and make us wonder who exactly we have become in the years since 9/11.

Fifth, Never Doubt That Torture Works. Given all this, it’s a small step to touting the effectiveness of torture in eliciting the truth. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro’: it’s biology,” Dan says to his victim. He also repeats over and over, “If you lie to me, I hurt you” — meaning, “If I hurt you, you won’t lie to me.” Maya concurs, telling Ammar, bruised, bloodied, and begging for her help, that he can stop his pain by telling the truth.

How many times does the American public need to be told that torture did not yield the results the government promised? How many times does it need to be said that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, 183 times obviously didn’t work? How many times does it need to be pointed out that torture can — and did — produce misleading or false information, notably in the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Libyan who ran an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and who confessed under torture that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Sixth, Hold No One Accountable. The Obama administration made the determination that holding Bush administration figures, CIA officials, or the actual torturers responsible for what they did in a court of law was far more trouble than it might ever be worth. Instead, the president chose to move on and officially never look back. Bigelow takes advantage of this passivity to suggest to her audience that the only downside of torture is the fear of accountability. As he prepares to leave Pakistan, Dan tells Maya, “You gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes…”

The sad truth is that Zero Dark Thirty could not have been produced in its present form if any of the officials who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it. With scant public debate and no public record of accountability, Bigelow feels free to leave out even a scintilla of criticism of that torture program. Her film is thus one more example of the fact that without accountability, the pernicious narrative continues, possibly gaining traction as it does.

Seventh, Employ the Media. While the Bush administration had the Fox television series 24 as a weekly reminder that torture keeps us safe, the current administration, bent on its no-accountability policy, has Bigelow’s film on its side. It’s the perfect piece of propaganda, with all the appeal that naked brutality, fear, and revenge can bring.

Hollywood and most of its critics have embraced the film. It has already been named among the best films of the year, and is considered a shoe-in for Oscar nominations. Hollywood, that one-time bastion of liberalism, has provided the final piece in the perfect blueprint for the whitewashing of torture policy. If that isn’t a happily-ever-after ending, what is?

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. She is the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days and the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib.

Copyright 2013 Karen J. Greenberg (used with permission)

 

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Zero Dark Thirty: Torturing the Facts

by Marjorie Cohn

On January 11, eleven years to the day after George W. Bush sent the first detainees to Guantanamo, the Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty is making its national debut. Zero Dark Thirty is disturbing for two reasons. First and foremost, it leaves the viewer with the erroneous impression that torture helped the CIA find bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan. Secondarily, it ignores both the illegality and immorality of using torture as an interrogation tool.

The thriller opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” After showing footage of the horrific 9/11 attacks, it moves into a graphic and lengthy depiction of torture. The detainee “Ammar” is subjected to waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and confined in a small box. Responding to the torture, he divulges the name of the courier who ultimately leads the CIA to bin Laden’s location and assassination. It may be good theater, but it is inaccurate and misleading.

The statement “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is deceptive because it causes the viewer think the story is accurate. All it really means, however, is that the CIA provided Hollywood with information about events depicted in the movie. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell wrote a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in which he admitted the CIA engaged extensively with the filmmakers. After receiving his letter, Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin requested information and documents related to the CIA’s cooperation.

The senators sent a letter to Morrell saying they were “concerned by the film’s clear implication that information obtained during or after the use of the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques played a critical role in locating Usama Bin Laden (UBL).” They noted, “the film depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees. The film then credits CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques as providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the UBL compound.” They state categorically: “this information is incorrect.”

The letter explains that after a review of more than six million pages of CIA records, Feinstein and Levin made the following determination: “The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No CIA detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name, and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

In a speech on the Senate floor, McCain declared, “It was not torture, or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.” McCain added: “In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheik Mohammed not provide us with the key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information.”

Many high-level interrogators, including Glenn L. Carle, Ali Soufan and Matthew Alexander, report that torture is actually ineffective and often interferes with the securing of actual intelligence. A 2006 study by the National Defense Intelligence College concluded that traditional, rapport-building interrogation techniques are very effective even with the most recalcitrant detainees, but coercive tactics create resistance.

Moreover, torture is counter-productive. An interrogator serving in Afghanistan told Forbes, “I cannot even count the amount of times that I personally have come face to face with detainees, who told me they were primarily motivated to do what they did, because of hearing that we committed torture . . . Torture committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today.”

Torture is also illegal and immoral – important points that are ignored in Zero Dark Thirty. After witnessing the savage beating of a detainee at the beginning of the film, the beautiful heroine “Maya” says “I’m fine.” As he’s leaving Pakistan, Maya’s colleague Dan tells her, “You gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”

Torture is illegal in all circumstances. The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty the United States ratified which makes it part of U.S. law, states unequivocally: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The prohibition of torture is absolute and unequivocal. Torture is never lawful.

Yet despite copious evidence of widespread torture and abuse during the Bush administration, and the Constitution’s mandate that the President enforce the laws, Obama refuses to hold the Bush officials and lawyers accountable for their law breaking.

Granting impunity to the torturers combined with propaganda films like Zero Dark Thirty, which may well win multiple Oscars, dilutes any meaningful public opposition to our government’s cruel interrogation techniques. Armed with full and accurate information, we must engage in an honest discourse about torture and abuse, and hold those who commit those illegal acts fully accountable.

[Editor's Note: Please contact the Motion Picture Academy at contact@oscars.org to voice your opposition to this film receiving its awards.  More info.]

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UPDATE: New Campaign Live Online

And a new text message.

Tell the Oscars:

contact@oscars.org

Dear Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,

Zero Dark Thirty should be disqualified from receiving your awards on the basis that the filmmakers deliberately crafted false propaganda in the service of making illegal torture practices seem acceptable and productive. This deceitful twisting of the facts, coupled with special insider access to CIA sources, ties the filmmakers to the government in an unseemly and dishonest arrangement.

As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has set the record straight and pointed out the glaring falsehoods presented in Zero Dark Thirty, and as this issue is of vital and current significance to the nation, the awarding of this deceitful film with your honors would confer on it an unacceptable legitimacy harmful to the rule of law and to justice in the United States. These are not trivial matters and have international significance. The awarding of top honors to propaganda films sends a message to the entire world on where America’s values truly stand.

This is a great responsibility of the Academy, and it should not attempt to divorce the artistry of a film from its ethical, moral and legal implications. Creating false dramatic situations that justify torture, while claiming to be based on true events, is unacceptable. Torture is a war crime punishable by 20 years incarceration or the death penalty if the victims die – as several have already done. Witness your own Award Winning Taxi to the Dark Side.

Original Version:

Dear Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,

I am writing to inform you of my intention to create a campaign to disqualify the film Zero Dark Thirty from receiving your awards on the basis that the filmmakers deliberately crafted false propaganda in the service of making illegal torture practices seem acceptable and productive.

This deceitful twisting of the facts, coupled with special insider access to CIA sources, ties the filmmakers to the government in an unseemly and dishonest arrangement.  As the Senate Intelligence oversight committee has set the record straight and pointed out the falsehoods presented in the film, and as this issue is of vital and current significance to the nation, the awarding of this deceitful film your honors would confer on it an unacceptable legitimacy that can be harmful to the rule of law and to justice in the United States.  These are not trivial matters and have international significance.  The awarding of top honors to propaganda films sends a message to the entire world on where America’s values truly stand.  This is a great responsibility of the Academy, and it should not attempt to divorce the artistry of a film from its obvious political, ethical, moral and legal implications.  Creating false dramatic situations that justify torture is unacceptable, and torture is a war crime punishable by 20 years incarceration or the death penalty if the victims die — as several have done.

I hope to make an issue out of this disregard for the deceits contained within the film, and the Academy’s apparent condoning of this false historical propaganda.

Joe Giambrone

The Political Film Blog