Posts Tagged ‘Mark Boal’

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The plot sickens…

CIA director Leon Panetta asked Boal to alert the agency if he ever traveled to the country. At the time, Boal was working on a movie called Tora Bora, about the CIA’s failure to capture Osama bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The title referred to the region in eastern Afghanistan where the US felt it had let bin Laden slip through its fingers during a battle in December 2001.

But less than two weeks after Boal made the call, a team of Navy SEALs raided the al Qaeda leader’s compound in Pakistan and killed him. Boal would not be going to Afghanistan after all.

Executive Producer Leon Panetta hands Boal the Osama bin Laden murder fairy tale, and Tora Bora is never made.

Tora Bora was when they let Al Qaeda escape to Pakistan when the USAF could easily have bombed their caravan and shot down the Pakistani aircraft flying them out. That’s the story the CIA wasn’t so eager to see on big screens.

Tequila, Painted Pearls, and Prada: How the CIA Helped Produce ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The Scandal:

Zero Dark Thirty Scandal Files

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I shudder.  Looks like the story sets up Assange to be demonized by the end, as is official US policy and Big Lies.  Some possibilities though, as they want to take in the money of people on Wikileaks’ side.  The actor playing Assange, however, can’t pull off the accent, and it’s rather sad.

It seems that Assange is portrayed as a deluded one-note fanatic, incapable of seeing the wisdom of the corporate security state and the all-knowing power of the rich white guys who know better.  I get the impression that this actor Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t get Assange in the slightest, and is just another meat puppet in this corporate/political kabuki theater.  Cumberbatch pissed me off once before in his British show Sherlock, by gleefully endorsing the death penalty time and again. This pro-death, essentially right wing propaganda passes as comedy in a nation that has outlawed executions for many decades.

The Fifth Estate trailer is full of lofty poetry, and the staging seems weak, the images non-cinematic when Assange and crew are involved, rather deliberately unflattering.

 

Assange responds to the Ffrth Estate Script (11:10)

“A Mass Propaganda Attack.”

 

[The Fifth Estate] is not just an attack against us.  It is an attack on Iran.  It fans the flames to start a war with Iran.”

Watch the video for the spoilers, and the “corrupt media, corrupt culture.”

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Declassified Memo Shows ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Filmmakers Played Role of Willing Propagandists for CIA
Newly Declassified Memo Shows CIA Shaped Zero Dark Thirty’s Narrative

Torture is:

  1. Felony crime under US Law, 20 year penalty and death penalty if victim dies
  2. International War Crime
  3. A conspiracy to torture when multiple parties engage in it
  4. Conspiracy extends to those covering up these felonies and war crimes … do the math.

More:

Zero Dark Thirty Scandal Files

 

 

 

Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry?

by Kieran Kelley

 

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem.

There have been a number of critical condemnations of the film Argo. The most thoroughgoing that I have read is this one. What seems to me to be missing is any critique that successfully conveys the utter ludicrousness of expecting something other than lying propaganda to come out of a Hollywood film about the CIA in 1979. It is like expecting the Soviets to have made an accurate and unbiased account of KGB activities during the Prague Spring. I saw the preview before the film’s release, and after about 5 or 10 seconds of suspense it became apparent that it was a load of crap – the usual Orientalist stuff, straight out of the Reel Bad Arabs playbook, except with Persians instead of Arabs. The film mirrors the preview – at first it seems possible that one might be about to see a balanced and thoughtful movie, and then… not. Decidedly not.

Let me begin with some historical context. The CIA’s first coup in Iran, considered at the time “its greatest single triumph”,1 brought the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to a position of supreme power. The CIA “wove itself into Iran’s political culture”.2 They created SAVAK, a notorious “intelligence” agency, trained in torture by the CIA3 and supported by the CIA and DIA in a domestic and international dissident assassination programme.4 Repression was at its peak between 1970 and 1976 resulting in 10,000 deaths.5 By 1976 Amnesty International’s secretary general commented that Iran had “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.”6

Nafeez Ahmed cites the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) who detail an extensive police state of intense surveillance and informant networks and torture “passed on to it” by US, UK and Israeli intelligence. Ahmed quotes the FAS on methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”7 Racism allows commentators such as Tim Weiner to blithely exculpate the CIA of fundamental guilt: “The CIA wanted SAVAK to serve as its eyes and ears against the Soviets. The shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.”8 After all, what could civilised Westerners teach Orientals about torture? But something of the real US attitude to such repression can be seen in the official reaction to the unrest developing in the late 1970s. Aside from US officials consistently urging and praising military responses to protest action, including inevitable massacres,9 the US ambassador objected strongly to a reduction in repression. In June 1978 he reported his finding that, “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting.”10 The funny thing about this was that it occurred after the US had forced the Shah into the liberalisation that set loose the forces that were to rip his régime apart.11 This may seem puzzling, but it made more sense for the US to push Iran into the easily vilified “enemy” hands of an Islamic theocracy than to try to maintain control over a Shah who, however repressive, was determined to develop his populous oil-rich country independently.

That is the key point that you will almost never hear about: the US was sick of the Shah. He had become too nationalistic and developmentally inclined, and they didn’t want him any more. They may not have really wanted a revolution in Iran, but they weren’t going to shed tears over the Shah’s departure. Their main fear was the strength of the secular revolutionary left, which had more popular power than the Islamists (despite SAVAK’s repression) so the US helped nurture the Islamist factions.

The CIA were far from unaware of the impending fall of the Shah’s régime, here is a quote in the film which is an instance of absolute barefaced deception: “Iran is 100% not in a pre-revolutionary state. CIA brief, November first, 1979.” Let’s not be stupid here – it is one thing to claim not to know of an impending revolution, but the film is claiming that the CIA were unaware of a revolution that had already happened. Of course some people in the CIA knew that revolution was brewing and the actual CIA brief was from August 1978 and was plainly dishonest even then. By that stage even the State Department was planning for a post-Shah Iran.12 The revolution had actually happened nearly a year before Argo claims that the CIA believed it wasn’t going to happen (the Shah fled Iran in January, Khomeini returned from exile on February 1). But Argo makers really, really, really want you to “know” that the CIA were caught flat-footed and are willing to go to considerable lengths to make you believe this lie.

There is another deception in the film which indicates a conscious systematic attempt to indoctrinate the audience. Some describe Argo as “well-intentioned but fatally flawed”, but these “good intentions” cannot possibly be reconciled with the disgusting propaganda treatment of the issue of the shredded documents put together by Iran. The documents seized by radicals in the embassy takeover were the Wikileaks of their time. Most seized documents were not shredded and they exposed massive systematic illegality and wrongdoing by US personnel, especially the CIA. They were extremely historically significant. Iran spent years piecing together the shreds and the reconstruction was a major intelligence and propaganda coup. In the film, however, we see a very different narrative played out, and we are shown a set of very different images.

In the film, for some inexplicable reason, there were xeroxed photographic images of the staff who had escaped from the embassy when it was seized by radicals. Could this simply be a cinematic plot device for generating suspense? Not really. Any number of other devices might have been used – such as a dragnet, or informants, or surveillance (mobile or static), signals interception and cryptography. You name it, if you are willing to make stuff up, then there is quite a lot you could make up that would be potentially more suspenseful and, unlike this particular conceit, wouldn’t run such a risk of the audience losing their suspension of disbelief because of such an obvious unrealism.

“Realism”, I should add, is a very import aspect of this film. It is not done in a documentary style, but is presented as a dramatisation of historical events. Let me illustrate with a quote at length from Wide Asleep in America:

[Salon’s Andrew] O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”

“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”

To emphasise this point, the initial part of the end credits juxtaposes images from the film with real documentary images. They show how much the actors look like the people they portray. The show how they had faithfully recreated scenes from the revolution. And they show the teeny tiny hands a the poor slave children forced to piece together shredded CIA documents. Wait a second though… don’t the hands in the real photo, despite severe cropping, look more like a woman’s hands? And why would young children be used to piece together valuable and vulnerable documents written in a language that they could not possibly understand?

For some reason the film makers took it upon themselves to invent a whole bunch of “sweatshop kids” putting together these documents. There is no conceivable reason to do so that does not involve conscious deceptive propaganda. In this case, the intent is to make deliberate emotive subliminal association. What do I mean by subliminal? As Joe Giambrone explains:

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda. It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background. Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.

This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists. Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)”

Subliminality doesn’t mean that images are flashed too quickly to be noticed, rather that associations are made without conscious thought. It is true that you can find a great number of deliberately concealed images in advertising, but the claim that this is all that constitutes subliminal advertising is itself a deception. Advertising, in particular television advertising, is dominated by subliminal messaging, and it is not about tricky concealment. It uses repetition more than anything else, to make associations between advertised products and services with other desires – particularly, but not exclusively, sexual. If you want to sell a car, you don’t generally use brake horsepower or fuel consumption statistics. You associate it with a lifestyle, with attractive people, with status, with sex, with success, with normalcy, with excitement, with fine wine and food, and so forth. That is subliminal.

Obviously when film makers are unconsciously disseminating their own internalised propaganda they convey such messages subliminally. Subliminal means below the threshold, meaning, in this case, below the threshold of consciousness. This is a very, very significant manner in which an orthodox ideology, such as chauvinist US exceptionalism, is deepened and perpetuated. However the deliberate use of techniques designed to manipulate people by subliminal means can be far more powerful still. As an apposite example, let us examine Michelle Obama’s Oscar night appearance. Some have pointed out that Obama being flanked by military personnel as “props” suggests a desire to subliminally associate the First Lady and the presidency with military virtues. That may well be the case, but think how common it is to see faces arrayed behind political speakers in our times. Every time it is possible to do so nowadays, major US politicians will have a bunch of people in uniform behind them when they speak. But it is not strictly about the association with uniforms. Press conferences often pose colleagues behind the speaker – including military briefings almost as a matter of course – and when politicians speak to political rallies or party conferences, they are framed by a sea of supporters’ faces behind them.

You see, we automatically respond to other people’s facial expressions. In fact eliciting an emotional response is as much a component of facial expression as conveying emotion is, and this occurs subliminally. Now think again of Giambrone’s description: “… the ‘unconscious’ background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge….” The people behind the speaker are being used as a way of evoking an emotional reaction like some science fiction mind control ray. Fortunately, people are fickle creatures and often their reaction to watching the back of a speaker’s head, no matter how eloquent, is to look bored or embarrassed. But clearly the technique is being perfected, and the people chosen are those who can be relied upon to convey the right emotions, hence the predilection for military personnel and partisan enthusiasts.

Similarly, subliminal messaging in advertising and film is often also aimed at a gut level. They are not conveying particular ideas, but emotions. The victim (I mean viewer) can rationalise these emotions any way they might later choose, and the brilliance of the system is that it enlists every victim’s own inventiveness tailored in response to each specific circumstance that might challenge or belie the conditioned sentimental sense of reality. So where does this leave us with regards to Argo‘s mythical “sweatshop kids”? We have precisely four references to them. The first is in our hero’s initial briefing: “The bastards are using these [pause and do gesture to indicate need to
convey novel concept] mmm sweatshop kids.” Nearly an hour later, we are shown about 5 seconds of the “sweatshop”. It actually looks very stupid if you pay attention to it, but it is over too quickly to register (more subliminality similar to that used in The Hurt Locker). What it actually shows, when the camera pulls back to reveal the scene for around one second, is dozens of children aged about five to eight sitting amidst piles of paper shreds. There is an unnatural hush, redolent with a sense of fear. Half of them are just staring into space, and there is no conceivable way that any of them could actually be doing any useful work. Accompanying the scene is one of the 16 tracks on the official soundtrack. It is called “Sweatshop” and here it is:

Note the image chosen for the album cover.

(more…)

All-American Babe Who Didn’t Torture Anybody Wins OscarJennifer_Lawrence_35972

 

One more waterboarding for Bigelow and Boal. Glenn Greenwald, who always keeps his razor sharp, gives a needed fuck you to the bootlicking film critics who ignore morality, ethics and propaganda, even when it’s right in their faces.

Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA and film critics have a very bad evening

The stigma attached to the pro-torture CIA propaganda vehicle, beloved by film critics, results in Oscar humiliation

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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.

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Alternative Oscars happening today at 3pn.

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

 

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Imperial Propaganda: Our Highest Achievement

Joe Giambrone

Hollywood likes to pretend that things aren’t political when they are.  It’s that bi-partisan nationalist myth that if both corporate parties agree to cheer for the empire, then everyone cheers for the empire.  It’s gotten so bad now that races like the Oscars and the Writer’s Guild screenwriting award are tight contests between one CIA propaganda film and another CIA propaganda film.  The first one helps to demonize Iranians and set up the next World War scenario, while the second film fraudulently promotes the effectiveness of state-sanctioned torture crimes.

If there ever was a time for loud disgust and rejection of the Hollywood / Military-Industrial-Complex, this would seem to be it (contact@oscars.org).  Naomi Wolf made a comparison of Zero Dark Thirtys creators Bigelow and Boal to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will).  That, to me, seems inappropriately offensive to Leni Riefenstahl.  The good German filmmaker never promoted torture through deception.  Nor was Triumph a call to war.  The film was simply an expression of German patriotism and strength, rebirth from the ashes of World War I.  The current insidious crop of propaganda, as in the CIA’s leaking of fictional scenes about locating Osama Bin Laden through torture extraction, are arguably more damaging and less defensible than Riefenstahl’s upfront and blatant homage to Hitler’s leadership.

The Zero Dark Thirty scandal should be common knowledge by now, but here is what the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote to Sony Pictures about it:

“We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden…  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.”

The filmmakers had every opportunity to explore the issue more fully, instead of relying on the “firsthand accounts” of the torturers themselves, and/or their allies within the Central Intelligence Agency.  Notably, torturers are felons and war criminals.  Those who know about their crimes and help cover them up are guilty of conspiracy to torture.  Thus, these self-serving fairy tales that illegal torture led to the desired results (bin Laden) are tangled up with the motivation to protect war criminals from prosecution.  Not only does this claim of successful torture help insulate the guilty from legal prosecution, it also helps to promote further criminal acts of torture in the future.

Once this red flag issue was raised by the Senate, the filmmakers could have taken a second look at what they had put up on screens and reassessed the veracity of their material and the way it was being sold to the world.  Instead they doubled down.  Bigelow and Boal want it both ways, extraordinary access to CIA storytellers for a documentary-like “factual” telling of the bin Laden execution, but they also want license to claim that it’s just a movie and can therefore take all the liberties they please.

Jessica Chastain, who plays a state-employed torturer/murderer, who also allegedly located Osama bin Laden, said:

“I’m afraid to get called in front of a Senate committee… In my opinion, this is a very accurate film… I think it’s important to note the film is not a documentary.”

In a nutshell, that’s the Zero Dark Thirty defense.  It’s a highly sourced “very accurate film,” but we can take all the liberties we like because it’s not a documentary, and so if we made up a case for torture based on the lies of professional liars in the CIA, then oops.

Mark Boal went so far as to mock the Senate Intelligence Committee, at the NY Film Critic’s Circle:

“In case anyone is asking, we stand by the film… Apparently, the French government will be investigating Les Mis.”

Any controversy over the picture seems to help its box office, as more uninformed people hear about it.  The filmmakers themselves suffer no penalty as a result of misleading a large number of people on torture, to accept torture, to accept a secretive criminal state that tortures with impunity.

Kathryn Bigelow’s wrapped-in-the-flag defense of the film:

“Bin Laden… 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.” (emphasis in original)

Nice propaganda trick at the end equating those who “gave all of themselves” and “death” with the individuals who “sometimes crossed moral lines.”  Everyone’s dirty; you see.  All heroes are torturers; so it’s okay.

Bigelow’s half-assed response to getting called out by the Senate for putting false torture results into her film, is to say:

“Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” (emphasis added)

Ignore?  By her reasoning, because the Central Intelligence Agency tortured people, she was required to fit it into the plot somehow, whether it was relevant to the investigation or not.  That’s her excuse.  No matter that the scenes are fabrications, and the actual clues about bin Laden’s courier came from elsewhere (electronic surveillance, human intelligence, foreign services).

Bigelow told Charlie Rose, when asked the same question about the torture: “Well I think it’s important to tell a true story.”  Unfortunately, when confronted with the Senate investigation, truth quickly takes a back seat.

The truth Bigelow now clings to is that, “Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue.”  To Kathryn Bigelow, the fact that the so-called “experts” she has sided with are torturer criminals with a vested interest in her portrayal of their crimes never occurs to her.  She can dismiss the entire matter as a “debate.”  Perhaps she no longer finds it “important to tell a true story?”

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Genocide, Fuck Yeah!

How The Hurt Locker Put the Fun Back into Mass Murder

by Kieran Kelly

There is a question used to illustrate the way in which presuppositions can constrain discourse: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The discourse of US international relations is somewhat like the inverse of that question – perhaps equivalent to “have you been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yet?” It appears that people find it very difficult not to become apologists for the US when they set out to critique the US. For example a recent paper on possible violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in US drone “signature strikes” takes as written that there is a sustainable claim that these strikes are legitimate self-defence. This is in order to make the point that even acts of self-defence must conform to IHL and IHRL. You might think that is a reasonable stance, but how can anyone possibly think that signature strikes are legitimate self-defence? These are attacks carried out against unknown individuals based on patterns of behaviour such as visiting suspect buildings. This simply cannot be reconciled with the right of self-defence given under Article 51 of the UN Charter, so why on Earth would anyone simply concede this utter lie? Even the Obama administration prefers (citing US officials’ opinions as sufficient legal precedent) to claim that it is killing as part of an ongoing war, and that its violations of sovereignty are legitimate because the US has done the same thing in the past (and gotten away with it).

Sometimes, however, you don’t need to concede anything to have a critique subverted by the power of the hegemonic discourse. You stick your black spike of dissent in the path of the giant snowball of empire, and with barely a jolt or change in direction the ball gobbles up your spike which is soon obscured and does no more than add its weight to the thundering behemoth. For example, I greatly like the films Full Metal Jacket and Waltz with Bashir. They are both unflattering depictions of war from a conscript’s viewpoint. The problem is that they exist in a distorted context. It is good to humanise the forces of an aggressor, especially the actual grunts who have to face the dangers and do the most intimate dirty work. But to have a context wherein only the aggressors are humanised is sick and depraved, and I don’t mean that these films are sick and depraved. I mean the society we live in, that has never accorded such a deep three-dimensional humanity to Palestinians, Lebanese or Vietnamese, is sick and depraved – utterly sick and depraved.

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Waltz with Bashir deserves an acknowledgement in that, in its final moments, it very movingly humanises the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres through still photographs (similar to the approach of DePalma’s Redacted) . However, through no fault of the film-maker (who had his own story to tell), the victims were not protagonists; they were not actors; they were not agents. Both of these films unintentionally act to support Israeli or US aggression. Whenever Israel or the US invades a new country, our imaginations are embedded with their personnel. We think about their fears and their suffering, not the greater fears and suffering of their victims. The emotions of their victims can’t be shown in any significant way, because then the US and Israel would look like the “Bad Guys” and people might find it difficult to believe that their violence is founded in the fight against the “Bad Guys”.

It is not just perceptions of real life that are altered by this one-sidedness. The boundaries of what is allowable within the cinematic discourse may, because of this context, allow utterly toxic pieces of propaganda to pass unnoticed. They fit comfortably within the normal practice of privileging Western lives and Western stories. They blame the victims and revere the sacrifice of the perpetrators. They may even be ostensibly antiwar, but they are pro-war crime. Such a work is The Hurt Locker.

The film Zero Dark Thirty has rightly attracted criticism for being a repugnant pro-torture piece of propaganda. For example the Political Film Blog has quite a collection of posts from various writers on many different aspects of why it is a repulsive work. But writer, Mark Boal, and director, Kathryn Bigelow, received almost universal praise for their previous work, The Hurt Locker, and what criticism there was of this movie made it seem almost as if it was a vapid and empty thriller that, by default, promoted a nihilistic love of US muscularity and capacity for destruction. As one writer puts it: “When the film ends with James marching defiantly toward yet another bomb in slow motion, one can practically hear the parody song, ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’ playing in the background.”

(more…)

david-clennon-03moore

Good stuff in this morning’s CounterPunch:

Michael Moore’s Repellent Defense of “Zero Dark Thirty”

‘Feminist’ torturer and murderer? Get real, Mike.

[See our extensive coverage of the Zero Dark Thirty torture scandal here.]

PS

Obama just imprisoned the one CIA officer who exposed war crimes in the CIA, whistleblower John Kirakou, while promoting and protecting war criminals who torture and murder for the state. That makes Barack Obama party to the conspiracy to torture. Kirakou is railroaded for “Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held, and classified information” about torture war crimes he allegedly divulged to NY Times journalists and defense lawyers for Guantanamo detainee torture victims.

A petition to Obama demanding to release John Kirakou.

Hey Michael Moore — where are you?

 

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

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The Great White Camel

by RANDY SHIELDS

Probably many people have read the informed and thoughtful commentary on the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” by Glenn Greenwald or Jane Mayeror Karen Greenberg.

But what you’re really wondering is: what does a scalawag, what does a completely unrepentant flame thrower and certified America-hater think about “Zero Dark Thirty”? Come, sit by me.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” like director Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (which I reviewed and contrasted with “Avatarhere), is about the trials and tribulations of American occupiers, torturers, death squads and empire builders — no Muslims need apply for any humanity, although they’re allowed to scream a lot and blow up shit. (In real life they scream a lot, too, because some party unknown to Bigelow keeps dropping bombs on them, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.)

First off, I think the critics of this movie are lost in minutia. They mistakenly credit Americans with a humanity which they don’t possess and assume that Americans will be unduly influenced by the movie’s depiction of torture when, in fact, more Americans support torture than are against it, according to this 2012 poll. More Americans support torture now than in 2007. Americans are a lost cause. Instead, let’s see the waterboard pitcher as half full and celebrate how the rest of the world might see this movie.

Two things stuck out for me about the movie, one at the very beginning and the other at the end. Watching the CIA torturers at work, waterboarding, beating, hanging a guy in stress positions, depriving him of sleep, confining him in a little box, the sexual humiliation, the blinding light and blaring music — all of it called to mind George Bernard Shaw’s observation on animal experimentation: that a race of people who would use something as barbarous as animal experiments to “save” themselves would be a race of people not worth saving. No matter what the CIA, director Kathryn Bigelow (don’t overlook that comma!) and screenwriter Mark Boales intended, that’s the real message (subliminal only if you’re an American) of “Zero Dark Thirty”: America isn’t worth saving. Creative artists don’t always know the forces and influences that they’re working under or the ultimate import and meaning of what they’re creating. History, someday even written by the working class, will judge the meaning of this film.

The definition of torture is “the infliction of pain to elicit information.” That’s why I’ve never had a problem calling animal experimenters torturers. Torture isn’t in the mind or the intent of the torturer, it’s what they do. They cause pain to get information. So the torturers in “Zero Dark Thirty” can go from being brutal to joking around in mere seconds. They aren’t foaming-at-the-mouth sadists 24/7 — they’re the war criminals standing behind us in the grocery line. It’s Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.”

If the experiments/torture didn’t actually start out this way, in the end it always becomes about the sick fuck craziness of the torturers/experimenters themselves, their desire to be obeyed and take absolute power and control over a helpless being’s life, not the search for truth or “cures” or “protecting the American people.” (It’s perfect symmetry that the “learned helplessness” experiments of University of Pennsylvania dog shocker Dr. Martin Seligman formed the “intellectual” basis of the Bush torture program.) “Zero Dark Thirty” shows American torturers in action, which is good. In fact, I think it would be dishonest of Bigelow and Boales to toss in the one or two FBI agents who objected to the systematic torture of one of hundreds (thousands?) of people and the torture trail that went all the way up to Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Cheney and Rumsfeld for their recommendations on torture techniques. This fucking movie should go down hard in the craw of the world — there was never any humanity or conscience or enough ”good Americans” involved to even be worth noting. I don’t recall those FBI agents making any arrests of the torturers or raising hell in the press at the time they witnessed the torture.

(An aside on waterboarding: as awful as waterboarding is in the movie, I think this written description — by a man who waterboarded himself — conveys the suffering better. In media interviews, director Bigelow never calls waterboarding torture — she always calls it ”enhanced interrogation.” People who don’t call waterboarding torture are either: 1) misinformed 2) diabolical servants of the American empire or 3) the New York Times. Waterboarding has been known as torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition and the Reagan Justice Department recognized it as such when it prosecuted Texas sheriff James Parker and three deputies for doing it to prisoners to obtain confessions back in 1983.)

The other thing that struck me about “Zero Dark Thirty” was no face to face confrontation with Osama bin Laden when the Navy SEALs are blowing up doors to his compound and proceeding up the different levels to his bedroom. Once there, everything gets even murkier, despite the night vision goggles worn by the SEALs. We don’t see the shot that fells bin Laden — we see him after he’s shot and laying on the floor as a SEAL pushes away two of his wives and then another SEAL pumps his supine body with a couple more bullets.

In a movie where plenty of dramatic license is taken, why no face to face confrontation with the great terrorist mastermind, with the Navy SEAL gunslinger at high midnight delivering vengeance for the smoking ashes of the twin towers? Why no look into bin Laden’s face as he realizes he is about to die in the “claws of the eagle” (America) as he said he probably would? Why no cathartic righteous justice? It doesn’t matter that maybe in “real life” it really was dark and difficult to see and that the one-to-one look in bin Laden’s eyes didn’t happen. These filmmakers don’t give a damn about “real life” and context when it comes to vilifying Muslims. Without fail, they care about drama and maximum emotional impact, from the real life September 11 911 callers which lead directly to the waterboarding to the CIA agent who bakes a cake for the man she thinks has been turned into an informant only to have him detonate a suicide vest and kill her and several other agents. This movie is all about drama but only within the confines of CIA propaganda.

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The filmmakers would no doubt consider showing bin Laden’s face to be “glorifying” him. If bin Laden was shown to be afraid, he might draw some sympathy as an unarmed man executed in his bedroom by a death squad. If he was defiant, this might rev up his followers. So there must not be anything recognizably human about him. Code-named “Geronimo” by the American government, bin Laden must die like every indigenous person at the hands of cowboys and soldiers in American movies: just fall down dead like a cardboard cutout, incapable of expression, meaning or emotion. Only the White Man’s struggles are of any interest. Paradoxically, bin Laden remains a boogeyman who still holds so much power that even his death in a movie can’t be shown. Moby bin Laden’s dead and America, through Ahab Bigelow, is still afraid of him, a kind of Great White Camel, an obsession, a fiend who played a very useful role for American warmongers, from terror alerts always sounded near key political and legislative moments to being the supposed inspiration for every zealot with a Kalashnikov that America must spend a fortune exterminating — not a mere criminal who could have been easily been captured alive and tried in court.

America’s pursuit of the Great White Camel told us much more about ourselves than it did about him: we killed over one million Iraqis and wrecked their country which is still going on to this day, every day. We’ve now killed more Afghan civilians than Americans were killed on 9/11, and our drone strikes in Pakistan are making it a close second. The pursuit of the Great White Camel let the world see through a mirage: America isn’t a model to be emulated, it’s not a soaring eagle but a Chicken Little who scares easily and rushed to throw away every civil liberty and legal protection it had via the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and the National Defense Authorization Act. A deluded cowardly and bullying country that will mainly fight you from 10,000 miles away and 20,000 feet above. A country whose dumb ass personality-cult liberals believe it’s a big improvement going from Bush capturing and torturing alleged “terrorists” to Barackus Obombus Caesar who captures no one and simply kills whoever he wants wherever he wants whenever he wants. It’s no coincidence that the CIA works with an Oscar-winning director on a film depicting torture now that its preferred modus operandi is extrajudicial assassination.

So why is this movie good for the world? Because it shows the ugly beast of America out of control, it comes to you bloody and crazed, so detached from reality that it believes its vices are virtues. It congratulates itself on its military prowess while the rest of the world sees sadistic torture, innocent people killed, nations’ sovereignty violated with impunity, international law and the Geneva Conventions jettisoned, lumbering death squads coming in the night from thousands of miles away to wreck your world, terrifying women and children and sometimes killing them. This movie’s message is: America makes the whole world insecure — therefore: arm yourselves to the teeth, preferably with nuclear weapons.

“Zero Dark Thirty” shows America swaggering and bragging, torturing and killing and proud of it. Americans love this shit because they have no empathy — they never imagine themselves on the receiving end of it. And they’re so damnably stupid and easy to manipulate that even when they are on the receiving end of it, as on 9/11, they don’t learn anything from it. Forget about any self-reflection as to why so many people in the world hate America. It was so easy for the ruling class to channel Americans’  bigotry onto Muslims and deflect away the normal healthy reaction of what should have been tremendous anger at the US government for not preventing 9/11 after all the trillions of dollars spent on “defense” and “security.” (Ralph Nader suggested four decades ago that cockpit doors on planes should be strengthened and locked. But what does he know compared to “bottom line” airline executives — he only gave us seat belts.) Almost three thousand people dead, a nation shellshocked and yet no one in our vast political/intelligence/military/surveillance state lost a day’s pay or got a reprimand. No one on top pays for anything in America whether it’s torture, financial fraud, illegal eavesdropping or negligent homicide. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the incredible resources available to kill and destroy while Americans live in cardboard boxes in New York City and tents next to off-ramps in San Diego. A country whose infrastructure is so dilapidated that it’s not even safe for people to live under its bridges. A moral and social wasteland where more of its “true believers,” its trumpeted soldiers, kill themselves each year than are killed by its enemies. A country so fucked up, from its rotting Obama drone-head on down, that an increasing number of alienated citizens make their final statement the mass killing of total strangers, especially children. One great day it will be unanimous: three hundred million Americans will hate America.

Now wasn’t this a better movie review than some reverent cinephile talking about camera angles and lighting and references to other movies that weren’t worth seeing in the first place? The only way that I could be wrong about all of this, and the S & M America-lovers could have the last laugh, is if the goal of the American government, through propaganda vehicles like “Zero Dark Thirty,” is to cause as much hatred and blowback to America as possible in order to justify ever more “defense” and “security” spending, as if the whole reason for the being of America was the wildly successful business of plunder and murder. I flame. You decide. Have it your way at Vegan King.

Randy Shields can be reached at music2hi4thehumanear@gmail.com. His writings and art are collected at innagoddadadamdavegan.blogspot.com.

 
[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.