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Does Zero Dark Thirty celebrate torture, or condemn it?
Kathryn Bigelow's bin Laden movie is winning across-the-board raves. But critics are less unanimous about what to make of the movie's gruesome torture scenes
 
Joel Edgerton plays a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar contender about the hunt for bin Laden.
Joel Edgerton plays a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar contender about the hunt for bin Laden. Facebook/Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow's cinematic recounting of the events leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, is "garnering a pile of top awards and virtually uniform rave reviews," says Glenn Greenwald at Britain's The Guardian. And yet, "by most accounts, the film glorifies torture by claiming — falsely — that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden." The fact that the film — which Greenwald hasn't seen — is America-boosting Big Hollywood "propaganda" is no surprise, but still, Zero Dark Thirty disturbingly "propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the U.S. government, based on pure falsehoods." Greenwald continues:

Shouldn't that rather glaring "flaw" preclude gushing admiration for this film?... Ultimately, I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this.... The normalization of torture — and of all crimes committed by the U.S. government in the name of war — is both a cause and effect of this film's success. That normalization is what enables a film like this to be so widely admired, and it will be bolstered even further as the film gathers more accolades and box office riches.

Bigelow defends her movie by saying she took an almost journalistic approach to bin Laden's killing, and that "the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge." But "lies do have an agenda," says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. If the reviews of Zero Dark Thirty are accurate, the depictions of torture "violate the historical record, and they make war crimes more likely in the future." It may make for good cinema, but actual torture is evil, ineffective at uncovering usable intelligence, and illegal. It's certainly "far too grave a matter to be exploited as a plot device."

Hold on, says Spencer Ackerman at Wired. Maybe people should hold off on pontificating about Zero Dark Thirty until they've actually seen it. While "you wouldn't know this from the avalanche of commentary greeting the film," the "unsparing, nauseating, and frighteningly realistic look at how the CIA tortured many people" is "arguably the best and most important part of the movie." Viewers actually learn that torture yielded very little intelligence, with the real trail to bin Laden starting with the CIA trading a yellow Lamborghini to a Kuwaiti for a phone number.

If this is the case for the utility of torture, it's a weak case — nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.... Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet. Were a documentarian making the film, there would surely be less torture in the movie... but that would also come at the expense of making a viewer come to grips with what Dick Cheney euphemistically called the "dark side" of post-9/11 counterterrorism.... What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.

"Bigelow is being presented as a torture apologist," says Ackerman, "and it's a bum rap."

Count me unconvinced, says Freddie DeBoer at his L'Hôte blog. The point that the film's pompous defenders "have to grapple with is the fact that in this country, at this time, when we are continuing our decade-long policy of collective punishment against the Muslim world, it is a certainty that many people will leave the theater after seeing Zero Dark Thirty convinced that torture was used to find Osama bin Laden."

 

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