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Zero Dark Thirty: Bigelow’s “Civilized Lunch”

December 30, 2012
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Zero Dark Thirty’s director Kathyrn Bigelow, in an interview in which she and her co-writer Marc Boal defend their film against the criticism that their film apologizes for torture, say that the charge that they’re promoting torture is “preposterous.”

In particular, Boal states the following in defense of the film:

The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. [emphasis added]

Bigelow and Boal, in other words, claim that information did not come from torture because the detainee didn’t talk while being tortured. Rather, the detainee talked “over a civilized lunch,” and therefore torture didn’t produce the information.

Compare Bigelow and Boal’s explanation to Glenn Greenwald’s description of the very same sequence in the movie after he saw the film in an early showing:

The key evidence — the identity of bin Laden’s courier — is revealed only after a detainee is brutally and repeatedly abused. Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: “I can always go eat with some other guy — and hang you back up to the ceiling.” That’s when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden’s courier — after he’s threatened with more torture — and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden. [emphasis added]

There are other dimensions to Bigelow’s apologia worth exploring as well. To begin with, Bigelow and Boal’s defense that they’re not making a “political statement” supporting torture’s efficacy is similar to a police department saying that they got a confession from the suspect after offering him a cup of “civilized” coffee, neglecting to mention that immediately prior to offering this friendly cup of Joe that this very same police officer threw the suspect against the wall numerous times, waterboarded him, stuck a gun in his mouth and threatened to pull the trigger, sexually humiliated him, put him into a box smaller than a coffin, and as he was handing the suspect the civilized coffee cup, told him that he could, instead of giving him coffee, hang him from the ceiling and torture him so more.

The first question I had when viewing Bigelow’s and Greenwald’s comments side by side was why Boal would describe the offer of food to the detainee as “civilized.” Under what circumstances could having something to eat with someone who has just gotten done torturing you be accurately described as “civilized?”

This would be like the Nazis in the concentration camps telling some of the prisoners who were standing next to other prisoners who were just shot to death by the guards, that they should now all sit down together and have a “civilized lunch.” Wouldn’t that be dandy and doesn’t that prove that the Nazis really weren’t using violence to terrorize people and extract information from them? They could jointly enjoy a civilized recording of Wagner while dining together.

But this bit of disingenuousness by Bigelow and Boal is not all: in the film the detainee gives up the key evidence, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, during this “civilized lunch” which the rest of the film then is a follow-up to.

Contrary to this movie’s premise, however, not only did the identity of bin Laden’s courier in reality not come from torture or any lunch of any kind – no information of any kind that was useful in finding bin Laden came from torture or threatened torture of any detainees.

Boal in the aforementioned interview states right after the quote cite above, the following:

And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there – from a number of detainees who are not being coerced. That is what’s in the film, if you actually look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.

Bigelow is quoted earlier in the article as saying “Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was,” she claimed.

She says she had to show torture, which makes up most of the first 45 minutes of the film, because it was “part of that history.” She wishes it wasn’t, but it was, and for historical accuracy, she had to show it. Her fidelity to historical facts is admirable, except that what she shows in the film by connecting torture sessions to the extracting the key piece of evidence after torture during a “civilized lunch” is entirely false.

Yes, torture is part of the historical record of this period and the CIA’s use of it by the express direction of the Bush Regime (and its continued use under Obama via rendition and by U.S. personnel, although without using waterboarding specifically). But the torture did not in fact produce useful intelligence.

The government has stated this itself. As reported by Agence France-Presse, on Wednesday, December 19, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (head of the Senate Intelligence Committee), Carl Levin, and John McCain wrote a letter to Sony Pictures head Michael Lynton stating:

Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama [sic] bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama [sic] bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.

When conservative Democrats like Feinstein and conservative Republicans like McCain have to ask liberal and hip Hollywood “feminists” to back away from right-wing representations in their films is when we might have cause to wonder about whether we have stepped into a gathering of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

The film’s depiction of the key piece of evidence coming from torture and from information that after the torture Chastain’s character discovers was already there from information not extracted by torture, is not going to make the average movie goer say: “Well, see, all the torture that I just watched wasn’t necessary after all!”

The average film viewer is going to follow the broad strokes of the film’s narrative to conclude, and correctly so given what is being shown them and the film’s sequencing, that torture produced the key piece of evidence to get bin Laden.

Greenwald has described the film’s overall perspective as that of the CIA – and I would add, minus the fact that a number of prominent and rank and file CIA officers as well as other members of the government disputed the propriety and/or efficacy of the U.S. committing war crimes to the point of some of them resigning or being ousted and demoted. So even on the level of claiming to represent the historical truth here, Bigelow conveniently omits the loud dissent within the CIA and the government over the use of torture.

The film begins with the actual audio track of cries of help from people in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and the torture sequence follows that. What is any viewer to conclude, consciously or unconsciously, except that these two are intimately connected?

Whatever this film’s makers’ subjective intent in making this film – and one has to wonder what they think they’re going to end up with given their priviliged access to the CIA in the making of the film and their entirely false representation of après-torture producing the key piece of evidence that gets bin Laden – this film is going to be understood by the vast majority of people as showing why torture is unfortunate but necessary. Zero Dark Thirty, in other words, is going to contribute further to the brutalization and degradation of not only detainees but of the American people as a whole. And as the revelations of and depictions of torture did when the nation learned of it under Bush, it will also contribute to the further violent and vile acts by individuals and groups against other individuals and groups in unsanctioned and sanctioned ways alike.

Like the argument used by the Democrats in calling for progressive-minded people to vote for Obama as the “lesser evil” versus the alleged greater evil of Romney, Zero Dark Thirty claims that the lesser evil of torture is superior to the greater evil of the numerous acts of anti-state terror depicted in the film. But the argument around the elections, just as in the war of terror (not war on terror), are both false.

When you make a film about the most politically charged event of our times (9/11) and manhunt in history (the pursuit and assassination of bin Laden), how can you truthfully claim that you are not making a political statement? How could you possibly avoid making a political statement, even if that was your express intent? And why would you falsely present how the key piece of evidence was obtained, if you were trying to be journalistically honest, which is what Bigelow and co-writer Boal claim they are doing?

I don’t know if the descriptor of a “civilized lunch” is a Freudian slip on their part. But one can readily see their notion of who the civilized are and who the uncivilized are in the film, based on their comments and those critics who have written extensively about the film, both pro and con: the civilized ones are the ones who, despite whatever reservations they might have about using these methods, have used torture to extract information and the uncivilized ones are those Arabs who have been blowing up buildings and people. We in America can have our “civilized lunches” … as long as we’re not trying to eat in a mall (Portland), a high school (Columbine, Colorado), a movie theatre (Aurora, Colorado), or in an elementary school (Newtown).

When Bush was building the case for invading Iraq, juxtaposing 9/11 to Saddam Hussein over and over again, he was preparing Americans to commit atrocities upon an entirely innocent people. In that propaganda campaign The New York Times, trading upon its liberal reputation, played an indispensable role, particularly through Judith Miller’s articles, in greasing the path for the war upon Iraq. People who did not ordinarily accept claims by someone like Bush were won over, thinking, “Well, if The New York Times says Iraq’s got WMD, and if the Times says they’re a grave threat, then it must be true.” When liberal and hip Hollywood types juxtapose 9/11 to graphic scenes of torture by the “good guys,” they are likewise preparing Americans to accept atrocities as acceptable, even if stomach churning.

Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo

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