ONTD Political

The controversy around Zero Dark Thirty: As misleading as the film itself

3:39 pm - 01/21/2013
Both treat torture at secret CIA prisons as if it were a thing of the past, masking the reality of an enduring practice.

The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty has been as misguided as the film itself, which opened nationwide on Friday. Much of the debate has centred on whether Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow's latest opus leaves viewers with the false impression that torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. That both the means employed and the ends achieved in that equation are illegal and repugnant seems all but forgotten. Both torture and extrajudicial executions are anathema to civilised society, irrespective of their possible efficacy or expediency. More importantly, both the film and the controversy it has ignited treat torture at secret CIA prisons as though it were a thing of the past, masking the reality of an enduring practice.

The first third of Zero Dark Thirty is unadulterated torture porn, a display of medieval cruelty at various CIA and affiliated prisons. Strappado, drowning, sexual abuse, beatings, stress positions, loud music, stuffing people into boxes, sleep deprivation, but also - and this is not acknowledged enough as torture - threats to send prisoners to countries where they would face further abuse (in the film, Israel). My clients at Guantánamo and Bagram survived such savagery at the hands of their American captors. I can attest that its traces on their bodies and minds are real and lasting. But the film cares not an ounce for those consequences, lingering instead on the torturers' feelings about their crimes.

The film alludes to one of President Obama's first acts in office: ordering the closure of CIA "detention facilities" and forbidding the agency from operating prisons again. An often-overlooked provision, however, exempts "short-term, transitory" facilities from the order. In a statement last month regarding CIA detention, Senator Dianne Feinstein lamented as "terrible mistakes" only "long-term, clandestine 'black sites'." The effect of these verbal gymnastics is to preserve the CIA's ability to hold prisoners directly, albeit short-term.

And while Obama limited interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army Field Manual, that document was modified in 2006 to permit stress positions, sleep deprivation, and isolation - methods amounting to torture that are depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. The notion that the CIA no longer tortures prisoners, then, can only result from real or feigned ignorance.

Equally intact, of course, is the US government's continuing reliance on proxy detention, where foreign regimes do the dirty work of imprisoning, interrogating, and often abusing prisoners without process, at the behest (and sometimes with the participation) of US agents.

To be sure, Zero Dark Thirty is misleading on its own terms. It begins with the claim that it is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events". In what is perhaps the film's only truly sophisticated, if unintended, insight, we see its heroine paradoxically overcoming subordination in a male-dominated profession while participating in the subjugation of Muslim prisoners, as she comes to fully embrace her sadistic role. Relying on a panoply of torture tricks reminiscent of your basic dictatorship (notwithstanding the obscene American conceit that ours is a more elevated, controlled form of torture), we watch as US agents extract information from a string of prisoners. It is this portrayal of torture bearing fruit that the Senate Intelligence Committee has condemned as "grossly inaccurate" based on its review of more than six million pages of classified intelligence records.

The final act of Zero Dark Thirty depicts the Abbottabad raid. Though it is the closest this film lover ever wants to come to a snuff movie, it does get one thing right: the raid was a "kill operation", an ordered execution, despite the administration's tepid protestations that US commandos were prepared to capture the unarmed bin Laden if only he had known to surrender in precisely the right way.

Zero Dark Thirty aspires to be a dispassionate exposition of the facts as they unfolded. But because their presentation is informed by and told from the perspective of the American operatives involved in the search for bin Laden, it is unsurprising that these filmmakers were "captured" by government officials with an agenda to justify their crimes. As such, the film cannot be neutral, no more than embedded war reporting can pass for truly independent journalism. In the end, Bigelow is an embedded filmmaker, and, from that position, her work cannot offer the critical, questioning perspective that defines art.

Unfortunately, the film's errors and biases have focused national attention on whether torture "worked" and if the film got that "right". That there has been no real accountability for past and ongoing crimes barely registers in the discussion. Far from highlighting that sad truth, Zero Dark Thirty lionizes those who ordered and implemented torture. In this respect, the filmmakers are complicit in reinforcing the impunity shielding the culprits.

Some would call that propaganda, and many of the film's admirers as well as its critics have fallen for it.

Ramzi Kassem is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. With his students, Professor Kassem represents prisoners of various nationalities presently or formerly held at American facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, at so-called "Black Sites", and at other detention sites worldwide.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

soleiltropiques 21st-Jan-2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
This is a very interesting piece. Thank you so much for posting this -it was very informative.

Also, there is no justification for torture. None. Nada. Period.
blackjedii 21st-Jan-2013 08:32 pm (UTC)
Seriously y'all. Not that I wish he was alive and well to direct awful things or anything but

Why is there a movie about killing bin Laden?

Not the least of which is that I don't glorify death (outside of goofy silly video game / etc. FINISH HIM!!!) in any kind but a fictional movie based off of a Real Thing that shows how the military operates, might use real names of people who are probably marked for death for the rest of their life, it just makes me really really uncomfortable
eveofrevolution 21st-Jan-2013 08:35 pm (UTC)
Because FUCK YEAH AMURRKAH! Which leads to "this movie will make a fortune." Basically.

I totally agree though. Some things are just better left as they happened instead of glorifying the campaign.
jwaneeta 21st-Jan-2013 09:38 pm (UTC)
Wow. I saw it, and

1) Did not think it portrayed torture as effective, at all


2) I can see where this dude is coming from, being a lawyer for a detainees, but... the feelings of the torturers weren't really a huge issue either. That's wasn't, in my opinion, what the movie was about.
soleiltropiques 21st-Jan-2013 10:00 pm (UTC)
Interesting. What did you feel it was about?

(I'm not trying to be contrary or devil's advocate BTW, I'm just curious, as I am not familiar with Bigelow's work.)
squeeful 21st-Jan-2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
the critical, questioning perspective that defines art

You, sir, fail art. Fail so hard, your fail, fails.

Obviously, I'm going to have to wait until after I see it, but having watched the rest of Bigelow's work, I'm going to have to say that it is highly unlikely that it is simply torture porn. Incredibly violent, yes; simple, no.
jwaneeta 22nd-Jan-2013 01:21 am (UTC)
I've seen it, and the phrase "torture porn" is confounding me. I .. did ..... did me and this guy even watch the same movie?
awfulbliss 21st-Jan-2013 10:59 pm (UTC)
I honestly have no idea how someone could watch the film and come to some of these conclusions. It is a procedural film about intelligence gathering during a war. Torture was part of that, whether it was effective or not. How exactly is it "torture porn" to depict torture in a film about CIA procedure during a war? It happened, there's nothing we can do to change that. I don't think the film approaches anything close to an "endorsement" and simply am at a loss that anyone could really think that. I thought it was quite ambiguous (not that much different than conflicting reports from Panetta and others) and to me, it's not a filmmaker's job to do some of the things asked for in the column. G. Roger Denson's columns on ZDT have been excellent.
ms_mmelissa 21st-Jan-2013 11:03 pm (UTC)
G. Roger Denson's columns on ZDT have been excellent.

Do you have a link?
owlsarentaholes 22nd-Jan-2013 01:14 am (UTC)
Completely agree.

I thought it was very well-done. There were moments of violence that were startling and somewhat difficult to watch, but they were entirely appropriate.
akashasheiress 22nd-Jan-2013 01:51 am (UTC)
Ah, what a difference to the comments when Bin Laden was killed...
mistress_siana 22nd-Jan-2013 07:47 pm (UTC)
Ah, the uncomfortable truth. There it is.
moonshaz 22nd-Jan-2013 09:59 am (UTC)
I haven't seen this film and don't plan to see it--not so much because of the controversy described in the o.p., but simply because I know for a fact that it would exceed my personal violence threshold. (Among other things, I CANNOT and WILL NOT watch torture scenes of ANY kind, regardless of the context.) This means I not in a position to form my own impressions of the film's content and/or intentions. After weeks of hearing how it supposedly makes the claim that torture was a key factor in locating Bin Laden and watching people get upset about that (and being rather disturbed about it myself), it's very interesting to hear another perspective.
ms_mmelissa 22nd-Jan-2013 07:31 pm (UTC)
Since you don't plan on seeing the films here are some spoilers regarding what part the torture plays in the film [Spoiler (click to open)]
In the movie torture does result in some success in the investigation. Jessica Chastain's character Maya convinces the man being tortured that he already collaborated with them which he believes because the torture/sleep deprivation has resulted in confusion and memory loss. This leads to him giving up the name of Bin Laden's courier.

However, years later when the trail has gone cold Maya discovers that the CIA already had this information and more in their files because of intel obtained without torture. They are able to pick up the investigation again. At one point her boss says that they can't get more intel without the "enhanced interrogation procedures" and the official he's talking to tells him to find a way. And they do, without the use of torture.
candysweetkiss 24th-Jan-2013 12:57 am (UTC)
I went to go see this with my husband and I liked the movie well enough but I had some problems with it.

Starting the movie off with torture, it was just hard to watch. I'm not sure how they filmed it, but it seemed the person they were torturing was ACTUALLY being tortured, with how it was filmed and how much agony was portrayed. It made me want to vomit/leave/ walk out of the theater. And the guy doing the torturing, oh I hated watching him do it, because it seemed like he enjoyed doing it, like he got some sick satisfaction out of (and considering the time period and all the backlash soldiers got for doing the same thing, was probably true)

I have a lot more opinions but I remember walking out of the theater, feeling hollow. The way they ended the movie was very powerful and not what you would expect. I expected the movie to end with actual news footage of Obama going on air announcing the death, or showing news broadcast but it didn't and I actually like that they ended like that.

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