I’ve now seen “Zero Dark Thirty”. Before getting to that: the controversy triggered this week by my commentary on the debate over that film was one of the most ridiculous in which I’ve ever been involved. It was astounding to watch critics of what I wrote just pretend that I had simply invented or “guessed at” the only point of the film I discussed – that it falsely depicted torture as valuable in finding bin Laden – all while concealing from their readers the ample factual bases I cited: namely, the fact that countless writers, almost unanimously, categorically stated that the film showed exactly this (see here for a partial list of reviewers and commentators who made this factual statement definitively about the film – that it depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden – both before and after my column).
Of course it’s permissible to comment on reviews that are written.That’s why they’re written – and why they’re published before the film is released, in this case weeks before its release. I discussed the film’s depiction of torture as valuable in finding bin Laden because I did not believe that the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, New York’s David Edelstein, CNN’s Peter Bergen and all sorts of other commentators had simultaneously hallucinated or decided to fabricate on this key factual question.
That it’s legitimate to opine on the factual claims (as opposed to the value judgments) of reviewers is not some exotic or idiosyncratic theory that I invented. All kinds of writers who had not seen the film nonetheless similarly condemned this singular aspect of it based on this evidence, including: Andrew Sullivan, twice (“Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie” and torture techniques “were not instrumental in capturing and killing Osama bin Laden – which is the premise of the movie“); Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer (“The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture”); NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (“WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn’t used to get Bin Laden?”); The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky (“Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11. . . . According to reports, I haven’t seen the film, so maybe it’s handled well, that decisions [sic] seems to make the film automatically and definitionally a work of propaganda”), and so on.
None of us was “reviewing” the film but rather rebutting and condemning its false assertion that torture was critical in finding bin Laden. As Sullivan put it in yet another post about the film: “the mere facts about the movie, as reported by many viewers, do not require a review. They demand a rebuttal.” Indeed (and all of that’s independent of the primary point I examined – regarding critics who simultaneously acknowledge that the film falsely depicts torture as valuable yet still hail it as “great”: an abstract discussion on the obligations of filmmakers that obviously is not dependent upon the film’s content).
Having now seen the film, it turns out that Bruni, Filkins, Edelstein, Bergen and the others did not in fact hallucinate or fabricate. The film absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden – exactly as they said it did – and it does so in multiple ways.
Zero Dark Thirty and the utility and glory of torture
I’ll explain why this is so in a moment (and if you don’t want “spoilers”, don’t read this), but first, I want to explain why this point matters so much. In US political culture, there is no event in the last decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
This event has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. The news of his death triggered an outburst of patriotic street chanting and nationalistic glee that continued unabated two years later into the Democratic National Convention. As Wired’s Pentagon reporter Spencer Ackerman put it in his defense of the film, the killing of bin Laden makes him (and most others) “very, very proud to be American.” Very, very proud.
For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That’s why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step – the first, indispensable step – in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America’s most hated public enemy.
The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don’t support it because they don’t realize it’s brutal. They know it’s brutal – that’s precisely why they think it works – and they believe it’s justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.
Indeed, here is how Slate’s Emily Bazelon, who defends the film even while acknowledging that it “reads as pro-torture”, describes her reaction to the torture scenes: