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Debate Rages: Does 'Zero Dark Thirty' Endorse Torture? | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Debate Rages: Does 'Zero Dark Thirty' Endorse Torture?

Well, it looks like I’ll have to cast the deciding vote.  [UPDATE:  Here's my new piece,  as promised.]

For months I’ve read about, tweeted and posted early and late trailers for Zero Dark Thirty, and covered the controversy over whether it would help Obama before the election (and hence the postponement of its release until after it). Now it’s been picking up year-end awards—and I’ll finally watch a preview screening tonight. Then I’ll weigh in on the current controversy, which I’ve dubbed “Zero Dark Dirty.” So what follows below is fairly sketchy.

While the subject of the Kathryn Bigelow film was no secret, how it was executed—so to speak—remained under wraps until the past week, when more reviewers and pundits finally got to see it. The first major response to the role of torture in the film came from Frank Bruni in a tough column two days ago at the NYT.

He suggested that it’s a movie Dick Cheney would love (Zero Darth Vader?), that it backs the torture policy that Obama quit, and more: “It’s about finding a needle in a uniquely messy and menacing haystack.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding are presented as crucial to that search, and it’s hard not to focus on them, because the first extended sequence in the movie shows a detainee being strung up by his wrists, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep, made to feel as if he’s drowning and shoved into a box smaller than a coffin.

Glenn Greenwald in his new Guardian column also hit the movie on its pro-torture message. He hasn’t seen it but he dissected reviews and coverage and quotes from its creators, which suggested to him that they rely on “CIA lies” about the role torture played in getting bin Laden.

Then, on Monday, Spencer Ackerman at Wired disagreed strongly with Greenwald and Bruni and others, saying the torture scenes are the best parts of the movie, as they show that torture is horrible and useless: “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.”

Today, Tom Carson at The American Prospect defends the movie. This drew Twitter protests from Greenwald and Dan Froomkin.

Now security analyst and author Peter Bergen, writing at CNN site, joins those questioning movie on torture.

“The compelling story told in the film,” he obseves, “captures a lot that is true about the search for al Qaeda’s leader but also distorts the story in ways that could give its likely audience of millions of Americans the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees—such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation—were essential to finding bin Laden.”

So, after viewing the film tonight, I’ll have to settle all this for good. Or not. I’m also interested in whether it accurately depicts the mission as (essentially) “kill-only” and if it shows the killing of bin Laden as it actually happened, according to recent SEAL team accounts.

UPDATE  Have now seen the film and will write more later, but for now: I'd simply say that those picking apart various scenes and key details in the  film may not get them wrong--but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably would be: yes, torture helped in getting bin Laden, at least somewhat.  Because the film is long, most of the testimony (forced or otherwise) from prisoners comes early and is often confusing or hard to understand (partly due to language) or hard to remember, most will not be able to recall who said what--was it from one of those tortured guys or one who was not (and for several it's impossile to know).  A character near the end does say clearly that they got the key info on bin Laden's courier "from detainees."  

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books on politics, history and media. His latest, on the Obama-Romney battle, is Tricks, Lies, and Videotape.

For a take on the representation of “national security” on the small screen, read Leslie Savan on Homeland and Obama’s drone policy.

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