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Colbert Tests Bigelow on 'Zero Dark Thirty'—in Unaired Parts of His Interview | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Colbert Tests Bigelow on 'Zero Dark Thirty'—in Unaired Parts of His Interview

If you watched Stephen Colbert interview Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow last night, on the air, you were probably disappointed. Now, let’s stipulate at the outset that we don’t expect Stephen, whose first goal is to be funny and the other is to maintain his faux right-wing blowhard persona, to conduct a truly probing interview with anyone, especially in a six-minute time span. Still, he didn’t have to be that fawning and seemingly clueless about what criticism of the film and its presentation of torture is really about.

This morning, however, Comedy Central put up online an “extended” version of the interview. When Jon Stewart does this—pretty regularly now—it’s usually just that: some Q&A that continued after the taping for the show ended. But the Colbert/Bigelow was “extended” by restoring a minute or so of parts of the original interview edited for the air.

And it turns out the editors did Stephen no favors in cutting out the questions where he did try, briefly, to “nail” her, as he might put it. Here’s the full interview, with my comments below:

Back to what actually went out over the air last night:

The segment opened with the host suggesting that Bigelow showed up mainly to get the “Colbert bump,” since he called ZDT “fantastic,” with no qualifiers. He then asked why her film had provoked “liberals” so much (he was glad, speaking in his Fox News voice, that it got their “cojones” in a twist).

She replied by calling torture “reprehensible.” Then: This movie was only “the first rough-cut of history.”  And she had to compress ten years into two hours but still it could be as “accurate” as a movie can. Colbert pointed out that people don’t read books anymore, so movies are how people will remember history.

Moving on, she claimed the key piece of info in getting Osama was stuck in a file for years—suggesting, falsely, that this is the main point in the movie and deflecting attention from how it shows the value of torture. Colbert then completely missed the boat in suggesting there is controversy over the movie merely because it shows many minutes of torture—not its characters’ reaction to torture, and its usefulness. Bigelow was surely happy with this misreading, and said, yeah, she did not “whitewash history.” And she added, by the way, many other things led to getting Osama.

Finally, she closed with: “I stand by the movie. I wouldn’t change a thing in the movie. It’s certainly based on an honest version of the story as we know it.” Just in case you thought she might have second thoughts. But not Stephen’s best moment either.

However, the full “extended” interview reveals that Colbert’s tougher questions were cut. Perhaps it was just the time limit, or flow, or maybe he wanted to butter her up some more.

In the extended interview he did get to the actual criticism of the movie, asking if wasn’t it true that the movie, repeatedly, shows torture working? She replied, as she has before, that she was only going on “firsthand accounts,” but dodged his followup query on whether she got it straight from the CIA (we now know screenwriter Mark Boal was briefed heavily). He pushed a bit more on that and she offered that upcoming hearings, and possible release of a secret report, might release new information, and she “welcomes that.” In other words: Don’t blame me for anything now, even if I don’t know what really happened, either.

But his key question was: Do you think the CIA misled you, purporsely gave you false information to make it seem like torture was worthwhile? She dodged, obnoxiously, with: “Are you trying to say people in Washington spin?” She laughed. So did the audience. Colbert: Sure you weren’t “duped?” Bigelow: The movie is a “fair assessment” of what’s known.

So: He tried (a bit), even if you have to go online to discover that. My take is this: Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were, indeed, spun. They chose to go with the CIA version, when they could have chosen the more credible torture-didn’t-help/in-fact-it-may-have-hurt evidence, or at least landed somewhere in between, or showed our torturers (including Maya) having second thoughts. They did none of that, either because they are gullible, wanted to help the CIA folks who had kindly spoken with them, or just because it made a better plot line.

After they denied at first that the film did show torture helping, the pair have since (sort of) admitted that the movie indeed shows that, so now they fall back on the “this is what we were told and we believe it until we learn otherwise.” Still, it wouldn’t have taken much for Bigelow to confess that maybe she would change a few things in the film, to reflect more ambiguity and reflection on the part of key characters. That would be the minimum.

Greg Mitchell previously wrote about Bigelow’s LA Times piece responding to torture charges.

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