Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Is Misleading about Torture

Seems like just yesterday we were rooting for Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent The Hurt Locker to upset Avatar for the Best Picture Oscar.   The flick was a taut drama.  She was the ex-wife of Avatar’s director, and beat him for Best Director too.

So it’s hard not to feel disappointed, maybe even betrayed, by Zero Dark Thirty.

Specifically, the film inaccurately portrays the capture of Osama bin Laden as a result of torture.

It wasn’t, so far as the evidence discloses.  In fact, torture apparently accomplished little or nothing in the “War on Terror,” except perhaps to strengthen a few suicide bombers’ resolve.  Repeatedly, intelligence operatives have testified to torture’s lack of efficacy.  FBI interrogators often opposed the use of torture at the time.  (In fact, torture may have delayed bin Laden’s capture.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, waterboarded  nearly 200 times by the CIA, repeatedly downplayed under torture the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier who ultimately led investigators to Bin Laden – and the torturers had such simplistic faith in torture that they felt sure he was telling the truth, and discounted the important lead!)

Since the film opened, a bipartisan cast of politicos, including Senators John McCain, Carl Levin, and Dianne Feinstein, has confirmed that view.  The letter from the three senators said the film’s misrepresentation was “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.”

The mistake isn’t harmless error, either.  The efficacy of torture is a hotly-debated aspect of the nation’s overall opinion on the subject.  Torture is wrong.  But whether or not the U.S. tortures future suspects, under future presidents, may depend more on the national perception of its usefulness than on its morality or its legality.

Director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal could be contributing, in their small way, to the agony of some future torture victim.  He or she may be, as was the case with so many torture victims during the Bush Administration, just some poor sucker in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s well-documented that some “suspected terrorists” were turned in for money by people who knew they weren’t guilty but understood that all Moslems looked alike to the U.S., – and that they’d get paid long before someone sorted out guilt or innocence .  Others were turned in because the informant had a grudge or wanted the suspect’s house.  One suspect, Khaled el-Masri, was tortured and kept incarcerated, despite possession of a valid German passport, until someone figured out that they meant to torture some other guy named “al-Masri.”

My disappointment is compounded by the filmmakers’ reaction to reasonable criticism on this point.

Mr. Boal said he shouldn’t be held responsible for the content of the film because it was “a movie not a documentary.”  Horsefeathers!  The film was carefully shot to look like a documentary, and its makers were clearly proud of their careful research.  At the beginning of the film, a little notice doesn’t just state that the film is based on actual events but boasts with unusual strength: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.”

Boal also disingenuously argues that certain key information was obtained by the film’s protagonists “over the civilized setting of a lunch.” Has Mr. Boal forgotten that the lunch was preceded by brutal torture of the informant, who presumably remembered he’d just been tortured and could be again?  As another character reportedly says, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it.”

Ms. Bigelow says that omitting torture would have “whitewashed” history; yet she felt no compunction about omitting the objections to it by FBI agents and other experienced interrogators.   Maybe the fact of torture’s inefficacy isn’t as vivid on the screen as the torture itself.

Bigelow also says we all know “depicting is not endorsing” or no one could make movies about serial killers and the like.  But that’s a willfully simplistic answer.  She’s done a lot more than depicting here.

Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the distributor, says that, “To punish an artist’s right of expression is abhorrent.”  I certainly agree; but Bigelow isn’t being punished.  I have no obligation to see her movie.  Roger Ebert has no obligation to praise it, or to stifle his concern about its accuracy.  David Clennon has no obligation to vote for it as “Best Picture.”  No one is jailing or fining Ms. Bigelow or even picketing theaters that show the film.   People are expressing their views, as are the folks who made the movie.

I would agree with Ms. Pascal that no kind of censorship and no kind of official intimidation should be applied.  The filmmakers have a perfect right to misrepresent the facts on torture, or even advocate torture.   That’s what freedom of expression means.

I’m not normally one who avoids a film because I don’t like its message or its maker.   When friends said that Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto was ideologically dangerous in its portrayal of indigenous peoples, I wanted to see the film myself before making any such judgment.

But ZeroDarkThirty is a pleasure I may forego.  I’d rather judge it after seeing it – if Sony Pictures would send me a copy.  Paying money to see it in a theater feels too much like rewarding the film-makers for something that probably doesn’t warrant a reward.

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 3 February.]


  1. Mr. Goodman:
    By now you have seen the Panetta interview
    this past Sunday. So, enhanced interrogation techniques did, in fact, have a part in locating Bin Laden. Apparently, the movie got it right.

    1. I hadn’t seen a report of that interview.
      After reading your comment I looked for it. I found two reports on it. One was headlined “Panetta says Zero Dark Thirty Is a Good Movie.” He did, and from all I hear, it is. He also said that during the ten year search harsh interrogations did contribute something – though nothing critical, he said, answering specifically that they would have found bin Laden without those. Nothing Panetta said came close to outweighing the clear evidence of the costs of torture – without even getting into its morality or legality.
      I still think it’s unfortunate that the movie portrays torture as efficacious and as providing information critical to the manhunt’s success. It didn’t. And it provided some specific wrong information that delayed success.
      The second article was headed “Panetta Obliterates the Myth that Torture led to Bin Laden.”
      Just the headline, juxtaposed with your comment, suggested that people can find what they want to find in most anything. That’s why I try to read stories from a variety of points of view on anything.
      Panetta says, “We could have gotten bin Laden without” enhanced interrogation techniques, contrary to the suggestion in Zero Dark Thirty that such techniques were pivotal. “We put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.”
      In fact, in his letter to Senator McCain Panetta pointed out that they first learned the courier’s name from someone who wasn’t even in custody. No detainee in CIA custody revealed the courier’s full name or whereabouts.
      Leaves me curious: did you watch the entire interview, or hear a snippet on a news channel? If you have the URL for a website that indicates my basic point is in error, please share it with me.