Tag Archives: torture

‘Lincoln,’ ‘Argo,’ and’ Zero Dark Thirty’: Reordering History

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☞ This post is a follow-up of my previous post. As we have seen, Zero Dark Thirty has had its fair share of presentation on this site with regard to its sacrifice of truthfulness for the sake of cinematic storytelling. But it is not the only recent film, of course, which has been accused of lack of truthfulness or authenticity, as we saw with Spielberg’s Lincoln (and as we’ll see again below). And neither are such accusations limited to so-called “non-fictional films,” as Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The problems with Zero Dark Thirty are not easy to leave aside (as my next post will show). Here is a discussion in Indiewire’s blog last month, before the Oscars, on three of the main “non-fictional” contenders’ deviations from what actually occurred. Of the triumvirate, Argo has been relatively unscathed on this site, which I will be correcting shortly. The question is not whether non-fictional films should completely sacrifice themselves at the altar of truthfulness, but the limits of factual deviations, and the tipping point where these these untruths would start to affect our aesthetic judgment. It does seem to be the case that especially in the case Zero Dark Thirty, some reviewers and commentators have found it difficult to have a positive aesthetic assessment of the film, as a result of its blatant factual inaccuracies.

Tony Kushner

“For months, screenwriter Tony Kushner has been considered a shoo-in for an Oscar. But the award-winning playwright with impeccable credentials — Angels in America, his 1993 play about AIDS, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award as well as half a dozen awards from drama critics — tripped, if not tumbled, last week.

To make the fight in Congress to pass the 13th amendment and end slavery in America more dramatic in “Lincoln,” Kushner changed the votes of two Connecticut congressmen from Yea to Nay. A current Connecticut congressman who could not believe that his state, which fought on the Union side in the Civil War, had voted to uphold slavery asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate. The answer: Kushner had rewritten history. And, with Academy members still voting, Kushner’s Oscar is no longer a sure thing.

Audiences understand that historical movies usually take historical license. “Argo,” “Lincoln’s” competitor for both Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is based on a little known rescue of six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. But “Argo” is basically a thriller with chases and near misses and a fake movie crew, and nobody cares if characters were telescoped or dangers exaggerated.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” another best picture nominee that is also nominated for original screenplay, suggests that important information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden was gained through torture. The United States political and military establishment vehemently disagrees. But, after the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war and the discovery that the CIA uses the simulated drowning called waterboarding, Americans take such government assurances with a whole tablespoon of salt. If “Zero Dark Thirty” lost Academy votes because of the controversy, it gained as much or more at the boxoffice from audiences who wanted to see what the fuss was about.”

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Zero Dark Thirty and truthfulness 3: Review by Michael Wolff — “this torture fantasy degrades us all”

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☞ Finally, a review of the film, highlighting the fact that inaccuracy may affect the artistic integrity of a film. It’s not merely the non-issue of American senators or the CIA director who may not know how to appreciate movies, but a film does leave a yawning aesthetic gap if the historical accuracy of its central events is questionable, especially if it claims to be based “on a true story.” (See also, the related articles below)

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal‘s film claims to be ‘based on a true story’ but no non-fiction writer could take such liberties

“Zero Dark Thirty is a dreary and predictable movie (predictable even beyond that we know Osama bin Laden‘s fate). Also, it’s a bit copy-cat. It’s Homeland without the character quirks. (“OK… picture this… Homeland… but the girl isn’t nuts – just super-focused. What about that?” is something like how the screenwriter, Mark Boal, must have pitched it.)

The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. Pretty much everybody in the intelligence community in a position to say this isn’t true has said it isn’t. And then there’s the girl-alone-against-the-world narrative: Maya, our heroine, thinks about nothing else but Osama bin Laden for almost 10 years and because of this single-minded obsession, American forces are able to find and kill him. That according to everybody and anybody, and to common sense, is hogwash too.

A non-fiction writer couldn’t do this. If you did this and maintained, to the extent that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty appear to maintain, that this was true, and with as little documentary evidence, either no one would publish you or you would have to invent evidence to get published. And then, you’d invariably be found out, scandal would ensue and your name would be blackened.

Movies, on the other hand, even when they represent themselves to be non-fiction like Zero Dark Thirty, are still what we accept as a “dramatization”, so therefore not really real. How that is different from a non-fiction author using novelizing techniques to bring to life his story – and subsequently being humiliated by Oprah when he turns out to have significantly stretched the truth – I don’t know.

It certainly isn’t that this is just mere suspension of disbelief and that, when the lights go on, we go back to known reality. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty, wrapped in the great praise that invariably accompanies middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day, will compete as a true narrative for how al-Qaida was dealt with and Osama dispatched. (Similarly, The Social Network, an almost entirely made-up version of the founding of Facebook, has pretty much become the rosetta stone of social-media history.)

Notably, the makers of this silly, stick-figure and cartoonish movie, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Boal, are not out on talk shows defending the verisimilitude of their film. Their affect – which perhaps journalists caught in the act of making things up ought to study – is much more sphinx-ike. They are artists and don’t have to lower themselves to defend or respond.”

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Zero Dark Thirty and truthfulness 2: The CIA responds

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“[Acting CIA Director Michael] Morell slammed the Oscar-contender, which he said “departs from reality,” for suggesting that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what some would call torture, “were the key” to locating and killing the Al Qaeda leader.

The film, which hit theaters Dec. 19, shows agents using waterboarding and other extreme techniques to force Guantanamo Bay detainees to speak.

“That impression is false,” Morell wrote. “And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

The acting CIA director also blasted “Zero Dark Thirty” for taking “considerable liberties in its depiction of CIA personnel and their actions, including some who died while serving our country.”

“We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory of them,” he added.

Morell’s note comes just two days after three senators, Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Az.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), condemned the flick for being “grossly inaccurate and misleading” in suggesting that torture led to the May 2011 killing of bin Laden by Navy SEAL Team 6.”

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Zero Dark Thirty and truthfulness 1: McCain’s response

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☞ Authenticity or truthfulness seems to be a major theme of responses to some recent films. The following is one of the preliminary responses to Zero Dark Thirty: that its depiction of the CIA is false. Senator John McCain also criticises the film’s inauthenticity with regard to its negative propaganda value for the United States.

“One of the most eagerly-anticipated movies of the holiday season, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, is getting very positive critical reviews ahead of its release, and it has emerged as an early Oscar contender. However, critics of the film are alleging it paints a misleading picture of the role of torture in getting the intelligence that led to tracking down Osama bin Laden. John McCain told Greta Van Susteren tonight that he has serious concerns with the portrayal of torture in the film, and has sent a letter to the head of Sony, the movie studio behind the film.

McCain explained that he watched the film, and it depicts very graphic torture scenes and waterboarding carried out by CIA interrogators, and the implication of the film is that torture was a “major factor” in receiving critical intelligence that led to the raid on bin Laden’s compound. He stated plainly that no important information related to bin Laden was a result of torture, and suggested the filmmakers received “bad information” in researching the film.
Van Susteren asked McCain what he is trying to accomplish with his letter to the head of Sony Pictures. McCain said the filmmakers should acknowledge that they had inaccurate information, despite the remarkable level of access they had from the CIA.

McCain made it clear that even if any important information was obtained as a result of torture, the fact that the United States is torturing people “harms the image of the United States.””

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