The film is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, culminating in the raid in 2010 in which OBL was killed. No one disputes that. That’s what the film is about. The scenes of detainees being tortured are obviously within that context. Now, it’s true that people in the CIA and others associated with the Bush administration have claimed that the CIA’s torture program helped find bin Laden. However, the reality is that it did not — and Kathryn Bigelow could have presented the torture in such a way that this reality is the message conveyed to viewers. It doesn’t have to be a documentary to do that. In the film “Dead Man Walking” (which I saw), two points of view are portrayed: that executing Sean Penn’s character was justified for his part in a brutal murder, and that executing Sean Penn’s character was murder, too — state-sanctioned murder, and that it was not true justice at all. But even though the movie did show both sides, there was no doubt what its message is: “Dead Man Walking” is an anti-death penalty film.
But according to Owen Gleiberman (and many others, as I understand), “Zero Dark Thirty,” although it may suggest that torture is a horrible thing to watch, also clearly conveys the impression that its use was crucial to finding bin Laden.
Here is what Gleiberman says (emphasis is mine):
Once in a long while, a fresh-from-the-headlines movie — like All the President’s Men or United 93 — fuses journalism, procedural high drama, and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulous and electrifying re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is that kind of movie. Early on, a Saudi Arabian terror suspect, imprisoned at an undisclosed CIA ”black site,” is stripped, starved, and waterboarded. For the audience, it’s a deeply unsettling spectacle, but also a darkly fascinating one, since Dan (Jason Clarke), the bearded, thoughtful-looking agency veteran who’s doling out the abuse, is anything but a sadist. ”When you lie to me,” he says, ”I hurt you,” and this mantra, repeated with terse resolve, lets us know that he’s doing whatever it takes to extract information. As Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst, looks on with a mixture of horror and stony approval, Dan plays both bad cop and (as he offers food and relief from torture) good cop.
The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ”enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama could love. At the same time, the film spins its fearless — and potentially controversial — stance toward the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners into a heady international detective thriller.
I have not seen “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I don’t intend to — I already know that torture is morally heinous and pragmatically useless, and I prefer not to watch almost an hour of it being done to people, given that I know it really happened to real human beings and cannot be dismissed as “just a movie.”
I don’t need to have seen the movie myself, though, to know that, first, Owen Gleiberman has seen it; and second, that Owen Gleiberman says the movie says that torture helped find bin Laden (and if you think about it, why would a movie about the hunt for bin Laden even show 45 minutes of suspects being tortured if the movie’s creators were not trying to say that torture helped find bin Laden?); and third, that Owen Gleiberman LOVED the movie — that he thought it was meticulous, electrifying, fearless, and a heady international detective thriller– because he said so, in his review, and in those words.
I think it’s repulsive to heap with praise a movie that says the U.S. under Barack Obama successfully located and killed Osama bin Laden because the U.S. under George W. Bush tortured Muslim detainees in Eastern European former Soviet prisons turned into secret American black site interrogation centers. And if I say that in a blog post (like this one!), I’m not reviewing a movie I haven’t seen — I’m criticizing the reviewer’s own standards for judging this movie’s quality.
So why did Glenn Greenwald receive such a barrage of attacks when he did precisely this? Based on Glenn’s post updates and his Twitter feed, his critics’ beef was that (they say) he reviewed the movie when he had not seen it. He clearly stated that was not what he was doing, and explained what he *was* doing, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Even without the disclaimer, it seemed clear to me that he was commenting on what the reviewers had said about the movie and not about the movie itself, but apparently a lot of people saw it differently.
I don’t really expect answers or explanations about why Glenn’s piece created such an uproar — I’m just somewhat mystified by how fierce the objections were, and I’m mostly just giving voice to that.