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The Jehoshua Novels


Owen Gleiberman Reviews “Zero Dark Thirty,” Says Message of Film Is That Torture “Worked.”

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.

28 comments to Owen Gleiberman Reviews “Zero Dark Thirty,” Says Message of Film Is That Torture “Worked.”

  • matttbastard

    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.

    Bob Larson, Mike Warnke (later exposed as a total fraud) and numerous other Evangelical nutbars used to claim that rock music was saturated with Satan’s sulfurous taint. I don’t need to listen myself to know that Bob Larson has listened to it, etc.

    Barf.

    Other reviewers disagree with both Gleiberman (and Greenwald, that odious, auto-fellating turd-remnant) re: their interpretation of whether ZD30 portrays torture as having worked (for the record, dirctor Bigelow and screenwriter Boal both disagree with that assessment — wait, you mean art can be ambiguous and unsettling? ZOMG HISTORY’S GREATEST MONSTERING!11)

    Look, I understand if you don’t want to see this movie. I don’t particularly want to see it (because action movies give me gas) but damn if some of us didn’t recognize that Greenwald was indulging in an old fundie specialty: going on high-dudgeon blast vs. Hollywood purely on rumour and conjecture. And yes, I am going to see it (on my own dime) — so I can make up my own mind.

    Like a big boy.

    So I hope you’ll forgive me (and won’t consider me objectively-pro-torture) if I refrain from the beclownment. People went after GG and Sully because what they wrote was a paean to self-righteous no-nothingism at its most sanctimonious and myopic.

    IOW, pretty much BAU for those asshats.

  • matttbastard

    As for his laughable “disclaimer” (oh, lawyers — as if fine print can polish a cowpie into diamonds), The Left had the best response IMO:

  • Kathy Kattenburg

    Yes, Matt, but he didn’t critique the movie. So explaining the anger by saying he critiqued the movie without having seen it doesn’t help me understand. (Not that I consider that your job or responsibility. I’m just sayin’.)

  • Kathy Kattenburg

    “Bob Larson, Mike Warnke (later exposed as a total fraud) and numerous other Evangelical nutbars used to claim that rock music was saturated with Satan’s sulfurous taint. I don’t need to listen myself to know that Bob Larson has listened to it, etc.”

    But the equivalent of that regarding Glenn’s piece would be if he had said that the movie was bad because Gleiberman said the movie said torture worked. That is not what Glenn said. Glenn said (paraphrasing), Gleiberman said the movie says that torture works, and he praised the movie anyway. I think it’s wrong to praise a movie that glorifies torture. If the movie says torture works, then Gleiberman shouldn’t be praising it. Said paraphrase is NOT critiquing the movie. It’s critiquing Gleiberman’s standards for calling a movie great. There is a clear difference there.

  • Kathy Kattenburg

    By the way, Matt, I don’t consider you pro-torture. I just think you’re misunderstanding Glenn’s point.

    • matttbastard

      Ok, so let’s say we accept Glenn’s latest (IMO) disingenuous abuse of semantics (passive aggressive purity troll is passive aggressive, redux). His point, as you present, is ultimately, as Lemieux outlines, “aesthetic Stalinism”. While I believe he (and Roy Edroso) go too far in their attempts to divorce art from politics, the way Glenn and Sully attempt to divine someone’s moral compass based on their opinions regarding a Hollywood blockbuster is a serious mindreading foul.

      Folks still laud the work of Wagner, Voltaire, Dali and other artists whose personal politics and philosophies were absolutely odious and sometimes contaminated their output (to say nothing of less-than savoury political icons like, oh, say, Thomas Jefferson); that doesn’t equal an implicit endorsement (or acceptance, even) of anti-semitism or white supremacy. As far as I’m concerned it is the height of sanctimony to pass judgment on someone’s moral fiber simply because they can find value in art (and artists) that holds questionable ethics.

  • Kathy Kattenburg

    “.. the way Glenn and Sully attempt to divine someone’s moral compass based on their opinions regarding a Hollywood blockbuster is a serious mindreading foul.”

    I haven’t read Sullivan’s piece, so I can’t say if I think that’s what he’s doing, but I have read Glenn’s and I don’t think he is. It’s certainly possible to “find value in art” that contains abhorrent views w/o personally, explicitly endorsing those views, but I do not agree that’s what Gleiberman does in his review. He states that the movie conveys the clear message that “torture works” — that it “worked” to gain actionable, reliable, accurate information that resulted in OBL’s capture. and death — in the context of an admiring review of the movie, w/o pointing out, either directly or by implication, that in fact history and experience show that torture does not work, and that in the particular case of bin Laden, it certainly did not work. That’s empirical reality, and by failing to point that out in any way, Gleiberman *did* imply’ if not agreement with then certainly acceptance of, the film’s endorsement of the idea that the use of torture played an integral role in finding and killing bin Laden.

    I can accept your (and others’) point that art that expresses abhorrent ideas can still have aesthetic value, and that people (such as Thomas Jefferson) who held or hold abhorrent views can still be worth admiring in other ways, and/or can still be truthfully said to have accomplished great things. But in discussing and/or writing and/or artistically portraying such people, if one fails to point out the abhorrent ideas in some way — it doesn’t have to be in the form of a declaration, but in *some* way — and somehow make it clear that those ideas ARE abhorrent (or factually incorrect), then the analysis as well as the person or the work of art are deeply flawed.

    • matttbastard

      But in discussing and/or writing and/or artistically portraying such people, if one fails to point out the abhorrent ideas in some way — it doesn’t have to be in the form of a declaration, but in *some* way — and somehow make it clear that those ideas ARE abhorrent (or factually incorrect), then the analysis as well as the person or the work of art are deeply flawed.

      Edelstein’s review did precisely this (“As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic. As a piece of cinema, it’s phenomenally gripping—an unholy masterwork.”), yet was subject to censure from GG because Edelstein “still raved” about something (that GG heard was) ‘abhorrent’ (srsly, arguments that rely on the authority of FUCKING MOVIE CRITICS being infallible and absolute are doomed to failure by default).

      Aesthetic Stalinism.

      • matttbastard

        Kathy: “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… .

        GG: “I don’t believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It’s more accurate to say it’s so admired because of this.”

        Yeah. I can’t imagine why anyone would vehemently push back against (specious) charges of sadism from someone who hasn’t even bothered to do his homework (because DISCLAIMER!!11)

  • JustPlainDave

    Could we adopt as a principle that when we find ourselves writing things to the effect of “I haven’t read it” or “I stopped reading at that point” or “I don’t need to have seen it to” our first instinct perhaps should not be to continue to bang out a quick 609 words about that which we know not? Seriously, this isn’t just celebration of ignorance, it’s need to fill column inches with inside baseball about commentary celebrating ignorance. One of the bigger problems in the body politic is that everyone is inventing their own set of comfortable supposed facts that are never ever tested against reality and we should indulge in this? I don’t think so.

    • Kathy Kattenburg

      I would say it depends on what precedes and follows those phrases. Context really is key.

      • matttbastard

        Context really is key.

        Which makes GG’s sight-unseen denunciations all the more ridiculous, regardless of how desperately he tries (and fails) to insulate himself from accountability.

      • JustPlainDave

        No disagreement, but I have to say, you’re setting yourself one hell of a lot harder task – basically mind reading – than necessary.

        To put this in context, several times a week I’m bombarded by messages from folks posting front page stuff on this site basically saying that so and so is an idiot, based pretty much entirely on their say so. Well, ya know, I don’t find that particularly compelling. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen most everybody round here post stuff that is frankly just flat out wrong – all of us do. That leads me not to have a lot of just faith in the notion that everybody’s sufficiently expert on the huge range of things they’re posting on such that they should be absolute in either their conclusions or who is and isn’t an idiot. You want to sway me to the notion that someone’s wrong, tell me why they’re wrong – not that they’re an idiot and that what they say isn’t even worth looking at before coming to that conclusion.

  • hvd

    First, as I understand it Greenwald is not reviewing the movie but is instead reviewing the review. He apparently read the review and so was writing from direct knowledge. He didn’t need to see the movie in order to appraise the review based on its (the review’s) internal consistencies or inconsistencies. It is also appropriate in reviewing a review of a fictive account of actual events to compare the review’s view of that fictive representation against the known truths regarding the actual events.

    Greenwald believes, whether properly or not is not relevant, that torture is both morally bad and ineffective. He also believes, whether properly or not, that torture was in fact not a significant factor in the killing of Bin Laden. Thus he believes that a fictive account of this real event that depicts torture as being essential constitutes propaganda for torture and for a government that endorses torture.

    When a reviewer of a fictive account should be aware of the propaganda features (assuming that the movie speaks approvingly of torture as the reviewer clearly does and constitutes an endorsement of that behavior as the reviewer clearly does) of that fictive account and nevertheless endorses the fictive account as great art without noting the dangers inherent in such effective propaganda that reviewer can properly be considered an abetter of the propaganda. That is I believe Greenwalds sole point. Glieberman, in his review, clearly endorses the propaganda.

    From this distance I can see that Leni Wiesenthal was a great filmmaker (and propagandist). But if I endorsed her filmmaking without noting that it was in significant part propaganda from within the context of Germany in the ’30′s I would necessarily have been a participant in that propaganda effort. Today not so much because we all “know” the truths of that era.

    Whether the movie does or does not constitute an endorsement of torture is irrelevant, Glieberman believes it does and praises the movie for this very fact. In Greenwald’s view he is endorsing propaganda. Not having seen the movie, I don’t know what it endorses, but I know what Glieberman believes and it is clear that he is just fine with this particular view of history. Greenwald is not.

    • matttbastard

      You must be a real gas at Oscar parties.

    • matttbastard

      That is I believe Greenwalds sole point. Glieberman, in his review, clearly endorses the propaganda.

      Except GG’s original column didn’t mention Glieberman’s review — Kathy (and Greg Mitchell — he actually saw the film, which immediately gives his critique infinitely more legitimacy than Greenwald’s) did, and GG subsequently linked on Twitter. Greenwald’s original column did, however, mention NYMag film critic David Edelstein’s review. Which, as I noted above, did address what Edelstein felt was the film’s highly problematic moral ambiguity regarding torture and GWOT.

      Edelstein ultimately concluded that the overall technical quality of the film was enough to make it worthwhile from a cinematic standpoint, ie, what he’s paid to consider, being, as mentioned, a film critic and not, y’know, a polemicist. Greenwald decided this apparent thoughtcrime constituted an egregious affront to DECENCY!!1 and thus more than enough evidence to allow GG to make both a (blind) moral judgment and a psychological diagnosis on Edelstein’s state of mind (ie, that he and other critics admire the film *because* of the torture).

      Sorry. I can’t take anyone who would proudly and deliberately embrace ignorance with such blissful abandon seriously ever again. YMMV, of course.

  • Chief

    There are a lot of comments here and it appears that most, if not all, have not seen the movie. I have not seen it, nor do I intend to, for the same reasons that Kathy stated in her original post.

    My question is, why did they pick “Zero Dark Thirty” as the title for the movie? In my experience in the Navy, both statements ‘zero dark thirty’ and ‘zero dark early’ meant the same thing, i.e. getting up way early when it is still dark outside.

    • matttbastard

      Which he should have waited to do in the first place.

      • matttbastard

        And now I’ve read his review. Jesus. I’d take 2 1/2 hrs of pro-CIA agit-prop over 5 minutes of GG’s insufferably self-satisfied preening.

        In a heartbeat.

        • JustPlainDave

          You have to understand, the most important objective of the piece – as with a big chunk of his stuff – is the protection and promotion of the Greenwald brand. That’s the lede, the rest of it is just flying buttress.

      • Kathy Kattenburg

        Why? He wasn’t reviewing the movie. He was criticizing the professional and ethical standards that reviewers who had seen the movie used to judge its quality.

  • Don’t Trust ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (Peter Maass)

    “The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return.”

    • matttbastard

      Maass:

      I wonder about the ire the film arouses in its critics. I agree that the movie’s depiction of the CIA is regrettably uncritical; let’s remember, the CIA provided false evidence for going to war against Iraq, ittortured prisoners in secret jails and sent others to third countries where they would be tortured (andcovered up as much of this as possible), and it is now engaged in a covert program using aerial drones to kill people who have not been convicted of any crime—and in these attacks women and children are often killed. The film fails to consider the notion that the CIA and the intelligence industry as a whole, rather than being solutions to what threatens us, might be part of the problem. These are big omissions, but let’s be honest—similar omissions are committed every day by journalists, pundits, politicians and filmmakers, and we don’t get terribly upset. At most, we change the channel.

  • nymole

    Please someone involved in this thread, see the movie and then write your honest heartfelt opinion on it and hypothesize all you want what Bigalow succeeded or failed to do intentionally or un.

    I value what you think. Otherwise, for once, I am of JPD’s opinion, please stop getting hot and bothered by proxy at something you can judge for yourself and give your opinions.

    Furthermore, I am now about as interested in “GG now saw the movie”(as opposed to some real life event) as I am in “BAM saw the movie”.

    Peace!

    • matttbastard

      Please someone involved in this thread, see the movie and then write your honest
      heartfelt opinion on it and hypothesize all you want what Bigalow succeeded or failed to do intentionally or un.

      Yeah. From my very 1st comment:

      Look, I understand if you don’t want to see this movie. I don’t particularly want to see it (because action movies give me gas) but damn if some of us didn’t recognize that Greenwald was indulging in an old fundie specialty: going on high-dudgeon blast vs. Hollywood purely on rumour and conjecture. And yes, I am going to see it (on my own dime) — so I can make up my own mind.

      Like a big boy.

  • hvd

    This is how you write a review of a movie like this.

    http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/movies/jessica-chastain-in-zero-dark-thirty.html?hpw

    Not the propaganda as review of Gleiberman which once again is what Greenwald was arguing against. Not the movie.

  • Kathy Kattenburg

    Matt, just to be clear, whether GG mentioned Gleiberman’s review or not, he did mention numerous others who, like Gleiberman, saw the movie, said its message was that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden, and then wrote reviews praising the movie without pointing out how factually inaccurate and morally deplorable the movie’s premise is. Furthermore, the reason I mentioned only Gleiberman’s review was because I happened to read that review and not others.

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