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December 17, 2012


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David Poland


Thomas Prieto

Thank you!


"I submit, sadly, that if you think the only thing movies are useful for is enjoyable visual distraction while eating popcorn, maybe we don’t have too much to say to each other."

+1 on this. Greenwald seems to have a very limited definition of what movies are and can be.

Also, since when are artists morally responsible for every audience member's misreading or misunderstanding of what their art is trying to do? I'm sure we can all come up with famous examples of film, books, or music being taken out of context and misread in ways quite antithetical to the point of the original work. I know people who think the climax of "Taxi Driver" is "cool," even though it's meant to be horrifying. (That's a film, BTW, that I've been thinking about a lot given the events of the last week. Still the one of the best movies about young white men in America made in the last 50 fifty years, no?)

My point is: even if some viewers walk out of "Zero Dark Thirty" (which, for the record, I haven't seen) thinking torture is awesome because we got Bin Laden, would they be right? Is the worst possible response to a film the one we need to take the most seriously? Is Scorsese responsible for John Hinckley? Greenwald would probably say, "Yes."

I'll need to read his defense of "Homeland" at some point, though, because that's a VERY problematic TV show regarding the functioning of the American intelligence system, its portrayal of Islam, etc. I had to stop watching it because it just got too ridiculous. But I suppose there's a couple of token scenes where characters voice doubts about the War on Terror, therefore it's Greenwald approved?

Michael Webster

Very interesting argument and I generally share your ideas about art and criticism, especially opposed to those who see everything as political. Greenwald's piece in the Guardian was one of the more tiresomely self-riteous whinges I recall having read. Am curious though about his contention that the filmmakers worked with the government to consciously produce an explicit piece of political propaganda. Do we know if that's true? Did the filmmakers work directly with the government and purposely fashion the visual grammar of the movie to artfully parrot the CIA's propaganda? If so, should that matter from a film criticism perspective? Does the intent behind the fiction matter or only how well they are able to pull it off?

Bruce Reid

Regarding that opening card that so set off Mayer, I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet but rewatching Bigelow's films in anticipation I was reminded how she's often played with the conventions of such titles. The repeated "In 1961s" of K-19's opening scrawl insisting on a global context the movie's restricted locale couldn't otherwise provide; placing The Weight of Water's based on truth title at the end, its "speculation remains" disclaimer undermining a narrative we've just seen completed. The days in rotation tags in Hurt Locker, of course.

Just a reminder to Greenwald et al. that, yes, Bigelow usually knows exactly what she's doing, and sucking up to fascist tendencies hasn't been part of that heretofore.


This was good. This was necessary. Thank you.

Matt Zoller Seitz

That was heroic, Glenn. Thank you.

Kris Pigna

Still have to wait until January to watch Zero Dark Thirty (one of the main reasons I HATE slow roll-outs: usually by the time I finally get to see it, my expectations are totally colored and distorted by a month's worth of commentary/criticism/discussions...but anyway).

The one point, though, that I only wanted to raise, which you've probably already considered, and is really just more of an issue of semantics, is that I wouldn't so much say it's a "stretch" to say Greenwald lies about what's in the film, but more that it's maybe a mischaracterization. I just know from my own experiences in trying to argue against the category of argument that Greenwald is making here (again, according to your reading of the film, which I have not seen) that the people making these arguments tend to truly believe what they're saying. It's not so much a lie as in "I know this is bullshit, but it serves my point so I'll say it anyway," as it is a case of simply seeing what they desperately want to see, whether it's there or not. Which, in the end, is an even harder argument to win against, because you're no longer even agreeing on reality anymore.

Or in other words, "to see what's in front of one's own nose takes a constant struggle," and whatnot.

Anyway, smarmy parsing over. Enjoyed the article. I intend to re-read it when I'm finally able to watch the damn thing.

Oh, and on the subject of "Based on actual events" cards: For cripes sake, UNSTOPPABLE started with one of those things. I'm pretty sure all they were referring to with that movie was the fact that trains exist.


I have not seen ZERO DARK THIRTY yet, though I have been very much in the camp of Glenn and others who have taken Greenwald to task on various sites, most especially regarding his original “haven’t seen it, here’s why it’s evil” piece (I can’t help but wonder if he was picketing outside theaters showing THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST way back when), and because of how vigorously Greenwald bet all his chips before seeing the film I can’t put any stock in his announcement, after he’d seen the film, that he’d won the hand. My stance his not shifted one inch after reading various other articles on the matter, and it certainly hasn’t been changed by Glenn’s excellent piece here (I’d like to note, Glenn, that this: “And that is the lie. Of course his rhetoric is such that some may argue that I stretch in calling it a lie, but a lie is what I call it” is fantastic, in terms of straight writing, and the force thereof).

But what I do object to is this line, posted by Tom above:

“I know people who think the climax of TAXI DRIVER is ‘cool,’ even though it’s meant to be horrifying.”

Cool, the ending of TAXI DRIVER is not. Horrifying, it certainly is. But I’m very tired of the kneejerk reaction, when faced with one kind of simplification of that film’s climax, to counter with another simplification coming from the opposite direction. For all the blown-apart hands and knife wounds, is it so easily forgotten that Travis Bickle – not a man to be admire or emulated, as the film does make clear – chooses as his victims mean who operate and/or patronize a grimy New York whorehouse that offers to its clients 12-year-old girls? To whom they can, and are even expected to, do whatever they please? And the variety of things they might please to do is laid out pretty clearly by Sport at one point. Schrader and Scorsese didn’t do this on a whim.

Glenn says that ZERO DARK THIRTY makes him uneasy, and I believe it does. The fact that he loves it at least partly for that reason is a rare reaction. Over the years, I’ve noticed that, among the many positive things a film might offer, one that many critics and cinephiles claim is most desired is a film that challenges their core beliefs and received morality. It’s my experience, however, both as an observer of people who claim to want this and as someone who claims to want this himself, this is pretty much bullshit. Not all the time, but most of the time, and pretty much. I’ve seen it over and over again – a film presents a discomforting moral ambiguity, and that ambiguity is absorbed in such a way that all the fuzz and haze that held the two or more points of the ambiguity together is sharpened, for the viewer, so that the film is saying either one thing or the other. Whether the thing the viewer has decided is being said means the view loves the film for confirming their beliefs, or hates the film for rejecting them, depends a lot on what the person wanted out of the film in the first place.

This is why I hope to never again hear or read anyone talk about STRAW DOGS again. Peckinpah was one of the most ruthless purveyors of morally uncomfortable films, and he was never more ruthless or aggressive than with STRAW DOGS. It’s almost as if he was specifically saying “So you think you want to be challenged on these grounds? Okay. Let’s go.” The reactions to that film over the years, both positive and negative (“fascist work of art” my ass) is a strong indicator that this sort of thing isn’t really that desired at all. And not that I think Greenwald would EVER want moral ambiguity in whatever the hell he considers good art, but this is precisely the line of thinking he’s following, right off the cliff.


They need to redo that indiewire poll about the best film criticism of 2012.


A very thought provoking argument, and I have to say I agree with a lot of it. Not say you want it, but to ever get respect from a crusader like Greenwald, you'd have to attack on his arguments' facts and logic. He's a former lawyer - he's every smarmy defense attorney on Law & Order. His rhetorical style is not dialectical, but singular attack. His readers are his jury.

I've seen him make concessions before, he isn't pig-headed. For instance, he disputes the veracity of claims of "terrorism" and the concept generally, so he rips into people who make terrorism analysis their life's work. Earlier this year he relented on this a bit after some thoughtful critiques against his nebulous position.

In the end, whatever you think of Glenn's position, you have to look at what he foresaw ... something like Kyle Smith's review in the New York Post, which claims Zero Dark Thirty justifies the Bush admin.

Though Greenwald personally has a paternalistic view of the "standard viewer", and probably sees his writing as a way to shed some light on the reality behind the fiction, I personally care nothing at all for the "standard viewer", any more than I care for the "standard person". Whether scrawled on bathroom walls, Call of Duty lobbies, or youtube comments, I've never been the least bit oppressed by the person of mean disposition, and don't feel as though telling them the truth behind Zero Dark Thirty would improve their lot in life. I see Greenwald using the mob to command the cultural waves, so the Bush people can't cover themselves, but they'll always be a slovenly drooling mob, no matter how liberated.


Glenn, you might want to re-read Christgau's review of "Ghost in the Machine," if you're going to be at all fair to his views on how extra-textual knowledge affects his appraisal of art and its political sympathies.


Christgau wasn't even accusing The Police of pushing any kind of CIA agenda or message when he wrote that. But that's Greenwald's (and others) real knock against ZDT. A charge which you conveniently ignore.

The CIA kidnapped, tortured and likely killed hundreds of people, including innocents, since 2001. They destroyed the tapes of their torture sessions, and then worked with Bigelow and Boal to restage them for Hollywood's official narrative of the event. They have forbidden the agent who inspired "Maya" from talking to journalists, while allowing her to meet with the filmmakers. This special relationship is now the subject of a Justice Department investigation.


I know you want to defend film and its prerogatives from the Philistine Greenwald. But you're being intellectually dishonest when you avoid the central charge lobbed at the film. That it was made in close cooperation and support with an institution that literally got away with torture and murder.


Liberals: champions of the common man.


My last comment was for Lucretio. Oh forget it.

Glenn Kenny

Matt, I know the review, and as far as I'm concerned it contradicts nothing.

I actually do have some thoughts pertaining to the movie's perspective relative to The Agency. Greenwald says that the movie is a CIA "hagiography;" I see the organization as the host body for the movie's point of view, which is not the same thing.

What assistance/cooperation Bigelow and Boal received from The Agency is no doubt a subject not without interest. (I don't mean to sound coy here, but I'm really exhausted.) But again, the film I saw did not really convince with respect to being a sort of apologia for the policies/actions you describe. In other words, if the CIA wanted a recruitment tool, this ain't that. Nor, for that matter, is it anything that would hold up as defense evidence in a criminal, military, or civil court. Greenwald's piece is a sprawl, and part of the purpose of that sprawl is, I strongly suspect, to further squelch objection. I said my piece about the things in Greenwald's essay that elicited the strongest sense of objection to me, and I'm not gonna get sucked into a game of ideologue Whack-A-Mole.


Nice piece, Glenn. I haven't seen the movie yet (sometime this week, thanks to a family member's generosity), but I trust Bigelow, and while my sympathies are usually more inclined with Greenwald's than, say, Bill's are, Greenwald really dropped the ball on this one.

Till I do see the film, once again, I'm going to be highlighting the arcane points of your post. First of all, I haven't heard that Miller Lite slogan in years, yet it's still embedded in my brain, and weirdly appropriate as a caption for that picture. Secondly, somehow I never knew Pete Townshend lifted "it's the singer not the song" from the Rolling Stones. Live and learn.

Finally, I know hindsight is always 20/20, but when you were asked about the South Park creators only being in it for the money, it might be a little too obvious, but as far as comebacks go, what about, "And you're not?" (or "Just like you"). Maybe that opens up the can of worms of why it's okay for one person who makes a lot of money to criticize someone else for making a lot of money (or wanting to), but maybe that's a can of worms worth opening.

At any rate, looking forward to seeing the movie, especially after your write-up.


Oh, my. I may just have to sit this one out...two Glenn's that I read more or less daily, and both of whom I respect, and there is some serious shit being slung around.

I haven't seen the film, so I should just sit on my hands here and wait. But for now, here's what troubles me:

In the first part of your piece, Glenn, you basically do away with the notion that a work of fiction has any significant obligation to the reality of the historical events it presumes to depict. I agree with your sentiment; I consider myself a free and smart enough person to take "based on a true story" with a grain of salt. But I'm not willing, sentiment aside, to simply, at this point, enter the Fiction Zone and hang up any cares or worries about the "real world" and its relationship to this fiction. It would seem to me that at this point, what follows of your argument would matter very little; the depiction of torture, the relative presence or lack of celebration over finally offing Bin Laden, etc. Sure, it matters aesthetically; but at this point, you've basically concluded that Greenwald isn't interested in aesthetics, because he isn't willing to accept the liberties of the storytellers. So it seems a little, erm, excessive to go on slinging mud about him being a philistine and whey-faced and all that. I mean, what did he ever do to you, besides dis a movie you happen to like? Okay, he did stack the deck so as to basically obviate any defense, but if he's really a philistine, why bother accusing him of lying? And if you think about it, such charges cancel each other out: if he's lying, he's no philistine - he is capable of seeing the film's virtues but chooses not to reveal that to his readers; if he's a philistine, he can't be lying, because his utter lack of aesthetic sensitivity means that to his eyes, ZDT can ONLY be crap.

And let's not be glib, either, about the enormous significance of these events; this isn't some sensational yarn given a "based on true events" Hollywood treatment; this deals directly with extremely consequential and politicized events, and it will form a part of the historical record. I mean, as far as the Hollywood-World History nexus is concerned, I think Godard (to name one) has rather exhaustively made that case.

If I'm misconstruing you, I'd like to know how.

Anyways, at this point, the ZDT is gonna be hard to sit through with any kind of open mind, but I now feel duty bound. Some days I hate the internet.


I haven't seen the movie but I have no problem with Greenwald's comments. Bigelow and Boal should put on their "big boy pants" (CIA reference intended) and stop resorting to artistic license to excuse the conflation of torture scenes with courier intelligence.

Should we really believe the torture program was a good faith effort to prevent terrorist attacks? There is plenty of good evidence that indicates the entire program was garbage, implemented for ulterior reasons by corrupt officials and then sold to the public via fearmongering and by means of excessive secrecy.

Boal and Bigelow have made statements to the effect that the torture program happened and thus they put it in the movie to reflect reality. What reality are we talking about? A fake CIA reality of "getting tough on terror?"

Did Boal or Bigelow interview Alec Station Chief Rich Blee who was one of the advocates of the torture program? During his time as chief of Alec Station he and his subordinates repeatedly withheld information about Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. Supposedly one of the CIA agents who comprised the composite character of Maya in the movie is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky. She too was implicated in withholding al Qaeda intelligence from the FBI before 9/11. Why isn't this context included in the movie?

Joel Gordon

I haven't seen the movie, but... that's the reason I'm saying nothing else.


I happen to be revisiting Carlos at the moment. Wonder if a lot of this hand-wringing could have been forestalled by an opening disclaimer similar to the one Assayas used:

"This film is the result of historical and journalistic research.

Because of controversial gray areas in Carlos' life, the film must be viewed as fiction, tracing two decades in the life of a notorious terrorist.

His relations with other characters have been fictionalized as well."

No doubt ZD30 has the usual small-print version of the above in its end credits, but I think a phrase like "must be viewed as fiction" at the outset would have helped a lot.


"I am sorry that I do not have the name of the actor who played this character at hand, because I found him rather poignant."

The actor is Homayoun Ershadi, better known as the lead in Taste of Cherry.

(BTW, great piece!)

Craig Kennedy

I don't know what film Greenwald actually saw, but the torture sequences are disturbing as hell and they're meant to be. The killing of bin Laden is not a rousing feel-good climax. It's claustrophobic, nightmarish and damned unsettling with the screaming women and children.

Coming out of it I actually expected the right to decide the film is unpatriotic for showing the truly ugly side of the 10-year hunt for bin Laden. Instead it's my fellow liberals who aren't comfortable with a film that doesn't tell its audience what it should be feeling.

Tony Dayoub

"(I do not know what kind of audience Greenwald watched it with.)"

When Greenwald initially wrote his piece for the Guardian, it was a variation on the "I didn't see the movie, but..." argument. This combined with his stubborn doubling down (based on secondhand accounts derived primarily by David Edelstein's mischaracterization of ZDT's torture scenes) is one reason I abandoned a Twitter argument with Greenwald over the piece.

Has Greenwald stated somewhere since then that he's seen the movie?


Glenn, great piece, even if I do not agree with all your arguments. For instance, you say, you took the film as “fiction”, but is this how Boal and Bigelow wanted it to be seen? I doubt they did, and if they didn’t , you are guilty of the same “mistake” as Greenwald and Mayer – all you are doing is imposing a reading on the movie that the filmmakers never intended in the first place.
I also seriously doubt whether one can elevate the notion that statements by artists about their own work simply do not matter into a dictum as you do here. So an artist’s intentions are totally irrelevant? Why? Because every film has a “truth”/an “essence” that a critic can subtract just by having a close look at the movie itself? There is a reason why hermeneutics is only one of several critical approaches: it has severe limitations, not least because it lends itself so easily to projections, such as “the film is a work of fiction and should only be seen as such”.
In the case of “ZDT”, I would argue that Boal’s and Bigelow’s claims that their film is “journalistic” and “non-judgemental” are anything but irrelevant, because they point out a fatal flaw in their thinking and filmmaking – the belief that they could ever escape being political or of being exponents of a certain ideology. (It’s intriguing to think what Robin Wood would have had to say to that.) But then, “ideology” seems to be a topic that the film reviewers of today are all too willing to ignore. To me, the whole discussion of “ZDT” reveals first and foremost one thing: to most critics nowadays, “politics” is a dirty word and another topic best to be avoided.
Bigelow and Boal take one of the most political and politicized stories of recent years and try to escape the minefield of contrasting liberal and conservative interpretations of the events they portray by defiantly not setting the film in anything resembling a larger context. They do this in the same way they avoided tackling the thorny issue of the Iraq War in “The Hurt Locker” – by reducing the hunt for Osama Bin Laden to a story of personal obsession. It’s astonishing how many reviewers seem to agree with Bigelow and Boal that the socio-political background doesn’t matter when dealing with global events as lived through by dedicated individuals. (Just as the protagonist in “HL”, Maya in “ZDT” conveniently has no political convictions.) For the majority of reviewers, the idea that the personal is political clearly is no longer relevant: not one of the critics’ organizations who voted “ZDT” “Best Picture of 2012” found the political vacuum at its centre even dubious.
Now the whole discussion is reduced to whether or not Bigelow and Boal condone torture – but what about the dispiriting fact that that speficic debate was started by political journalists when it should have been initiated and led by film critics?


Re Tony Dayoub's post: Glenn Greenwald did see ZERO DARK THIRTY and amended his GUARDIAN article accordingly.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks to everyone, and thanks especially to Zach and Olaf for providing pushback in a measured, civil way. Zach, I don't want to be glib, and I understand the momentousness of the historical events depicted, but I also, as you might infer, have a problem with respect to the idea of art and "obligation." I try and keep consistent in my view; if a film or book offers a particularly stupid or crass insult to history, I focue on the stupidity and crassness, not the fact of the insult. I know where to find non-fiction accounts. As for the idea that this sort of work becomes part of the historical record because of Hollywood's power, I don't know. People feared that about Oliver Stone's "JFK," which was a popular hit, but I don't see it referred to as a monolithic object that wipes out all other work on the subject. There may be some poor souls who take it as gospel, but they are few. The lies of "Birth of a Nation" spurred events that did considerable damage; the counter to those lies today means that the film is rarely screened without multiple caveats, as should be the case. With respect to "Zero Dark Thirty" I'd like to again point out that in no way does it play as some kind of "let's go out and kill Muslims" screed.

As for Bigelow and Boal's intentions, again, I insist on looking at the film as fiction because as it is a piece that actors with a script are performing for cameras, it simply is that. The implications of their claims are not without consequence for a lot of viewers, but given Bigelow's past work and the inquiries it contains, I suspect one reason she's hitting the authenticity button so hard is because it's good or "provocative" marketing. Given the way her and Boal's remarks have tended to skew the debate on the movie, I'm beginning to think it would be more prudent, not to mention genuinely intellectually coherent, to give that theme some rest. I also agree with M'da's hindsight suggestion.


@Bill: I think we're in agreement about TAXI DRIVER, which certainly doesn't have a black-or-white moral scheme. My point was the same as yours, I believe, in that it's an example of a film that can be (and has been) misread and misunderstood, but that it's not the fault of the filmmakers for that misunderstanding.

Tony Dayoub

Thanks, TVMCCA. Going back to read it now.


Wonderful piece, Glenn. You ably identify many of Greenwald's aesthetic and political simplifications in his article. Another disturbing problem with his approach to the film (and by extension the political responsibilities of the spectator), though, is his misunderstanding of criticism's essential existence as dialogue, not consensus. As you and many commenters demonstrate, artistic reception is an organic thing whose natural state is one of shifting disagreements and reconsiderations. In his article and in social media, GG bludgeons any respectful disagreement by pointing out that Filkins, Mayer et al feel differently and hey, are you saying these super-smart people are WRONG? There isn't any consideration that ZDT, like any film, has passionate and intelligent people passionately and intelligently disagreeing with each other--about formal construction, political ramifications, etc. This is obvious, of course, to you and the many, many great critics working today, who are constantly in dialogue with each other; one of the great innovations of social media is that audience members (even 'standard' ones!) can be privy to and take part in such discussion. It's filled with people saying the other side gets it wrong, but never demanding silent agreement. GG's preferred medium, the angry political polemic that drowns and exhausts the reader in seemingly overwhelming evidence, simply does not match the subtleties demanded of art criticism, which at its best seeks to enliven and wait for a response.

Tony Dayoub

Donovan, that is a fascinating and accurate breakdown of this entire discussion.

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