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December 17, 2012


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The only difference b/w the show 24 and the movie ZDT is that many, if not most, of my students will say the latter is a "true" story. But, hey, both the show and movie have protagonists that are "troubled" by torture. So that makes both brave and insightful and complex. Such utter bullshit.


Let's see: Taxi Driver: Fiction. Catcher in the Rye: Fiction. The Bible: maybe the most overrated work of fiction in the history of man. Again, if MH can't see the difference b/w them and a movie that claims to be journalism, a new kind of film based on the most in-depth research, then I suggest he/she stick with Michael Bay.

Finally, I can't seriously take any argument that proclaims Hurt Locker wasn't praised for being accurate. Just read any glowing review. Again, what color is the sky in your world?


I was aware of this debate before walking into the theater tonight to watch the film, and I kept that awareness during my viewing. This is what actually happens in the film:

The first dramatized scene in the film is the brutal torture/interrogation of a prisoner.

A few scenes later, but still in the first act, the key info that sets off the chain of narrative events that lead directly to the eventual success of the mission at hand is attained from this same prisoner. This takes place over a nice lunch. Before this lunch it's made clear that the prisoner has been excessively sleep deprived and will be vulnerable to concession. Also during this lunch, and before the info is attained, more torture is threatened.

Period. Those are the events as they occur in the beginning of the film. I think what I find most frustrating about this debate is that some have construed that the film doesn't posit torture as being the key tool in the attainment of the key lead. The threat of torture that occurs in that scene and the sleep deprivation torture that occurred right before that scene are effectively just the good cop section of an interrogation process built around torture. That is a literal event in the plot substantiated by multiple lines of dialogue and screen action, and in my eyes isn't up for debate. It just is what it is: The film clearly paints torture as being a key component to the cause and effect of the eventual success of the mission. From there I think Mayer and Greenwald's arguments have a foundation to build on that is valid.

I have other opinions about the unavoidable intersection of cultural thoughts derived from both art and politics and the aesthetic/formal just-a-piece-of-art value of this film in particular (not much), but most of all it just seems insane to me for anyone to say ZERO DARK THIRTY isn't clearly positing torture as a (if not THE) key component in the eventual success of the goal of the characters. From there, argue as you may.


Re. the Updates - thoughts on Brody's piece? It's kind of a doozy, but a good doozy, for Brody, I thought. He doesn't mention Greenwald or Mayer, but he does confirm some aspects of their critiques.

Glenn Kenny

Here's the link to Richard's piece: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2012/12/richard-brody-on-the-deceptive-emptiness-of-zero-dark-thirty.html


Klawans' review is now available on line: http://www.thenation.com/article/171594/glamour-suits

David Thomson's review can be found here, for the time being at least: http://www.tnr.com/articles/film

Michael Webster

I'm late getting back to this. One of the better internet arguments I've seen. Many good points made rationally and with respect to others with different viewpoints. It's not a movie that I ever would have desired to see, but this debate is interesting, so I have read a lot of reviews. Here I sin, having not seen the movie, but the reviews are diverse enough to suggest that the film presents significantly more complexity than cartoonish propaganda. Apparently it's such that different people see different things in it. Perhaps not, and I won't be judging for myself. Still, the arguments surrounding it are fascinating and give insight to larger issues.

Take Comrade Walter's comments. Sure, it's not nice to label someone like that, but he's earned the moniker and it's an effective shorthand rebuttal to his, and Greenwald's arguments which are as old as they are elitist. The purpose of art should be the socio-political enlightenment of regular people. Art is bad if it's constructed in such a way that regular people might take the wrong message from it. From there it's a short intellectual step to the concept of a vanguard.

Sorry if I'm missing the context or intent of this sentence I'm about to quote from CW. My take on this conversation doesn't depend on it, but if it is as straight forward as it seems, it bolsters my point:

"Pseudo-artists can't have it both ways: Either "art" is incredibly powerful or it is just a pleasant pastime."

That's the kind of Manichean thinking that is such a staple of the totalitarian mindset. There is no either/or. Art can be incredibly powerful. It can be a pleasant passtime. What it can be is only limited by your imagination. And one of the things that sucks most about humanity is that those with the most limited imaginations all too often want to impose their limits on the rest of us. Seems like it would be against some law of the universe, but it's true that those who travel as far as it is possible to go either to the left or right end up in essentially the same place. And when they get far enough along, art is always seen as a threat from which regular people need to be protected.


Hey, Zach: If you're still reading this, since you claim Greenwald has mentioned his support of Bush's wars on his blog, please point out a single example on any of them: Unclaimed Territory, Salon or the Guardian. I'll save you the Google search and tell you you can't. If he had, he would have already launched broadsides (with links, of course) against the people who've reported this fact. But the only rebuttal he offered was that we wrote about in the preface of his first book. And if you don't want to take Glenn's word for it, or mine, knock yourself out. and come back with the proof.


ZDT does not propose that torture directly resulted in the capture of bin Laden. However, torture is alluded to having happened in such a way to terror suspects that it remains enough of a threat that the suspects decide it is best to give info so they won't be tortured again. Therefore the message is that torture can work. Bad message in my view. Especially if it did not work in real life.

Here's the thing. We pretty much know torture was used at black sites by the CIA. What we are told by the CIA is that torture was not used in getting info leading to the capture of bin Laden. The movie plays it many ways trying to cover all [narrative and historical] bases with regards to what may have happened, which may be a mistake and may be incorrect. Bigelow is very smart about movies but maybe not so smart about the affect her message may have on people. I will say I wish the movie had explicitly told us that is was fictionalizing real events. [And by that I mean the story it tells - not just the actors in front of a camera part]. The movie is in no way 'pro torture' but the message it conveys might be historically incorrect. The movie takes itself seriously and therefore I do think the filmmakers owe it to the audience to try and get it right.

Michael Webster

Well, the CIA says they didn't use torture to get information. You'd have to be crazy not to believe everything the CIA says, especially when it's about something that could possibly embarrass them, or show them guilty of crimes against humanity.

I had always admired Greenwald before I started paying attention to this issue. The way he obsessively retweets anyone that agrees with him while totally ignoring, if not viciously attacking, any counterargument is bad enough, but he's supposed to be some kind of uber-government watchdog yet his entire argument rests on the assumption that the CIA, yes the CI fucking A, is telling the truth about something that would get them in trouble if true. In this matter at least, Greenwald has made a total ass out of himself and I find it very disheartening that such an egomaniacal retard has been one of the better spokesmen for doing what' s right in the world. I bet someday he pulls a Hitchens and can't lick enough sweat off the balls of some future Dick Cheney, albeit with significantly less than half the élan.

Saw Django Unchained today, btw. Found your revue insightful, but the movie was enjoyable enough. I was never bored for long and it had a few laughs. Far from great art, though I was truly knocked out by Samuel L. Jackson's performance which may actually have been great art. Can't recall hardly ever seeing SLJ play a character other than SLJ, but he sure as hell did it in that movie.


Erin Brockovich for Fascists

I'm unable to judge the film as a whole - it's not out over here - but this trailer supports my worst suspicions of it being a big steaming pile of machorevengepropagandadreck :

"Can I be honest with you? I am baaad news. I'm not your friend, I'm not gonna help you. I'm gonna break you! Any questions?"

"10 years - 2 wars - 1 target"

"Nothing else matters."

I mean, come on, please ...



Link messed up above



Link to trailer, sorry

Glenn Kenny

I am reminded of a line from "Ted:" "Great story, man, I felt like I was there."


I can't wait for Kathryn Bigelow's next movie: "Penn State 30" -a film about how the Nittany Lions won won the Sugar Bowl because Jerry Sandusky raped little boys.

If I want to watch torture porn I'll stick to the "Saw" movies. Chris Kelly was right: Zero Dark Thirty is Erin Brockovich for fascists.


Bravo. Just that: bravo.


The link is incorrect (it links to MSN) for the NYT review in the sentence: "Manohla Dargis makes some salient points beautifully, as she always does, in her NYT review."

Glenn Kenny

Link now fixed (hopefully). Thanks Andy.

Karl Miller

Goodness, okay: Greenwald is a liar. But listen to yourself: it takes far more effort to prove he's lying about the nature of the film than it does to prove the film lies about recent history. Would that you applied that rigor to the story, not your favorite still frame. You can talk about the tones and moods of the film all you like, but its point-by-point plot and story are simply wrong -- and not artfully so. If someone made a film in which, say, Al Gore orchestrated 9/11 ... but they tempered it with affecting tones and moods and scores, you wouldn't be outraged at someone else's outrage over that film's ridiculous lies. Bieglow has plenty of admirable craft, but not art here. And she asks us to pretend past a lot of horseshit along the way. The story is too important for that. It's a bad movie.

Torture is part of the bin Laden story. And so is bureaucratic resistence. But not the way Bigelow structures it. What we get is another maniacal heroine and the absurd moral that one can only stop psychotic behavior with ... more psychotic behavior. None of that is factually, artistically, or emotionally true -- at least not for anyone who actually had to live through this awful decade.

If you're saying that the film's overweening affectlessness and indifference to basic fact is itself some kind of statement about our soul-less prosecution of the war on terror ... knock yourself out. But you must also accept the artistic and historical lies necessary to create such an abject worldview. I don't think the film makes that statement; it think the film is itself a symptom and a product of the numbness to which we've been driven over the years. Who needs it? Especially when there are better stories to tell about bin Laden, torture and Terror?

Glenn Kenny

I understand that at this point in the virtual conversation, which is restarting with a boost from Andrew Sullivan, who I hereby thank, much of the commentary is going to new readers getting in their points rather than anything resembling a back-and-forth in which some persuasion or other is possible. But, and I say this not so much in the spirit of provocation so much as a further declaration of principles, if your argument is "the story is too important" for whatever aspect of the treatment you're objecting to, that's where I check out, because honestly, it's like we're not even sharing the same planet any more. The one conviction I share with Kingsley Amis when it comes to art is "Important isn't important."

Karl Miller

Okay, Glenn, so the story isn't "important." 9/11, torture, the bin Laden hunt ... away with all that. I would love some back-and-forth on ... everything else. I confess I didn't make it through every page of reader comments, but I wanted to at least reply to your original post.

For what it's worth, I'm not trying to defend Greenwald's aesthetics, such as they are; I just think he's too easy a target and you've tackled the man and not the ball here.

My hunch is Bigelow wanted to include torture in her story but didn't know how, except to imply it's as regrettable as it was necessary. I guess compared to mainstream torture porn in Hollywood, that's an accomplishment, but what a standard! That doesn't add up to tragedy or art in my book; it's too cynical. It also happens to rewrite history along the way, so it's falsehood in service of cynicism. Most defenses and praises of the film I've heard usually say something like, "yes, it's false, but at least it's cynical!" Well, what kind of accomplishment is that?

Bigelow knows how to establish mood and tone, yes, but are plot mechanics off limits here? Plot choices are even more explicit than framing, subtext, scorning, etc. I maintain that the film drapes itself in amorality, but that it does have a moral: psychotic behavior a la bin Laden could only be stopped by psychotic behavior a la Maya. I don't think that's very artful or even interesting. It also happens to be false history. I grant Greenwald's an ugly spokesperson for this argument, but I would still love to be persuaded otherwise.

Glenn Kenny

Well, Karl, thanks for being a good sport, and sorry to be so snippy. I'm going to be brief as my day as it's progressed so far isn't going to allow me much time to engage (I know, that's pretty Jonah-Goldberg-lame of me) but I also think if we get down to brass tacks maybe our differences are gonna boil down to taste. What initially impressed me about "Zero Dark Thirty," putting aside for the moment its representations of history, is the deft way it upends a lot of expectations concerning espionage thrillers and their ethics. As I mentioned in my review, it initially introduces Maya as an audience surrogate and then portrays her going along with the thing that the conventions of the ostensibly socially-responsible espionage thriller (as in the "Bourne" series) would have its hero/audience surrogate reject, that is, torture. This threw me off, and eventually it made me feel that the movie was as much about playing off of our expectations not just pertaining to ethics in life but to ethics within this representation. I agree to a certain extent with you about the movie's "cynicism" but I see it more as a mordant irony, which also comes through in Maya's "I believe I was spared" spiel, which has uncomfortable relative resonances of Bush's rhetoric throughout his Presidency and the war he initiated. So I'm not, as you see, on board with quite as much of a tit-for-tat reading of its cynicism w/r/t "psychotic behavior;" I think the movie's playing with a whole lot more, and pretty deftly so.

Karl Miller

Many thanks, Glenn. And I'm sure Jonah would be dodging a whole other tack entirely!

You make an interesting point about audience expectations. I haven't seen the Bourne films, but hasn't spy fare like "24" shaped expectations just as much? I would love to have my expectations subverted on that one.

Also, the film relies on something more than expectation when it comes to 9/11; it relies on our outright experience. It's a moment we only hear. We are trusted with our own memory on that one. But then our memory of what followed is rewritten ... and I'm still not sure why. It's hard for me to be asked to rely on my own experience and then shove that experience aside in the next moment. Yeah, you could say my expectation was subverted, but to what end?

I can see how one man's cynicism is another man's deft irony with a wide enough lens, perhaps. As a critic, you've seen way more spy movies than I ever will. Maybe it's a matter of taste, as you say, and maybe it's just a matter of professsion. I was in DC for 9/11. I remember with great shame and rage the Abu Ghraib scandal and Cheney's torture ambitions. And I remember that dull, overdue pang of relief on May Day 2011. ZDT strings those events together in an utterly bleak and bonkers way to me, and along the way it ennobles torture. What can I say? I'd love to know why it does these things or what makes that good film-making.

As an ironic departure from certain genre conventions, maybe it's interesting? But what besides filmic or genre convention (or, again, the factual record) is being subverted and why?

That's a lot to ask and you're busy. Maybe one of the other commentors can help with that one. In any case, thank you for keeping the thread alive and open.

Brian Dauth

Finally saw ZDT; some thoughts about it and the conversation that has ensued:

1. First, it struck me as a film divided against itself. I noticed right off the affectless aspect that Glenn noted, but immediately afterward I got the sense of a tightly scripted/crafted narrative. As Glenn said, Maya is introduced as an audience surrogate, but then the film seems to lose sight of her, then she pops up again, but each subsequent appearance felt more and more forced, as if the movie wanted to get away from her, but Screenwriting 101 forbade it. ZDT suffers from Chinatown Syndrome: "Maya is the surrogate; Maya is not the surrogate." Maya writing the numbers on the glass wall is Norma Rae holding up the sign “Union”; the rivalry of the two women is out of OLD ACQUAINTANCE; and the final shot of Maya is a (negativized) lift from the end of STELLA DALLAS.

2. Does the film endorse torture merely because it shows it? No. No work of art endorses anything simply by depiction/representation. The film does, however, show torture to have been part of the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. From the statement in the beginning about "first-hand accounts" to the use of actual 911 calls, the film presents itself as representing events that did occur -- dramatic license in depicting these events may have been employed, but wholesale invention, i.e., adding never-happened scenes to the chain of events, did not occur.

As for the attitude of the film toward torture, these are my speculations on how the film wished to present itself: torture played a role in bringing about the desired end. I do not think the film wanted to raise the question about whether or not torture is wrong within the film itself, but rather to allow the viewer to raise the question within herself as a result of her engagement with the movie. ZDT set out to simply state that torture occurred and was useful in obtaining a specific result. Again, these are my speculations about the intended goal of the film.

I think the film sabotaged its own intentions by giving Maya the hint of a narrative arc (and sometimes more than a hint). That arc messes with the neutral approach the film wants to take. ZDT never finds a way to be affectless and narrativized at the same time as, for example, the Dardennes brothers’ films can be. Maya’s having an arc (and a conventional one at that when all is said and done) imparts a sense that the film does have an attitude toward what it portrays since the main character changes over the course of the work. Maya’s arc poisons the film's attempt to be neutral.

Also, the film’s mise en scene displays Bigelow’s training at the San Francisco Art Institute – the shots have an “attitude” (so to speak) to what they depict visually, which can lead a viewer to look for the “attitude” the film has toward its content as well.

Brian Dauth


Thank God for Bigelow and Tarantino. Without them, what would we have to talk about?

Chris L.

An interesting musing on this morning's news in the "Best" Director category:



Pretty good damning of ZDT from the political angle by Steve Coll. The first half of the piece is the meat of the objection with which I most heartily concur.



All that outrage from greenwald and not a word about, say, Malala Yousafzai?

I guess now that Al Jazerra owns Current he can get his own movie review show where he can review movies BEFORE seeing them and rate them as to how much they promote American Imperialism on a scale of 1 to 5 Dick Cheney's.

Glenn Greenwald is the most hateful, hypocritical and deluded man in media.

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