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December 17, 2012


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JFK was made three decades after the event. The history was already written. On torture and the War On Terror, the history is still being made. There are people who were tortured still in United States custody. There are still people down in Guantanamo. There are still soldiers in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

After the next election there might be another President who wants to torture in the White House. We better hope a pro-torture film doesn't set the record for what happened with bin Laden. I haven't seen this one yet so I can't say what it is, but I have a lot of respect for Greenwald and he generally does not lead his readers wrong.


I haven't seen the movie either, but that's not going to stop me from commenting because I enjoy the sound of my own voice... erm, because there's one thing that caught my attention.

It seems that the deepest, most fundamental disagreement at play here is that Mrs. Greenwald and Mayer think of "art" and "Hollywood movies" as mutually exclusive categories, while film nerds (like us here) don't. One of them is Art, the other is for eating popcorn. That disagreement is at the root of everything, including the way in which they judge the artistic decisions in the movie and give it a pass or not. I mean, this painting:


Is pretty much political propaganda, made by a guy who was in it for the money and the favour of a totalitarian monarch... but it's in museums, and it's Art, so it's judged by a completely different standard.

In the end, it's a variant of the same kind of thing that was discussed here some time ago, about young people today and their reactions to classic film. "Ugh, why would you want to watch a B/W movie?"

Freddie deBoer

It's funny, how you at once attack Glenn for being condescending towards the "standard viewer" while your entire argument is dedicated to lampooning him for not being the sophisticate you are.

We don't, actually, have to imagine standard viewers who take ZD0 as an endorsement of torture and our war on the Islamic world. You can already find conservatives who have seen the movie and come to that conclusion. And as it opens to a wider audience, you will see that argument prosecuted again and again. It already is being used to justify torture and it will be used to justify torture, war, and aggression. So what will you say? Will that suddenly become a concern for you?

I doubt it. I assume, in fact, that you'll dissemble, you'll evade, you'll justify. Because what you want is not that art not be taken seriously, or that art not be considered for its moral content. You just want that to happen only when it flatters you, when it contributes to your self-conception. When it actually challenges you, when it asks you to indict yourself, rather than to live in a comfortable defense such as this one-- well, then you're not interested.

David Ehrenstein

"I haven't seen the movie but I have no problem with Greenwald's comments."

Well Greenwald hasn't seen the movie either, as I pointed out here


Call me Old-Fashioned, but I always thought that one was required to see a film before reviewing it. Glennzilla compounds his dishonesty by claiming that what he's writing isn't a review -- which it most certainly is. Likewise the screed from Patient Less Than Zero.

They're BOTH writing on the level of Bret Easton Asshole.

I used to respect Greenwald. Not anymore. He's trash.

Your dealing with ZDT as a "work of art" is understandable in the light of all this blather, but not really necessary. It's "based on a true story." And while there has been much talk as to how much the administration did or didn't help Kathy the resultant film doesn't include anything we don't already know.

The way its detractors have been talking you'd swear that the guy being tortured coughed up Bin ladin's address. That's FAR from the truth, as those who actually bother to see the film will immediately discover.

Glenn Kenny

Mr. deBoer: Not to get all tit-for-tat, but it was Greenwald (I'm not familiar enough to call him "Glenn") who started in with throwing around words such as "pretentious," "pseudo-intellectual," and so on.

After laying out a scenario for me to get outraged about, and asking if this scenario will solicit my concern, you provide the answer: "I doubt it. I assume, in fact..." Yes, you do, IN FACT, assume. That's what you and like folks are good at, are best at: getting on a high horse, and making assumptions. So, if I may put this as politely as possible, here's hoping we don't meet on the barricades, or anywhere else.

Also: did you MISS the part where I talked about how I thought the movie dealt out viewer complicity in a distinctly uncomfortable way, or did you just decide it wouldn't fit in to your condemnation of me as a Bad Self-Interested Person?

David Ehrenstein

Glenn you may have to do some intense Googling, but back when it was released i was one of the few who took on Oliver Stone for "JFK" and its noxious compendium of LIES. My reward was the republication of James Kirkwood's 1967 book about Jim Garrison and the Clay Shaw trial "American Grotesque."

James Keepnews

You're all in the tank for torture and empire, just like the known fasicismo that is the New York Film Critics Circle. If only they knew as much as Glenn Greenwald an Jane Mayer. Bunch o' dummies...

Cinema 101 for Mr. Greenwald, Esq.: ALL cinema is fictional. Nanook of the North, The War Room... OK, not Weekend at Bernie's 2, but stop interrupting me. Montage alters reality just as sure as a camera points in only one direction. Kind of like your socio-political conception of aesthetics. Just saying -- you're right about so much else, I won't slag you on the Twitterz. Fight the power. I love my Glenns.

(BTW, I believe GK has opined disfavorably about JFK in the past, which I find lamentable -- I love JFK, precisely because it is so very much NOT history, it takes its socio-politico-aesthetico ball and runs with it in the unlikeliest damned directions. One man's psychosis is Oliver Stone's flexing across formats, narratives, disputed testimonies, &c., &c., on an order we haven't such the likes of from our Ollie since. Much of Greenwald's critique seems of a piece with Updike's dismissal of Cosmopolis (the novel)'s eschewing of "realism's patient surfaces". Except, as this fine thread so amply demonstrates, reality's surface is not exactly patient -- it teems, backtracks, reflects, reacts, responds to changes as it clarifies, &c. A step away from the moral certitude of your blog software will demonstrate as much tout mf suite. Emmis.)

David Ehrenstein

"love JFK, precisely because it is so very much NOT history, it takes its socio-politico-aesthetico ball and runs with it in the unlikeliest damned directions."

No it runs with it the most likely direction: "The fags killed Kennedy."

In this Stone is as one with James Dobson and the rest of the right re the Connecticut school shooting.


I'm so glad that Connecticut has been dragged into this. Twice.

Noam Sane

"Kathryn Bigelow...milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful." - Jane Mayer, New Yorker

James Keepnews

LBJ was a fag?

Chris H

You write in paragraph 2: when I’m watching a film in which actors are performing scripted actions in front of a very deliberately set-up camera, my takeaway from a title card such as the one Mayer cites is centered on “based on.” I am looking at a fiction, period.

I'd be interested to know how you frame that in terms of Lincoln. I saw the movie at roughly the same time as I was reading a book entitled April 1865 By Jay Winik. A terrific read. The more I read the more I found myself reflecting back on the movie with a sense of disappointment. The situation at that time--early spring 1865--was soooo much more complicated and nuanced than the movie's portrayal of it. Obviously, you say. Of course, it's obvious, but my question, or struggle, is on what level should I be watching the movie? If I view the movie solely as fiction...well, what's the point really? Is Spielberg capturing something ineffable about the man and about the time? I think in many ways he is. But then does that mean that the story itself isn't telling me anything?

Anyway, as I said from the outset, I'd be interested to hear how turn off and on your movies as fiction lens. Or perhaps you don't.

David Ehrenstein

If ZDT is "essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context," then what was the last scene about.

Jane Mayer's a pretty good journalist but she knows NOTHING about movies.

John M

I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie devoid of moral context.

Glenn Kenny

Chris H writes: "I'd be interested to hear how [you] turn off and on your movies as fiction lens. Or perhaps you don't." Actually, Chris, it's pretty simple: I go in knowing I'm going to see a movie, a dramatic enactment of events. I don't go in, as Hendrick Hertzberg seems to have gone into "Lincoln," anticipating a show off between what my studies of the period have taught me and what's depicted on the screen. The separation comes to me pretty naturally. It's not a struggle. I don't enter the theater with the anticipation that my superior knowledge of the facts it may be based on will defeat that movie if the movie comes up short in its depiction/interpretation of those facts. I bet Abraham Lincoln never whistled "Dixie," either.

You seem to have gotten a lot out of Jay Winik's book. Your expectation that Spielberg's movie live up to it is/was entirely your own.

That Fuzzy Bastard

"LBJ was a fag?"

"The hell he was!"

"He was too, you boys."

James Keepnews

Ah, bless your heart, Fuzz, great minds, &c. -- that's all that went through me mind when I hit that "Post" button:

"I went to install two-way mirrors at his ranch in Stonewall (sic, emmis, for realz). He came to the door in dress."

That dont' prove nothin' -- lots o' guys like to watch their friends fuck!"

"Shit, yeah, I know I do!"

David Ehrenstein

Well to quote Tallulah Bankhead, how should I know? He never sucked MY cock.

There's a well-established historical record re Abraham Lincoln, Glenn. I don't think it's unreasonable to examine what Speilberg and Kushner have done in light of that record.

ZDT deals with much fresher history about which much material is still in the process of being assembled. ZDT chiefly deals with one ("based on a true") woman and her role in teh OBL search and destroy mission. We know nothing of "Maya" outside of her work.

Chris H

Thanks for responding. Funny enough, Mr Hertzberg's thoughts on the movie were indeed influential on mine. Perhaps too much so. And honestly, I'm not entirely sure why I feel compelled to view Lincoln this way. Maybe it's nothing more than a knee-jerk anti-Spielberg reaction. Not that I'm anti-Spielberg exactly. He's just so damn prolific and talented that I need there to be something wrong with his interpretation and/or staging of events. Yet, I don't apply this test of hyper-verisimilitude to most other "based on" movies. A film I know you and I both liked very much is Carlos. I'm sure many, many aspects of the movie are fictionalized, condensed, reinterpreted, etc. I don't know how and I don't care because the movie got so much right. As did Lincoln. For me, details aside, what Lincoln nailed is that sense of heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. What I need to do now is re-visit the movie, as did Mr Hertzberg, and re-evaluate.


Not that I've seen the movie yet, but the "it's only fiction" makes me slightly uncomfortable. It's like the Inglourious Basterds defense: "it's only cinema", which seemingly gave the director considerable leeway to enact various forms of cruelty on his characters.

Of COURSE, narrative films about true events tend toward fiction, but that is not all they are, esp. if someone claims it is a "work of art". Once anyone begins to analyze the ethical and political considerations that go into making a film (as Glenn K. does in the subsequent paragraphs), it automatically invalidates the "only a fiction" fiction. Or as a corollary- just because something is staged doesn't always imply it is "untruthful".

Needless to say, I didn't fully agree with Greenwald's comments on the film, which involved a lot of asinine remarks that people who don't take movies seriously are prone to make, but he is clearly a valuable journalist and doesn't deserve the various epithets tossed against him here. But he is more worried that the movie would influence and strengthen the existing narrative about how torture might save lives (in some variation of the ticking bomb scenario, for example).

Chris H

Mea culpa. It's "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," which doesn't quit capture my feelings. Anyway...

bill weber

I've seen the film, and my myriad objections to it are inevitably colored by the fact that, yes, primary sources for Boal's screenplay were the CIA and Pentagon.

When a major-studio release is promoted as THE REAL STORY behind the hunt for bin Laden, there will be a large minority of Standard Viewers who will believe what one in my post-screening elevator said: "I feel so educated." Not to acknowledge this is compartmentalizing a bit too gullibly.

I admire Greenwald for his consistent four years of criticism of Our Fifth Consecutive War-Criminal President, but this Peter Maass piece on the "embedded" nature of ZDT was far more cogent:


bill weber

btw, David E, Greenwald wrote a follow-up column. He has seen the film.

His first column was not a review because he is not a film critic.

James Keepnews

On the subjects of ZDT and AMOUR, Mr. Hoberman writes earlier today the following in a post -- perhaps, where Ms. Mayer is concerned, a riposte -- at his perch on artinfo.com:

"Although the endings of both movies are givens, each in its way is a procedural—which is to say, a heightened experience." Heightened by its absent moral context? Clearly, that's for truly serious critical sensibilities like Jane Mayer's to decide.

Randy Byers

Thanks, Glenn, I haven't seen ZDT yet either, but I'm another huge Bigelow fan whose bullshit detectors went off as soon as I started seeing these claims that it's pro-torture propaganda. It's possible that Bigelow has gone over to the dark side (courtesy of Oscar the spirit guide, perhaps), but her long history of implicating her viewers in the atrocities on screen will make me disbelieve it until the film shows me otherwise.

Glenn Kenny

@TFH: I appreciate where you're coming from but I have to point out that nowhere in my piece do I write "it's only fiction." By describing, or by insisting on reading, "Zero Dark Thirty" as fiction I'm not trying to trivialize it or sweep its implications and functions under the table. Just wanted to make that clear.

I am really trying to not give in to my temper, but I must admit I am not enjoying being called gullible. I have to keep reminding myself that I kind of "asked" for some holier-than-thou "schooling" though so I guess I need to lump it. I would submit to Mr. Weber that he might have wanted to ask the post-screening knowledge recipient precisely how he or she felt "educated."


While only tangentially relevant to the discussion, it's a little-known fact that Glenn Greenwald strongly supported Bush's invasion of Afghanistan because he wanted to wreak "vengeance" on the people behind 9/11. He went on to support the invasion of Iraq because he trusted Georeg W. Bush. In his own words, despite reservations, he supported the Iraq war out of "loyalty," to his "leader." And in his entire career as a blogger, he's never written a word about it. Meanwhile he viciously tears apart those that took the same positions he once did without revealing these facts. In other words, he helped enable most all he so stridently condemns today.

As to lies and hyperbole, that's been Greenwald's MO since his early days. As when he went on truly disgusting xenophobic rants against Mexicans in 2005. To quote A. Jay Adler at Sad Red Earth, "He's become such a vile, rancid read, so dishonest and ugly on every topic - he's like Limbaugh with none of the entertainment value."



And no, I haven't seen the movie. And yes, I want to.


Oh, boy, now come the baseless Greenwald smears. Go peddle your trash elsewhere, Rob, grownups are trying to have a serious discussion.

bill weber

Glenn, I only meant to assign you any gullibility in perhaps not sharing the assessment of the Standard Viewer espoused by The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles: "You know, morons."

As for the Educated Elevator Woman, she proceeded with "If it hadn't been for this woman Maya..." Questioning seemed unnecessary; she essentially bought it as nonfiction, title cards be damned.

I think your personal points on the efficacy and justice of the UBL hit are well taken, and I haven't seen them made elsewhere in relation to this film (except by the "holier than thou").

Michael Straight

The thing missing from this discussion is that Glenn Greenwald doesn't really care about the movie. He's on a political crusade to end torture and, as an intermediate step, trying to turn public opinion away from the increasing acceptance of torture.

I think he'd say that battle to change public opinion is far more important than trying to be fair to this movie and the artists who made it. If this movie is the occasion to have a public discussion about whether torture was really an effective method leading to the killing of Bin Laden, I think he'd say that discussion is far more important than the movie itself.

And I think you can talk about the effects of watching a movie without talking about the movie itself. You could do a poll of people before and after they watch it and find out: Are they more likely to support the use of torture after watching this movie? Are they more likely to hold false beliefs about how Bin Laden was captured after watching this movie?

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