As will always be the case with humanity, the search for black and white answers will come before examining something as a whole and realizing there are several vantage points from which something can be observed. It’s the reason Siskel and Ebert offered thumbs up or thumbs down and the reason RottenTomatoes.com is more popular than MetaCritic.com. Why give me a number that doesn’t say “good” or “bad” when I can look at an arbitrary picture of a ripe tomato or splattered green one? Society wants easy answers to tough questions and when they don’t get them, they look for them and do their very best to fit a square peg into a round hole. Such is the case with Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty… and the film hasn’t even hit theaters yet.
The ridiculousness hit a tipping point on this site when a reader bombard me with everything he “knew” based on what he’d read and/or heard. He links to The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald’s article, which he notes has now been updated after Greenwald finally saw the film. Our commenter then links to The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer’s article, which has been given added weight as Mayer wrote “[amazon asin=”B002RAR10S” text=”The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals”]”.
Both pieces have been widely read and distributed. Greenwald’s argument began before he saw the film. He was upset by what he’d read, later saw the film and after which concluded “the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned.” Essentially, it fit into the box he created and then some. Considering this confirmation bias, I can’t take him seriously.
Mayer’s piece is interesting in that she is undoubtedly an authority on torture, but she seems more upset the film portrays torture in one way and then doesn’t fit into the box she wants it to fit in:
The quotes from Panetta’s letter are important to note in the way in which they are worded, and for anyone that has not yet seen the film and doesn’t wish to have the central narrative spoiled may want to avoid the rest of this article as plot details will be revealed.
Keeping the quotes above in mind, I will turn to Emily Bazalon from Slate who describes the torture scene from the beginning of the film and the path it takes to revealing a certain piece of information that proves key to the hunt for Osama bin Laden:
With that knowledge, let’s go back to Panetta’s letter, which you can read in full right here:
Zero Dark Thirty NEVER diverts from the information above. We never see a CIA detainee reveal “the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts“. We do see them present “false or misleading information” and when he writes “we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody,” note how it isn’t said that a detainee in CIA never mentions the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre, but simply that they didn’t “first learn” the name from a detainee.
However, I don’t want to discount Mayer’s argument altogether, because there are important factors to take into consideration when dealing with a movie in general and I don’t want to suggest this isn’t an important subject of conversation or that Mayer is completely off base. Following the Panetta quote Mayer writes:
Again, the “original lead information had no connection to C.I.A. detainees”. Fine, as Bazalon already noted, the reveal from the interrogated detainee was simply what sent Maya on her hunt and was the piece of information she most attached herself to after learning of the name… It doesn’t suggest the “lead” actually came from a CIA detainee. This is a situation in which people are simplifying the plot for their own needs, but at the same time bringing up an important issue.
The larger issue is whether or not a general audience member will watch Zero Dark Thirty and not read between the lines and come out believing torture did in fact lead to vital information that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s one thing to say a film flat out depicts torture as an effective means of searching for information and another to say it can be interpreted that way. Again, it’s the issue of black-and-white versus shades of grey.
What is important to note, however, comes in the second half of what is quoted above where Mayer wrote: “Feinstein and Levin noted that a third detainee in C.I.A. custody did provide information on the courier, but, importantly, they stressed that ‘he did so the day before he was interrogated by the C.I.A. using their coercive interrogation techniques.'”
Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the torture scene described above and ends with bin Laden’s death in 2011. Nine years are covered in a matter of 157 minutes. To this I want to remind you that everything you see is not exactly as it happened. Yet, people are still grabbing onto quotes, taking them out of context to sell a different story.
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