Saturday, January 19, 2013

Of Torture And Free Expression


-by Danny Goldberg

As a long time defender of the rights of artists including controversial ones, I find it intellectually dishonest for champions of Zero Dark Thirty to pretend that serious criticism of the film amounts to an assault on free expression. Responding to public statements by actors Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and David Clennon urging Academy members to refrain from voting for Zero Dark Thirty, Columbia Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal said "to punish an artist's right of expression is abhorrent. So it’s “punishing” to merely criticize a film because of its perceived political effect? Kathryn Bigelow is supposed to have unfettered free speech but Ed Asner doesn’t? It’s understandable for those involved with Zero Dark Thirty to fight for their movie, but there is no such thing as a moral “right” to win an Oscar.

Bigelow wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that “Confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability.” I couldn’t agree more and have long argued that simplistic devices like counting the number of “violent acts” on television are useless in analyzing both the aesthetics and impact of art and entertainment. But Bigelow is responding to a “straw man,” a non-existent argument, while ignoring the actual issues people have with her film. Serious critics of the movie (among them: Glenn Greenwald, Karen Greenberg, and Alex Gibney) are not simplistically attacking the mere portrayal of torture but have addressed the context and subtext of the way in which this particular film deals with torture. No one is trying to “chill” exposure to the film (as if that were possible). They are trying to explain the ways in which they think the film, intentionally or not, validates bad behavior.

Unlike some other recent controversies such as those about the Civil War, Zero Dark Thirty affects public perception on issues related to current and future policy.

Many in the federal government have complained that the film significantly exaggerates the link between torture and the eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden (and some assert that there was no connection whatsoever). More significantly, there has been a long running debate inside the federal law enforcement and security community between supporters of Dick Cheney, (including many in the CIA) who believe that “enhanced interrogation” is effective, vital to American safety and morally justified, and those ( including many in the FBI). who feel it is both counter-productive and morally corrosive. (One of many books documenting this is 500 Days by New York Times writer Kurt Eichenwald). That debate is entirely missing from Zero Dark Thirty leading many of the film’s critics to assert that the film falsely gives the impression that prisoner abuse is the price Americans have to pay for safety. It’s not the mere “depiction” of torture that is the problem, it’s the assumption that its “necessary,” to protect Americans.

As Michael Hastings recently detailed, “The CIA played a key role in shaping the Zero Dark Thirty narrative, corresponding with the filmmakers to negotiate favorable access to a movie that one CIA official described as ‘getting behind the winning horse’ according to internal CIA emails obtained by Judicial Watch.”

Notwithstanding the caricature of “liberal Hollywood”, there is nothing new about elements in the military trying to influence American public opinion by schmoozing entertainment artists and executives. (David Sirota goes into some detail about the propaganda efforts of the U.S. military during the Reagan years in connection with Top Gun and other films in his book Back To Our Future.)

One can sympathize with Bigelow and her team up to a point. It’s incredibly hard to make a good movie and it must seem unfair that the efforts and talent that went into creating an entertaining and popular work are de-legitimized by those who are upset about its political reservations. But the intensity of the political reaction is driven by the fact that Cheneyites (in part, perhaps, to justify their own behavior) have been so effective in recent years in persuading large portions of the American public that torture, by whatever name, is now a necessary tool for national security.

While many opposed to torture have done noble work in the courtroom, the political media and academia, they have not been audible in the popular culture arena in a way that counteracts mass entertainment like 24, or the best selling novels of Vince Flynn and the results are stark and troubling. As recently as October, 2007, a Rasmussen poll showed that 53% of Americans said that the United States should not torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism. Five years later, a 2012 YouGov poll showed than only 34% were so opposed-- a drop of 19%, (source).

In her letter to the Times, Bigelow wrote “On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.” This is another straw man. Critics of her film are not suggesting that anyone should deny torture occurred in the “war on terror.” What has been questioned is the role of torture in the effort to capture Bin Laden, and whether or not it is necessary or effective or right as a tool to enhance American security. Bigelow chose a narrative and protagonists who come down on the Cheneyite side of those arguments. This is certainly her right as an artist but she cannot credibly complain that she is being “chilled” when she is the beneficiary of critical acclaim, a multi million dollar marketing campaign, and huge box office results.

While its valuable for the historical record to show that many in and out of government objected to the assumptions on Zero Dark Thirty, the reality is that regardless of what happens at the Academy Awards, the movie is a big hit and will influence perceptions in the general public as well as in the military for some time to come. Hopefully those who oppose torture, and those in “liberal Hollywood,” who identify with them can create counter narratives over time to dissipate the effect of propaganda that has so effectively taken hold in much of the American mind.

(Danny Goldberg is President of Goldve Entertainment, and a board member and former Chair of the ACLU of Southern California and co-editor of the anthology It’s A Free Country: Personal Freedom In America After September 11th)

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At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Bob Meyrowitz said...

A. I thought the torture scenes were overlong and graruitious from a cinematic point of view.
B. The unquestionable heroes of her movie were the people who did the torturing.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger gcwall said...

It should not matter whether or not torture is an effective tool to gain intelligence; it is wrong and criminal.

Japaneses officers who ordered water boarding against Americans during WWII, were found guilty of the crime and executed.

If one were truly concerned about the lives of American soldiers they would protest the use of torture, because the torture of the enemy makes certain the torture of captured Americans.

The government justifies the use of torture to create fear among its own citizens, not to gather useful intelligence.

Torture is used to extract confessions, because the victim will say anything to end it. Because of the willingness of the victim to say anything, (they confess to crimes they did not commit,) the information forced out of the victim is suspect.

Unlike the poorly made propaganda films from WWII that depicted all Japanese as suicidal psychopaths, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a well made and performed propaganda film, but no more accurate in its depiction of current U.S. tactics in war than films made during WWII.

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the director was convinced/misled/mindwashed by the CIA and/or others that torture led to bin Laden? This would not excuse her prurient glorification of torture but could help explain it. She really did need better advisors on the project.

At 2:24 AM, Blogger John said...

Perhaps the Oscars should use this film to inaugurate a special Leni Riefenstahl award.

John Puma

At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was tortured for almost 3 years by the FBI and their friends only
because 85 years old man, Roland Sibens(chicago) convinced them that I
am a terrorist. I was tortured for working on my prosthetic legs in
the basement. I done absolutely nothing illegal or wrong. They thought
that in theory it is possible to hide bomb in them. They saw an
opportunity to get famous, so they were trying to torture me till I
sign their insane story. They tortured me using more than 100
different torturing methods and trust to me waterboarding is not how
they torture nowadays. I dont know where to find justice.

I think that after 9/11 things got out of control. Freedom fighters
became tyrants. In 1945, most Germans had an opportunity to learn about Nazis death
camps. I hope that one day American citizens will get chance to learn about people
like me, who were tortured with no reason for years.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Dennis Jernberg said...

I'm convinced that America's infatuation with torture ultimately has its roots in Southern aristocracy and the Southernization of America. Slaveowners routinely used torture to keep their slaves in line, and this became standard police policy as we know from the violent reaction against the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. Bull Connor vs. the Selma protest). And of course America has a longstanding infatuation with Southern aristocracy. Why not normalize their standard slave-control method into standard police, espionage, and military practice? That's where the propaganda hits 24 and Zero Dark Thirty come in. The success of the latter (both artistically and commercially) has convinced me that Bigelow is the modern Riefenstahl (old Leni herself was a genius too, you know).

@Anonymous 2: Americans will not get the chance to learn about what our rulers really do until the country is destroyed like Nazi Germany and fascist Japan were. Except for the unfortunate fact that all the other countries in a position to do that are torture-loving dictatorships too...


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