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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kathryn Bigelow and the Torture Report

Update, December 9, 2014:  What a great coincidence: Kathryn Bigelow was long ago booked on The Daily Show for last night to tout a PSA she directed relating to ivory sellers funding terrorism and exterminating elephants.  Lo and behold, it happened to all on the day the long-delayed torture report came out.  To his credit, Jon Stewart kicked off (perhaps to her surprise, or so it looked) with a question about her film Zero Dark Thirty, which some of us criticized for defending torture--and you'll recall it late came out that she had been given extra help from...the CIA.   He asked her if she was upset that the CIA had maybe lied to her about certain things and she simply demurred, while looking extremely uncomfortable, claiming it was...."complicated." 

January 2013: We had wondered when she would explain herself more fully--rather than ignore or downplay the charges--but after a loss at the Golden Globes (but an Oscar for Best Picture still at stake), Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, has finally written an op-ed, for today's L.A. Times.  I'll analyze it below but for now here it is.

Nice that she thanks her film-making team for getting the picture made, without crediting crucial help from the CIA.  And revealing,  "As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind," does not get to the point of the criticism of her film, does it?  Most critics have suggested that maybe she did not mean to show that torture works, but did not recognize that she was conveying that very message.

Once again she goes out on a limb and backs the First Amendment, and makes the ludicrous charge, as an artist, that critics don't seem to know "depiction" does not equal "endorsement."   Everyone understands that, but she insists on peopling her piece with "straw men."   What she doesn't own up to is that her "depiction" of the usefulness of torture in the film is likely not based on facts--and, in fact, the film endorses the view that torture was crucial in helping to get bin Laden.  (See a brief clip from key scene here, for example.)   In the op-ed, she admits that she and screenwriter Mark Boal chose to accept the disputed view that torture did play a role in nailing bin Laden.  So much for the claims of her defenders who state that her film does no such thing.

She had a right to "depict" that in the film.  But she should own up to it, frankly.  Also: One can only laugh at her claim that, hey, if we didn't give film-makers freedom to show "harsh" realities we'd never have seen any of the great war films of the past.  Funny, I don't recall Paths of Glory suggesting that, hey, since some of the men in the trenches were cowards it justifies shooting a few of the innocent to keep others in line.  Kubrick took an unflinching, complex look at the "realities"--but didn't let his ethically challenged characters off the hook.

While Bigelow claims to be  anti-torture herself, there are no scenes--in fact, hardly any words--in the film that suggest anyone "depicted" really has any real problem with it, except maybe growing tired of it (the poor souls).  In the op-ed she claims that it shows the "moral consequences" of torture.  I haven't seen her or anyone else reveal where that happens in the film.  In fact, in the scene where the two female CIA characters gaze at President Obama on a TV screen as he attacks torture they simply look at each other as if to say, "Where does that guy come off saying that--what does he know about it?"

Finally, she closes with this morally bankrupt whitewashing:  "Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation."   In this way, she lets all of them off the hook--as she did in her film with the central character Maya.

She also offers a plea to not forget the victims of 9/11.  Okay, we get it, Kathryn.  Like in your film--9/11 justifies torture.  (See links to key critiques from experts such as Jane Mayer and Steve Coll.) 

Greg Mitchell has written over a dozen books on subjects including influential political campaigns, atomic cover-ups, WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, the death penalty in America, even Beethoven --see the books here or on rail at right on this blog.  


Anonymous said...

Yawn. You are booooooring.

Anonymous said...

Bigalow wrote "we should never discount and never forget the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks." It is obvious from her film that US lives are all she has in mind.

Professor Marc Herold estimated about 3000 Afghan civilians killed by US bombing Afghanistan during the first 2 years of the invasion of Afghanistan. The methods he used to count them are essentially what Iraq Body Count used and they've been shown to drastically under count civilian deaths. Bigalow was not obligated - as a journalist or as an artists - to ignore THOSE victims of 9/11. She was not obligated to make tell a story entirely from the perspective of CIA torturers. Any journalist or artist who chooses to do that has earned the label of torture apologist.

Joe Emersberger

Burkey said...

A number of those 9/11 victims want a new investigation and would probably appreciate it a lot more than a movie.