We Are All Kathryn Bigelow

I am still trying to wrap my mind around this interview of Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. Here is an excerpt:

The film includes wrenching scenes of a terrorist suspect being waterboarded and subjected to other forms of torture by C.I.A. operatives; the suspect eventually surrenders information that helps lead to bin Laden. Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding.

This is a new twist in a story that has been going on for months. When word leaked out earlier this year that Bigelow was making a film about the Navy SEAL mission that ended with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and that the Obama administration had helped Bigelow by providing sensitive documents regarding the planning of the raid, Republicans cried foul. They worried that the film would help Obama’s re-election, and Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, even held hearings to determine whether the administration’s sharing of information with the filmmakers was illicit. Of course, much of this was election-year posturing; the Right was playing up Obama’s ties to the Hollywood liberal elite in the hopes that it would alienate the conservative heartland.

In general, the posturing worked. The film, originally scheduled for a pre-election release, was pushed back to December. It has now scooped up the majority of the film critics’ awards and, as of yesterday, was probably the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at February’s Oscars. The film’s publicists had managed to achieve lots of positive buzz from the press, and since no one was talking about the film’s politics anymore, all was well.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

But then Bigelow gave this confounding interview, and now everyone is talking about the film’s politics. The prevailing notion is that while many assumed that Zero Dark Thirty would be an ode to Obama’s effectively focused prosecution of the War on Terror – with an implicit contrast to Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – it now appears that Bigelow is using the film to promote the fictional benefits of torture, a perspective that is far more in line with the arguments of the Bush administration than the current one.

In other words, people assume that a film that paints the Obama administration in a positive manner could not possibly also support controversial tactics involved in the War on Terror. Uh-huh.

We know that Obama has ended the use of torture as official United States policy. But we must also remember that he may not have ended the practice of outsourced torture, otherwise known as “rendition.” He did end “extreme rendition,” in which terror suspects are taken to countries where they are likely to be tortured, but independent analysts have not found enough evidence to determine whether outsourced torture still occurs. Currently, the U.S. asks for official assurances from other nations that the terror suspects sent by the U.S. will not be tortured. Such a tactic, however, would be done secretly anyway.

Obama’s War on Terror, of course, has included other controversial tactics. He has expanded the use of drone warfare and created the now-famous “kill list,” two tactics that combine to create a high percentage of civilian casualties with no oversight or accountability. He also signed into law a bill that allows him and any future president to indefinitely detain any American citizen that he suspects is connected to a terrorist organization.

So while pundits argue about whether Bigelow is endorsing torture in Zero Dark Thirty, they are missing the key point: the movie’s use of torture as a key plot device, while technically inaccurate, does reflect our current cultural values. Not only does President Obama support the use of unethical tactics to fight the War on Terror, but the millennial generation – to which this and all commercial movies are most heavily marketed – supports torture by a wide margin. This 2011 poll found that 60 percent of teenagers thought tactics like waterboarding or sleep deprivation were acceptable, despite the overwhelming evidence that neither is an effective means of gathering intelligence.

But this is the power of film – to act as a mirror, reflecting our cultural values back to us. Sometimes we don’t like what we see.

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