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Zero Dark Thirty Wins Oscar for Most Controversial Film

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Along with its many film making awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty promises to win the prize as this year’s most controversial film. Everyone from leftie filmmakers like Michael Moore and Alex Gibney to organizations as disparate as Amnesty International  and the CIA ave already weighed in on the Spies-and-Special Ops-glorifying film – -and particularly about its apparently positive spin on the supposed efficacy of torture.

Self-described “lowly movie critic” Tom Carson offered his admittedly inexpert political analysis (“I can’t believe anyone with half a brain could watch ZD30 and think the movie is hailing torture.”) while expert political analysts such as Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald — after confessing that they hadn’t seen the film — nevertheless waded into the discussion.

So too New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, New Yorker writers Jane Mayer and Dexter Filkins, and myriad others, who have pointed out that the treatment of torture in the film “appears to have strayed from real life,” as Filkins too delicately puts it. Meanwhile the film makers themselves — director Kathyrn Bigelow and producer/screenwriter Mark Boal – were everywhere at once—on ABC Nightline, PBS Charlie Rose, at Writers Guild screenings – consistently extolling their film’s journalistic credentials and the supposed fact that it is is ‘fact filled.’ But when asked about whether their ‘fact-filled” film in fact “strayed from real life,” the filmmakers regularly retreated into the comfortably familiar “this is not a documentary” response.

Both Boal and Bigelow seem intent on shoving aside the true facts about torture’s effectiveness. All Boal would offer when I queried him on the subject recently was the pallid response that the issue was “politically controversial, as you know.”

Instead of my offering yet another critique of the film or analysis of its pro-torture message, however, let’s look at what the film makers themselves say about ZDT. Here is Bigelow writing in the LA Times about the “ brouhaha that surrounded the film… when many thoughtful people were characterizing it in wildly contradictory ways.”

After first assuring us that she is “a lifelong pacifist” who supports “all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind,” Bigelow next claims that “Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt” and adds “As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden.”

Still intent on having her cake and eating too, she goes on to note that “Bin Laden… was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines…” As blogger Greg Mitchelllater noted, however,

“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.”

Bigelow’s confusion is even more apparent in an introduction she wrote for the shooting script of Boal’s screenplay. In it she extols him for “creating a new genre, one that tells a truthful story in searing scenes, based on bona fide reporting…”

So once again, their “non-documentary” is said nonetheless to tell a “truthful story…based on bona fide reporting.”

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Bigelow also noted, rightly this time, that “the material also raised deep moral questions about the lines that were crossed in the war on terror, and the nature of courage and persistence in a world where the normal rules don’t seem to apply.” That seems to me to be a much more truthful—and fact-filled—description of her and Boal’s film. And here’s something else I agree with the film makers on: “With this screenplay we could perhaps spark a conversation about the shadowy lives of those in the intelligence community, the price they’ve paid for their work, and the murky deeds that were done over this dark decade in the name of national security.”

Murky deeds, indeed—although you would never know it from looking at her film. As Bigelow concludes, “That feels to me like a film worth making, and a conversation worth having, now more than ever.”

Well, she didn’t really make that film—but let’s have that conversation now, by all means!

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