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Why Criticizing 'Zero Dark Thirty' Is Not an Assault on Free Expression

It's intellectually dishonest to pretend that serious criticism of the film amounts to an assault on free expression.

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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%.  

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 multimillion-dollar marketing campaign and huge box-office results.

While it's 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 Gold Village Entertainment and the author of "Bumping Into Geniuses" and "How The Left Lost Teen Spirit."

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