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


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. I 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 torture is 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%.  

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.

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