Point: Zero for Zero Dark Thirty

by Scott Packard

The Oscar nominations are out, and like most former or active military, I say “Amen” to passing over director Kathryn Bigelow. I’ll tell you a little secret: most folks with military experience found her portrayal of combat operations in general, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians specifically in The Hurt Locker, overplayed, blasphemously inaccurate, and downright insulting. Watching the movie made me viscerally angry. So, that simmering anger is behind this rant.

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While the SEALs come off looking pretty good in “Zero”, Bigelow’s work here and in The Hurt Locker suggest conditions and actions by the characters that would never happen, serving as an insult to the very professionalism of the many service members who have fought in these two wars.

I’ll grant you: Bigelow is a movie director, and therefore, there’s an inherent amount of “artistic” license. Her scenes are beautifully composed, and the human tension between her characters is well crafted. That was true of her first effort, and is no less so in her latest. But suspension of disbelief only goes so far in viewing a film based on a “real” event. While she got accolades for her first movie with no public criticism for accuracy, she’s stepped in it with this one. The movie’s implication that intelligence derived from torture led to Bin Laden’s location has been soundly disavowed by key members of Congress and members of the Intelligence Community.

Yes — I’m too close to the subject to be objective, as is every other veteran of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM or ENDURING FREEDOM. While the SEALs come off looking pretty good in Zero, Bigelow’s work here and in Hurt Locker suggest conditions and actions by the characters that would never happen, serving as an insult to the very professionalism of the many service members who have fought in these two wars.

Members of the Army EOD community take particular issue with the first film. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal consulted with an Army EOD officer held in low esteem by the community at large. That officer’s battalion operations officer during combat operations conveyed to me his opinion, both of the film and of the unnamed “consultant”; most of that conversation can’t be repeated here, but suffice to say, you would be hard-pressed to find a more damning testimonial.

Hurt Locker uses as its main character the suicidal rogue Sergeant First Class William James and attempts to raise him to heroic levels. Let me be the first to say that what EOD techs do on a day-to-day basis takes big brass ones, and frequently ranges into “heroic” territory. Having seen the damage wrought by many of the nasty surprises emplaced by Iraqi insurgents or Taliban surrogates, I have no desire to knowingly approach an improvised explosive device, let alone defuse one or exploit it for intelligence value. However, Bigelow’s foil is a foolhardy blowhard who risks not only his life, but those of his teammates with his cavalier methods and showboating — something a true professional warrior would never accept. The unforgivable sin in the military isn’t getting yourself killed (although it is discouraged): it’s getting one of your fellow soldiers killed. There is an individual element to EOD work — one man puts on the suit to “interrogate” suspected bombs — but it’s a team effort. The same is true of intelligence production and analysis. Bigelow doesn’t quite get that. Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain are fine actors who portray the range of human emotion beautifully, but they are only actors. I don’t expect them to know any better. Bigelow directs the entire effort, and you would expect a deeper understanding. What she has showed us was a bunch of nonsense.

The nuanced insult is the same from Hurt Locker to Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow goes for the sensationalist, quasi-realistic portrayal of events surrounding the finding and finishing of Osama Bin Laden. But this time, critics and politicians are rightly denouncing the falseness in her story. There’s a real story in the use of torture by the U.S. during the past ten years, but this movie isn’t it. Instead, it’s another insult to the professionals who worked long hours to go after threats to the U.S.

So, when the Oscars come around, I’ll toast the film industry for who they passed over as much as who they recognize. Watch Zero Dark Thirty for the entertainment value, but please, recognize it as a work of utter fiction, despite being sold as something else. The Academy rejected that premise; so should you.

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Counterpoint: Zero Dark Thirty Critics Missed the Mark

by Ben Bowers

The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is a prime example of the selective memory that plagues the press and our culture. For the most part, those attacking Katherine Bigelow’s latest masterpiece feel the movie masquerades fiction as truth. They also think it endorses torture. Regardless of whether you agree with either of these arguments or not, the question you should be asking is why has this film has come under fire — when plenty of other movies have walked similar tightropes between entertainment and reality and come out Scot free.

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Perhaps Bigelow & co. deserve to be chided for embellishing the “based on a true story” catchphrase that Hollywood normally uses to throw weight behind certain works of cinematic fiction (and we all instinctively now know to interpret as bullshit). But the current volume of outcry has long surpassed the realm of reasonable reactions to this marketing misstep.

The film claims the story is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” right from the beginning. In the eyes of some, this tricks viewers into believing that Zero Dark Thirty is a proxy for the truth and factually accurate — when the actual statement says nothing of the sort. It simply reveals that the movie’s creators consulted with one, or possibly many people who experienced events relevant to the story and then used what they learned in the process of making the film. This isn’t exactly a novel concept for showbiz folks. In fact, it happens all the time, in every conceivable genre. 127 Hours, Act of Valor, Dolphin Tale, The Fighter, I Love You Philip Morris, Margin Call, Moneyball, Sanctum, The Social Network, Soul Surfer, Unstoppable and The Whistleblower are just a few titles that utilized this process to some degree (though they admittedly didn’t require cooperation from the CIA). They’ve all been released just within the last 2 years.

Perhaps Bigelow & co. deserve to be chided for embellishing the “based on a true story” catchphrase that Hollywood normally uses to throw weight behind certain works of cinematic fiction (and we all instinctively now know to interpret as bullshit). But the current volume of outcry has now eclipsed the realm of reasonable reactions to this marketing misstep.

That’s because Zero Dark Thirty also deals with a subject that’s still very raw in our collective consciousness: the horrific atrocity of September 11th and the following decade the US government spent hunting down those responsible for it. Specifically, it’s the film’s portrayal of torture — and interestingly enough not other horrors depicted, like the on-the-spot execution of women and children — that’s made the movie a new punching bag for the morally righteous. To quote David Clennon, an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member leading a boycott of the movie at the Oscars, the film “promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture as a legitimate weapon in America’s so-called War on Terror”.

But what does “promoting the acceptance of the crime of torture” actually mean? That’s where things get awfully tricky. Bigelow’s hyper-realistic depiction of the CIA’s various methods of “enhanced interrogation” (which we know actually happened) is absolutely gut-wrenching to watch — so much so that many seeing it for the first time look away from the screen. Rather than glorifying the methods, these scenes provide an exclamation point of proof for all but the most sadistic of viewers on why torture is unequivocally immoral. How anyone can walk out of the theater thinking Zero Dark Thirty paints the infliction of physical and psychological pain on human captives in a positive light is, well, baffling.

What’s really upsetting to viewers is actually the way the movie’s main characters passively take in such horrors — and how such atrocious acts can be construed in the plot’s progression. Many with a magnifying glass on the issue say their torture endorsement concerns stem from two scenes in particular. The first is how a key fact, the name of bin Laden’s trusted courier, comes to light. The second is a line uttered later by a CIA operative who suggests information will become harder to collect if the detainee program shuts down.

What’s ironic about this intense plot dissection is that an equally meticulous hunt for counterpoints provides similar amounts of supporting evidence that Zero Dark Thirty actually emphasized how little physical and mental torture benefitted the American intelligence operation. For example, technically the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti is only revealed by the detainee (who has been tortured for months) after CIA operatives devise a clever trick and take a “good cop” approach to the task for a change. Later on, the operative responsible for the torture regiment is asked point blank by the Director of the CIA: what’s his confidence level with the trail of information implicating the Abbottabad compound as the safe house of bin Laden? His response? A “soft 60″ percent”. So much for torture being the critical piece of the puzzle.

None of this ridiculous script sleuthing really matters though. Because if we were truly dedicated to holding Hollywood and its most prestigious awards ceremony accountable to a higher moral standard, the indignation should have started decades before Zero Dark Thirty graced the silver screen. Instead, this entire witch hunt really boils down to the unspoken line in the sand around realism and moral ambiguity that we just can’t stomach Hollywood crossing, especially when it concerns controversial events so fresh in our memory.

If Bigelow had bowed to any of these ‘moral high ground’ put-downs and removed torture’s very real part in America’s recent history, it would have taken away the only leg a film telling a story of this magnitude can stand on — that in the fight against terrorism, no one ever truly wins. Torture is a moral issue, and the fact that our great country ever engaged in such terrible crimes is despicable. But lambasting Zero Dark Thirty can’t take that fact back. If you want to change the world, call your congressman and voice your concern over our country’s stance on rendition or donate to groups dedicated to ending such horrors like Amnesty International. Because denying Zero Dark Thirty recognition from the Oscars sure isn’t going to change a goddamn thing.

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