The Art of Torture

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo tangle with journalism: journalism loses

by Gordon Campbell

Talk about a stealth attack. It turns out that Argo should have been the film that everyone hated for its daredevil US interventionism and its ‘journalistic inaccuracy’ – aka making up stuff about things that really happened. This guy makes a really, really convincing case (in a story amusingly headlined “Argo, F…K Yourself”) for why everyone should hate Argo and all it creepily stands for – and this guy does too, from a Canadian perspective. In a perverse way though, the “Best Picture” award for Argo only goes to confirm its relative lack of worth. Of course they gave the Oscar to the feelgood flick directed by the middleweight actor. That’s what they do. (Think Robert Redford, and how his puny Ordinary People film beat Raging Bull.) The fact is, no one expects much from Ben Affleck, and the Iran hostage crisis happened so long ago that the details don’t matter to anyone but a few pissed off Canadians, New Zealanders and Brits who were there at the time, and resent Affleck’s lies about what their country did during the events onscreen. By contrast, we’re still living in the Bush/Obama foreign policy era portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty. That saddles it, as Slant magazine said, “with the burden of responsibility.”

I liked Zero Dark Thirty even though I hated its politics. Go figure. On the face of it, the hunt for Bin Laden seems like an unlikely topic for a $30 million film. The same went for Elephant (about the Columbine shootings) and United 93, about the hijacked 9/11 flight. We know how these stories end. Yet in each case, pretty fascinating, disturbing movies resulted. For all the jingoism evident in Zero Dark Thirty, I found it interesting that director Kathryn Bigelow filmed the moment when Bin Laden gets shot – who was that peeping round the corner in the greenlit darkness? – as undramatically as possible. This was not the monster at bay, crashing in cinematic ruin. It looked exactly what shooting an unarmed elderly diabetic in a darkened corridor would look like. An anticlimax, and confusing. Was that him? Good. In fact, yay ! Now, let’s get out of here.

However, the film’s claim to journalistic truth and accuracy – and the uses to which the selective sense of verite has been put – fed a backlash that knocked the film right out of Oscar contention. (Liberal Hollywood preferred killing the Dick Cheney-ish vice president in Homeland to celebrating Cheney’s torture policy in this movie) As her many critics have pointed out, Bigelow primes the audience to believe her film will be factually accurate. It begins with an onscreen statement that what we’re about to see is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Real cellphone recordings from some of the doomed people on the morning of September 11, 2001 are then heard, against a black screen. Jump to a graphic fictionalized portrayal of a torture scene that includes waterboarding, based on accounts by black site interrogators.

That’s how the film starts. There’s similar attention to historical detail in the conclusion, a brilliant 40 minute reconstruction of the helicopter raid on the Bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. That section too, was based by scriptwriter Mark Boal on versions provided by the US participants. If you’re interested, here’s a fairly exhaustive list of the film’s main characters, and the real life people they were based on.

In sum, journalistic accuracy was the declared norm and framework for rampant fictions allegedly introduced only when (and if) dramatic effect demanded it. Oh sure. That’s the rub. In fact, journalistic accuracy went out the window repeatedly – and often at crucial points in the narrative, and it totally skewed the film’s moral centre.

A major plank in the film’s claims to fidelity is that the central character – an obsessive young CIA agent called Maya in the film, played by Jessica Chastain – is based on a real life CIA operative. She was the same person nicknamed “Jen” in the best-selling memoir No Easy Day, written under the pseudonym “Mark Owen” by Matt Bissonnette, a Navy SEAL who took part in the Bin Laden raid. While the film-makers claim that “Maya” is a composite character based on several CIA agents, the main inspiration for Jen/Maya is reportedly an alleged agent called Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.

Bikowsky can be seen standing in the doorway at the rear of the famous photo of Obama watching the live feed of the Bin Laden raid. (See left.) Who-ever Jen/Maya is in real life, she was also the inspiration for Carrie Mathison, the impetuous CIA analyst in the TV series Homeland. She still seems to be creating waves within the CIA. According to this Washington Post story, she has been bypassed for promotion since the Bin Laden raid, and made part of an internal investigation into the scope and propriety of the CIA’s co-operation with the Zero Dark Thirty film-makers :

The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history. She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.

Sorting out the truth from the fiction is compounded by the fact that the Obama administration clearly want to disown the film’s portrayal of how prevalent torture is/was, and how useful it was ( or wasn’t) to the US war on terrorism. (It would have been a foreign policy embarrassment if this film had been festooned with Oscars this week.) For different reasons, Zero Dark Thirty has generated fury among Bigelow’s liberal audience. That anger has two major triggers (a) the torture of detainees by US forces and their surrogates – while brutal – is shown to yield information crucial to the finding of Bin Laden and (b) the film offers no political or ethical context for the events it depicts.

For example : the fact that the FBI and CIA battled over the legality and utility of torture is not shown. The fact there was dissent within the CIA ranks about torture is also omitted. True, Obama is shown onscreen in a TV news clip calling torture un-American, but that view is presented in a context where such views seem wussy, and pointedly, Obama is being completely ignored by the CIA analysts in shot. By default , the film becomes a megaphone for their jingoism. For clarity, I’ll treat these two strands separately.

Torture. Why the big fuss ? For starters, torture is a war crime condemned by international treaties that the US has signed. From the outset of the war on terrorism, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) quickly became controversial on ethical grounds, and on doubts about the reliability of the information produced. Were this brutality really extracting truth, or merely what the desperate captives thought the torturers wanted to hear?.

In his defence of the film, Mark Boal has argued that torture was a feature of the early hunt for Bin Laden and since the film unfolds chronologically, he felt it imperative to begin with the scene involving the interrogation of the character called “ Amar.” However, the fact that torture existed – and was brutal – isn’t the point of the controversy. What Zero Dark Thirty claims is that torture (and the mere likelihood of further torture) gets useful results, and those results were crucial to finding Bin Laden. The evidence says otherwise.

Hey, but it’s only a film, says its defenders. Even as just-a-film, they add, the film can also be taken as merely an accurate depiction of a belief system dominant within the CIA. From there, it’s just a short jump to Bigelow’s claim that depiction is not endorsement. I’m more inclined to think that the constant repetition of that same viewpoint without challenge throughout the film cumulatively amounts to an endorsement. Yet to be as fair as possible on this point, one can certainly read the film’s script at the conclusion of the first graphic scene in a variety of ways. You can read it as torture being either brutal and essential or as torture being self-brutalising and futile. Here’s how Boal’s script depicts the scene, as the US interrogator switches to using soothing Good Cop tones on Amar :

Daniel : Its cool that you’re strong. I respect it, I do. But in the end, everybody breaks, bro. Its biology.
Dan and Maya exit. They’ve learned nothing.

Later however, Dan and Maya return to the tasks of torture – and ultimately, Amar does deliver up information. Everybody breaks, bro. (In reality, some black site detainees stayed silent and died under torture, or gave up lies.) Later in the film, the mere threat of rendition to Israel induces an older detainee to collaborate : “I have no wish to be tortured again – ask me a question, and I will answer it.” Later again, after American policy on torture has officially changed, a CIA official complains about needing proof to satisfy the White House that the mysterious inhabitant of the Abbotabad house really is Bin Laden : “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program – who the hell am I supposed to ask: some guy in GITMO who is all lawyered up?” Damn. Where’s a torture programme when you need it, in order to satisfy those pussies in the White House ?

All of this may – at a stretch – be justifiable as the viewpoint of the fanatical characters who remain the sole, solitary focus of the film’s narrative. Yet that narrow focus is a choice, not a given – and the decision Boal and Bigelow made to exclude any other viewpoint on torture’s (a) moral justifiability and (b) practical utility can only be read one way. As Fox News demonstrates, the repetition of a wilfully narrow perspective – even one held sincerely – produces a ‘truth’ that is untrue, and pretty dangerous. To paraphrase a moment in last year’s presidential campaign, Zero Dark Thirty risks being what Americans say to each other about torture, in order to make themselves feel better.

Was Torture Significant in Locating Bin Laden ? In the film and in real life, the path to Bin Laden came down to identifying the importance of a courier nicknamed Abu Ahmed al–Kuwaiti. In a Washington Post op-ed published only days after Bin Laden’s death, Senator John McCain – who had been tortured in Vietnam – hotly denied that torture had been of any use in finding Bin Laden.

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, [pictured left] who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, non-coercive means.

McCain’s account was supported by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane in their New York Times investigation of the trail that led to Bin Laden. The NYT story indicates the person who provided the initial information on Al-Kuwaiti was someone called Hassan Ghul – which makes him the best available candidate for being the “Amar” character in the film – but Ghul’s disclosure was emphatically not the result of coercive interrogation. Even then, as the film accurately depicts, the crucial bit of interpretation came from routine, exhaustive file checking by a young woman and admirer of Maya, working in the CIA back room.

So why then, did Boal/Bigelow so thoroughly distort the truth about torture? To my mind, Emily Bazelon in Slate has offered the best explanation. They were in a hurry, they narrowed their focus to keep narrative momentum, and they got captured by their informants in the process:

My own theory is that with perhaps more access to the real-life CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden than any journalist has had, Boal and Bigelow adopted their sources’ interpretation, in which the “small role” played by torture looms larger than it does in the journalistic accounts. The filmmakers didn’t set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists. But they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they’re in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them. (Surely it didn’t hurt [or help] that the scenes with Amar are as riveting—as pure cinema—as they are disturbing.)

You don’t have to prove that torture never works, Bazelon adds, in order to reject it utterly.

All of this means is that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the movie the left wanted made about the death of Bin Laden. But as the debate about the movie unfolds, we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture—and even the cost-benefit case that it’s not worth the trade-off in reputation, political capital, and honor—without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything. In his op-ed, John McCain also said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear.” That’s the unfortunate, uncomfortable truth. But we can make room for a little gray and still come to a conclusion—the United States should not torture—that is resolute.

The Film’s Worldview The contrast between the Homeland TV series and Zero Dark Thirty is instructive. While neither remotely realistic nor a paragon of balance, the TV series does at least allow the terrorists to voice a rationale for their actions. (One of its main plot points turns on the killing of children by a US drone attack.) During the “Broken Hearts” episode in its second season, the CIA’s heroine Cathie Mathison even got to debate with terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir about the moral equivalence of suicide bombing vs drone attacks. Jihadi tactics are barbaric, she says. Your drone attacks are inhuman, he responds. Barbarism vs techno-inhumanity? Both kill the innocent.

Nothing similar occurs in Zero Dark Thirty, which is an exercise in pure, self-righteous US victim-hood. “They attacked us on land in ’98, by sea in 2000, and by air in 2001. They murdered 3000 of our citizens in cold blood ! ” one CIA manager angrily yells at his staff. The roll call of terrorist attacks – in London, at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, at the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan, the Richard Reid shoe bombing and the Times Square attempted bombing are all cited and/or depicted – and attributed to al Qaeda’s central command, not to freelancers. In its entire 137 minutes, the film’s only rationale for why America has been attacked comes via a TV news clip of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg saying that the terrorists ‘hate our freedom.’ Couldn’t some character have been allowed to voice a mention of America’s own citizen-killing actions ?

Art and Politics – What Boundaries? Like her heroine Maya, Bigelow was for a long time a relative outsider in a male-dominated Hollywood environment. Shorn of its torture rationale and jingoism, the film might have won a liberal constituency on that score alone. Its hard not to feel positive to a female character who, when asked who she is by her boss, replies “I’m the motherfucker who found this place, sir.” As the Washington Post noted, this is not the usual persona you see onscreen in an entertainment industry where women actors typically get cast as Wife of Someone + She Cries. As Mark Boal said of Maya’s role in his screenplay :

[Maya] is portrayed in such a way that her identity isn’t structured around her relationship with men, or isn’t structured around suffering from a neurosis or sexual addiction or whatever. Those are some common tropes for defining women in film. They are what they are; I obviously didn’t choose to deploy them.

Good politics don’t guarantee good art. And the reverse – artistic brilliance in the service of noxious politics – still leaves most people ( well, people like me) with a problem. That’s why Birth of a Nation and Triumph Of the Will remain difficult to accept, wholeheartedly. To be kind, Zero Dark Thirty’s politically dodgy frame of reference may be a reflection of the speed with which it was made. This film was written, cast, shot, edited and reached cinemas in New Zealand within 20 months of the events it depicts. That’s a strikingly different timeframe to how previous wars were dramatized. With very few exceptions, it usually took a decade or more for mass audiences to accept recreations of WW11, and of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Even a biopic of US WWII hero Audie Murphy didn’t get made until 1955.

Since the first Gulf war, that’s all changed. And even though the rationales for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem utterly bogus, the films made about those conflicts are laying claims to documentary realism. Its as if reality has been flipped. The official version is now treated as fiction, while the fiction presses its claims for realism. The result is intensely political, regardless. More often than not, the films become hymns to the hardbitten, hard done by US grunts on the front lines, doing a dirty job because is has to be done by someone. That’s Zero Dark Thirty, in a nutshell.

Footnote : Does it help (or block) our identification with Maya/Carrie Mathison to know that the CIA agent who inspired those characters was also involved in one of the CIA’s more serious screw-ups?

The German car salesman Khaled El-Masri was abducted during a vacation in Albania, rendered, and tortured – before the CIA finally realized that uh oh, it had the wrong spelling for the guy’s name they were really after. Reportedly, “Maya” was convinced throughout of El-Masri’s guilt. Since then, the Obama administration and US legal system (all the way up to the US Supreme Court have blocked his attempts at seeking compensation. The same single mindedness that led ‘Maya’ to Bin Laden appears to have contributed to this terrible mistake.

Ironically, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow started out making a film that might have reflected this kind of moral ambivalence. Reportedly, the pair began working on a Bin Laden film while he was still a will o’ the wisp, which would have put an entirely different spin onto the torture scenes. With Bin Laden still alive, it would have made them more of a self-defeating exercise, in the pursuit of a ghost. Once Bin Laden got found and killed, the narrative changed and the moral centre of the film shifted with it. Maya became a heroine – and no longer the dangerous obsessive that she also was, and arguably still is.