Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Reviewed

Saddam's Torture Chamber
Werner Herzog toured Kuwait and Iraq immediately after the first Gulf War in 1990-91.  The oil fields were still burning and his resulting film contains a short chapter on Saddam’s torture chambers.  The camera lingers silently on the implements of torture:  normal looking tools made horrible by our imagination of what they were used for.  The segment shows a mother shocked permanently speechless because she was forced by the authorities to witness her own sons being tortured to death.  Our mind recoils.  Herzog’s camera judges.  Saddam’s torturers inflicted pain and death in order to terrorize and control others.  It was terror as sadism.  We know it from the movies.  It robs the torturer of his or her humanity. 

The torture depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty is not like that.   The film opens with the interrogation of “Ammar,” depicted as peripherally involved in the September 11, 2001 assault on the World Trade Center.  He’s not talking and is being subjected to beatings, stress positions, degradation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and prolonged confinement in a small box.   The acting CIA director wrote a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee indicating that the CIA engaged extensively with the filmmakers, and the action feels authentic.  We no longer have to wonder what waterboarding looks like, even if we don’t know what it feels like.  Bigelow presents the action without judgment.  The mind does not recoil.  Jason Clarke in the role of lead interrogator, “Dan,” and Jessica Chastain as “Maya” are professional, earnest, and likeable.  Unlike the mother in Herzog’s film, Ammar is never fully broken.  The torture in enhanced interrogation has limits.   And that makes all the difference.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a gripping, brilliantly told story of the CIA’s 10-year pursuit of bin Laden after 9/11.  It follows Maya, an invented heroin of epic Greek proportions, recruited directly from High School to work on the CIA team assigned to find UBL.  After ten years, it’s her strength of character, her doggedness, her conviction, that ultimately leads to the Navy Seal operation to Abbotabad.  James Gandolfini, as CIA director Leon Panetta, tries to take the measure of her confidence in a quiet moment in the CIA cafeteria in Langley shortly before the raid:  “It’s all I’ve ever done,” she tells him.  Through three college class length hours we follow Maya’s pursuit of an obscure reference to a courier close to Bin Laden, to the discovery of Abu Ahmed and bin Laden’s compound.  The challenge of making the decision to proceed in the absence of full information is compellingly told.  We are spellbound, drawn in, not repelled.

It’s an American tale, but it’s not propaganda.  The film opens with a black screen and dialogue between 911 dispatchers and victims trapped high in the World Trade Towers.  It ends with Maya alone at the end of the film, finally letting go, crying.  Those tears contain more than the 9/11 victims, they include Amman, the dead courier and his brother, her dead colleagues, the dead kitchen staff at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.   Although there are suicide bombings, the market in Islamabad is bustling and vibrant.  There’s no jingoism here; Amman and other Arab detainees are depicted in human dimensions, understandable and normal.  The ambivalence of shooting unarmed men and women in the UBL compound comes through loud and clear as the Arab translator with the Navy Seals, summoned to bring a body bag to the third floor for Osama, examines the Kalashnikov on the mantle and notes it is unused.   There is comment in a remarkable scene where Maya engages in social chit-chat with a colleague (the only time in the film) as she watches a drone strike without any change in expression.

Those who wish to politicize the absence of politics in this film have it all wrong.  An example is Marjorie Cohn, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, who writes in the Huffington Post:  
“Granting impunity to the torturers combined with propaganda films like Zero Dark Thirty, which may well win multiple Oscars, dilutes any meaningful public opposition to our government's cruel interrogation techniques. Armed with full and accurate information, we must engage in an honest discourse about torture and abuse, and hold those who commit those illegal acts fully accountable.”
Full and accurate information and honest discourse are the right goal.  By presenting the torture involved in “enhanced interrogation” in a sober, non-judgmental light the film is doing its part. 

Cohn goes on to quote at length from the Feinstein/Levin/McCain letter  which falsely characterizes the film as portraying that it was torture that disclosed the full name and identify of the courier.  The film does nothing of the sort and to pretend that it does will not serve the quest for honest discourse. 

This film will inform your feel for discussions about where to draw the line with “enhanced interrogation.”  The film will provide helpful context for assessing the John Yoo and Jay Bybee memoranda signing off on “enhanced interrogation” in the wake of September 11, 2001.  The filmmakers have done a service to the country and they’ll deserve every Oscar they get. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Diane Feinstein, "Zero Dark Thirty," and the Book of John

John 8:1-31 
“Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.  And … the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?  … [Jesus] lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.  … [Y]e shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. “ 
The stated rationale of WikiLeaks, that corporations and government should be allowed to hold nothing private, is rubbish.   Yes we all want to uncover secrets, but corporations do have a legitimate interest in protecting some of their innovations, deliberations, and operations, and governmental agencies must be given some freedom to weigh options, investigate, and deliberate without political interference.   Police investigations of crime, investigations geared to protect us from those who would do us harm, deliberations of military strategy, the weighing of diplomatic options—none of these things can be done properly without some privacy. 

This is what makes the prosecution of John Kiriakou, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning reasonably clear-cut and o.k.   Kiriakou will be sentenced on January 25, 2012 for providing the names of two CIA agents to reporters.  The treatment is harsh.  He has incurred more than $500,000 in attorneys fees and he’ll serve 30 months in prison.  Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier accused of passing classified information to Wiki Leaks in 2010, has been in prison under harsh conditions.  According to his Wikipedia entry, his trial is scheduled for February 2013.  In the meantime, Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki Leaks is a fugitive holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.  His indiscriminate release of private information about individuals, companies, and governments is harmful, and cannot be justified.  His 15 minutes of self-aggrandizing fame are about done, and none too soon.

On the other hand, an open and democratic society requires honest government with as much integrity as we can muster.  This means we must know what government is up to, which requires investigation and dogged determination by the press.  It also requires leaks that government may not like and which  may in fact be illegal.

The need for privacy and the need to know are competing interests.  How should they be balanced in a case like Zero Dark Thirty?  Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has ordered the acting CIA director to reveal whether the agency delivered classified or misleading information to director Kathryn Bigelow on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during the hunt for bin Laden.  Local San Francisco Area documentary filmmakers  Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, who collaborated on a documentary on Daniel Ellsberg (“The Most Dangerous Man in America”) are o.k. with that:  
“Bay Area documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, who teaches at Berkeley City College, says Feinstein's action is controversial in the film community, which is always sensitive to issues of government intervention. "But an important distinction here is that this is an investigation of the CIA - not of the film or the filmmakers," she said.  So "while filmmakers still may have legitimate concerns about the government action that chills sources of" information, she says the larger issue is how the CIA and government agencies hide behind classified information to "selectively leak information - and misinformation - to make themselves look good."
Rick Goldsmith, Ehrlich’s collaborator adds: 
"I wouldn't be in favor of more government interference in art for any reason," because of the danger of censorship, said Goldsmith, who is now involved in a CIA-related film project. But this time, Feinstein and her fellow senators "are not really interfering with the filmmakers at all," he said. "They're going to the CIA and asking them to reveal documents ... and oversight of the CIA is a good thing."
But Ehrlich and Goldsmith get this one wrong.  The Feinstein investigation is not about curbing “misleading” CIA information; it’s all about stopping CIA agents from talking with anyone in the media, or in film.  Period.   Of course filmmakers must take what they are told by government officials with a large grain of salt.  We cannot judge whether the film get’s it right in this case or not.  But, to the extent the Feinstein investigation takes off, this will not be about government integrity, but part of a broader battening down of the hatches so sensitive information does not leave the ship of state.  To applaud this, even tentatively, is misguided. 

Feinstein may feel that “Zero Dark Thirty” does not fully match her reading of the classified report on the effectiveness of torture, … or that it matches it too closely!  Either way, what good will come of an investigation into what information CIA agents who may have consulted on the film may have provided to authenticate this work of art?  It will mean future filmmakers will have less access to get their facts straight from those inside government.  This investigation, if it proceeds, will not be in the service of truth or integrity. 

The parable of John: 8 sets up the problem.  Sometimes the law’s an ass.  Sometimes it’s better not to cast stones (or tear investigations from the fence), no matter what the law says, … and it has something to do with being free of sin.  It matters that the government is not free of sin.  Abhu Graib, waterboarding, extra judicial renditions, Guantanamo, targeted drone killings:  none of these are things to be proud of.  It’s important to shed light on this, and it’s important to get it as accurate as we can when we do.  I trust that’s what Bigelow was after.  I trust that’s what any CIA agent who may have talked to her team was after.  And even if Feinstein believes that the problem is not the fact that information was provided, but that the information was inaccurate, the Senate Intelligence Committee is  in no position to cast stones in this case.   We shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free.  The Senate Intelligence Committee should have the decency to shut up and let the discussion proceed.