January 15, 2013
Actor David Clennon, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, claims the movie Zero Dark Thirty “promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture, as a legitimate weapon in America’s so-called War on Terror.” Mr. Clennon, along with actors Ed Asner and Michael Sheen, state they will not vote for the film in any category.
The film has been nominated in several categories including best picture, best actress in a leading role (Jessica Chastain), film editing, sound editing, and original screenplay (by Mark Boal).
It has been well established that the U.S. during the Bush Administration engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and at so-called overseas black sites as shown in the film, and even taught enhanced interrogation techniques (a euphemism for torture) to Latin American military officers at the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Extraordinary renditions apparently continue to this day under the Obama administration. These are secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to overseas black sites like those shown in the film where torture is used.
The criticism of the film seems to have started with a letter that Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain wrote to Sony Pictures Entertainment, calling the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.” Senator Feinstein now wants the CIA to detail its contributions to the film, and even wants the filmmakers to include a disclaimer indicating the film is fiction, only based on a true story.
In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate or excuse torture although it does show a prisoner who had been waterboarded later tricked into revealing useful information. But the CIA and the Bush Administration accepted torture as a legitimate interrogation technique and the film does depict some of these torture techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation in a realistic manner. Reading about waterboarding is not as unsettling as seeing it depicted on the screen. Realistically portraying torture (or slavery, or the Holocaust, or mass murder) does not necessarily equate with advocating or excusing what is portrayed.
I agree with the Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal who countered Senator Feinstein’s accusation that torture worked in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. “The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes,” Bigelow and Boal said in a statement.
And remember, the filmmakers had the full cooperation of the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House in the making of the film. Given this country’s use of torture in the past, I for one believe that the film’s depiction of torture of prisoners is accurate. If a viewer needs the filmmaker to tell you that torture is illegal and immoral or add a disclaimer, then there is something wrong with the viewer, not the filmmaker.
Actors Clennon, Asner, and Sheen — knowingly or not — have become shills for a campaign to divert attention away from the bad old days of torture by discrediting the film — a shoot-the-messenger tactic if you will. Hopefully, the rest of the Academy members will disregard these actors and fairly asses the film on its merits.