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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    The Wisconsin State Journal has become the latest - and, arguably, most significant - newspaper to endorse Mitt Romney in a key swing state. It backed President Obama in 2008.

    In an editorial published today, the paper began by stating: "This is not an easy endorsement to make."

    It said Obama was "the more likeable candidate and inspiring speaker" who "got us out of Iraq… pressured public schools to reform… gave the final order that got Osama bin Laden." Then came the but…

    "But this election is about jobs, the slow economy and Washington's dysfunction… Obama is the president. The buck stops with him. This is now Obama's economy, even though the GOP shares in the blame for partisan games."

    The State Journal becomes the eighth largest paper in a swing state to switch from an Obama endorsement in 2008. It has an average weekday circulation of 83,000 and 118,000 on Sundays.

    Published in Madison, it's the second largest paper in Wisconsin. The largest, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - which endorsed Obama in 2008 - decided not to endorse either candidate this time.

    In New York, Newsday's endorsement of Romney was a reversal of the paper's previous Obama endorsement, as was the New York Daily News endorsement.

    Their so-called reasoning was dissected by Richard Adams earlier today.

    According to Poynter, Romney is now heading the swing state endorsement tally, with 18 papers backing him to 15 for Obama (it was 11-8 last Tuesday).

    Obama retains the overall lead across all states. The 40 titles endorsing him have a total circulation of 9.8m while the 33 favouring Romney have total sales of 6.7m.


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    This Harvey Weinstein-produced docudrama borrows from The Hurt Locker and Homeland to give us a grisly rendition of a decisive moment in the war on terror

    This film is the point at which Harvey Weinstein, exploitation-movie impresario extraordinaire, meets Harvey Weinstein, Democratic big-money donor and activist. On the one hand, Weinstein is working an old grindhouse promotional gambit: riding the publicity coattails of a more prestigious and expensive feature of similar theme or provenance – in this case Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty– and attempting to reach the screens before it, the better to dine, vampirishly, on a percentage of the profits. The Democratic activist in Weinstein, meanwhile, was surely horrified when Columbia delayed the Bigelow picture until after the presidential election, and was damned if his version wasn't going to make some sort of splash before that date.

    So here we are. Seal Team 6 could only rate as propaganda in a toxic, Fox News-driven political environment such as obtains at this moment. Forget all that context, however, and you find here a pretty niftily put together platoon-movie, tautly directed by John Stockwell (Blue Crush, Crazy/Beautiful), well cast with familiar second-string TV faces (Boss's Kathleen Robertson, Six Feet Under's Freddy Rodriguez et al, plus the gaunt and reliable William Fichtner). It provides a fairly clear, certainly a very exciting depiction of the raid as it went down, while bolstering the shoot-em-up material with fictionalised backstories for the Seals themselves (the real Team 6 will remain anonymous for life).

    The movie demonstrates that we now have a firm, widely agreed-upon visual aesthetic for the Iraq-Afghanistan campaign movies, one distinct from the emerald-green rice paddies and triple-canopy jungles of the Vietnam war film. Like everything from FX's short-lived Over There TV series to Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Seal Team 6 flaunts a narrow palette of sandy, dusty landscapes, camouflage colouring, darkened briefing rooms and barracks, sun-baked Afghan ravines, teeming souks. Much of this is seen through helmet-cams, night-vision goggles, spy-surveillance cameras and the baleful aerial gaze of satellites (the menacing thrum of chopper-blades remains a constant).

    For Seal Team 6, though, the dominant influence seems to be Showtime's Homeland, with Robertson playing the Carrie Mathieson role as Vivian Hollands, the determined analyst who makes the first smart guess about the house in Abbottabad and puts it under surveillance ("one very tall bearded man, not busy – we call him 'the Pacer' – 12-foot-high walls, 12-13 guards, no phone or internet, all trash burned on-site, all children home-schooled …"). The intelligence meetings feel very similar, the general hum of paranoia and secrecy too; indeed, one street pursuit scene closely – almost exactly – resembles the climax of Homeland season two, episode one (The Smile), but from the perspective of the hunters rather than the prey.

    No matter. Seal Team 6 motors along very compellingly with its well-drawn squad of surfer dudes, hot-headed redneck mama's boys and wise-counsel sergeants (the conventional platoon-movie stereotypes), and its good feel for procedure, training and tradecraft, peppered with to-camera testimony from the Seals. The raid itself occupies a nerve-wracking final 20 minutes of stun-grenades, gunfire and the desperate clearing of shooter-filled rooms illuminated only by flashlights.

    So is it revenge-porn too? Certainly the camera eats up the brains flying out of Bin Laden's turban [spoiler alert: he dies in the end] but mainly, like the US itself on the day it happened, the movie lingers on a tangible sense of closure, of long-unfinished business finally taken care of – of utter relief. If there is an element of exploitation, it may be in Weinstein's late addition of extra footage of Barack Obama – at the White House correspondents' dinner, and in the situation room – which to my mind looks analogous to a canny exploitation producer's decision to add more nudity to spice up his product. Old showbiz instincts die hard in a man like Weinstein, but sometimes good movies do result.

    • Seal Team 6 will be released in UK cinemas on 14 December, under the title Code Name: Geronimo

    • This article was amended on 8 November. The surname of actor Kathleen Robertson was spelled inaccurately, and has been corrected.

    Rating: 3/5


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Seals alleged to have divulged classified information to the maker of a video game called Medal of Honour: Warfighter

    Seven members of the secretive Navy Seal Team 6, including one involved in the mission to get Osama bin Laden, have been punished for disclosing classified information, senior navy officials said.

    Four other Seals are under investigation for similar alleged violations, one official said.

    They are alleged to have divulged classified information to the maker of a video game called Medal of Honour: Warfighter.

    Each of the seven received a letter of reprimand and a partial forfeiture of pay for two months. Those actions generally hinder a military member's career.

    The deputy commander of naval special warfare command, Rear Admiral Garry Bonelli, issued a statement acknowledging that nonjudicial punishments had been handed out for misconduct, but he did not offer any details.

    "We do not tolerate deviations from the policies that govern who we are and what we do as sailors in the United States Navy," Bonelli said. He alluded to the importance of honouring non-disclosure agreements that Seals sign.

    He said the punishments this week "send a clear message throughout our force that we are and will be held to a high standard of accountability".

    The two main complaints against the Seals were that they did not seek the permission of their command to take part in the video project and that they showed the video designers some of their specially designed combat equipment unique to their unit, said a senior military official.

    Seals, including some of those involved in the Bin Laden raid of May 2011, have been uncharacteristically prominent in the news this year.

    Matt Bissonnette, who participated in the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but later retired from the Seals, wrote a first-hand account under the pseudonym Mark Owen, but he landed in hot water with the Pentagon even before it was published in September. The Pentagon accused him of disclosing classified information in violation of the non-disclosure agreements he had signed as a Seal. He disputes the charge.

    The Seal mission to capture or kill Bin Laden, while successful, encountered a number of unexpected obstacles, including the loss of a stealth helicopter that was partially blown up by the Seals after making a hard landing inside Bin Laden's compound.

    The head of naval special warfare command, Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, responded to the Bissonnette book by telling his force that "hawking details about a mission" and selling other information about Seal training and operations puts the force and their families at risk.

    Seals, both active duty and retired, possess highly sensitive information about tactics and techniques of their missions overseas. They are obliged to sign non-disclosure agreements when they enter service and when they leave.

    The punishments were first reported by CBS News.


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    The latest in a long line of al-Qaida books aims to gets inside the mind of Bin Laden's nemesis - Barack Obama

    A year and a half after Osama bin Laden's death, some of the idea of him has begun to fade. Perhaps it was inevitable, the culmination of a process that had already begun with his confinement in the compound in Pakistan's Abbottabad where he would die, shot down by a US navy Seal team.

    The circumstances of that event caused a stir for a while, as it emerged in the account of one of those Seals, the pseudonymous Mark Owen in No Easy Day, that far from taking a weapon to defend himself, Bin Laden, had been shot down. Published only a few months ago, it is significant that Owen's account provides only a few lines and a footnote to Mark Bowden's The Finish.

    In death, Bin Laden – or the Pacer, as he was known to US agencies who were hunting him for years, and found him in Abbottabad – has become less interesting than the man who ordered his killing, President Barack Obama, whose war continues.

    There have been numerous accounts of Bin Laden's emergence. Endless pages have been written about al-Qaida, both the core group that coalesced around Bin Laden, and the idea of al-Qaida latterly as a franchise, local groups fighting their own local battles.

    The Bin Laden of Bowden's account is a man at the end of his murderous trajectory, the victim of his own "success" who had misunderstood with what persistence the US was continuing to pursue him after 9/11.

    A while ago, a satirical email emerged purporting to have been written by Bin Laden in his cave, complaining about the habits of his followers. The real communications that Bin Laden sent out to his lieutenants, not least to his increasingly short-lived number threes – his operational commanders – had some of the same tone.

    Locked on the third floor of his compound, able to emerge only once a day to walk round the vegetable patch, he sent imperious orders for missions; expressed dissatisfaction about the missed opportunities of the Arab spring; and complained about the fact that the would-be Times Square bomber seemed – ironically – vocally dismissive of the fact he'd broken his oath of loyalty in becoming a citizen of the US. In Bin Laden's view this wasn't quite pukka in an al-Qaida man.

    As interesting to Bowden and the reader is Bin Laden's nemesis, Obama, whom Bowden interviews for the book. What he sketches out is perhaps the most detailed picture so far of the US president's views on war and the motives underlying his continuing military engagements, not least his drone campaign.

    Bowden describes a telling episode in 2002 when Obama, then largely unknown outside Chicago, was invited to speak at a rally opposing the war with Iraq. Obama said he was against this war, but not all wars in all circumstances, referencing the American civil war and the second world war.

    If Obama was different to his predecessor George W Bush, it was in that he believed in negotiation. In the case of al-Qaida and Bin Laden, he took his lead from the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's rejection of pacifism when confronted with the lessons of Nazi Germany. "As Obama saw it," writes Bowden, "there was no way to defeat al-Qaida so long as its founder and spiritual leader remained at large. He was the soul of the organisation. The president believed that Bin Laden wasn't just evil, he was charismatically evil."

    If some in the US intelligence and defence community believed that core al-Qaida was decimated, Obama, in the days after his inauguration, was not convinced. Instead he preferred the analysis of counter-terrorism analyst Bruce Riedel, whom he asked to review the threat, and who concluded that the group was as dangerous as ever.

    If Bowden's book is breathless at times in detailing how the hunt for Bin Laden finally unfolded, he does not dodge the more difficult issues. Torture, he makes clear, played a role in assembling the leads that would lead to Bin Laden, not least the hunt for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden's courier and last protector.

    He is critical too of the spinning of the account of the raid itself, not least how it came to be reported early on that Bin Laden was carrying a weapon when in fact he was shot and finished with a coup de grace.

    Above all, Bowden provides a compelling insight into Obama's considerations in ordering such missions. As the most prominent figure on what has been dubbed by some as his "kill list", Obama asks repeated questions of his inner circle. Could Bin Laden be captured alive? If he was, then what would that mean? What was preferable for the operation – a missile or a raid? Who would be killed and what might the consequences be, both for his own presidency and for relations with Pakistan?

    At the book's conclusion, Bowden asks the president directly about the use of such tactics, specifically his use of special forces raids and drones.

    "I think," Obama answers him, "creating a legal structure, processes with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors… There's a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems."

    But the use of violence is always messy. And whether Obama is on his way to solving the vexing problem of a certain brand of terrorism through the policies he has adopted, only history will tell.


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Body referred to as 'Fedex package' in cryptic military dispatches arranging disposal of al-Qaida leader's remains

    Osama bin Laden was buried at sea from a US warship amid high secrecy that included his body being referred to as "the package" delivered by "Fedex", secret military emails reveal.

    No sailors watched as the body of the al-Qaida leader – killed in a raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on 2 May 2011 – was tipped from a board into the North Arabian Sea from aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson after brief Islamic rites.

    The emails were obtained by the Associated Press under freedom of information. The news agency said they were heavily blacked out but nonetheless offered the first public disclosure of government information about the al-Qaida leader's death.

    Bin Laden was killed by a navy Seal team that swooped on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

    One email stamped secret and sent on 2 May by a senior navy officer briefly describes how bin Laden's body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet, and then placed in a weighted bag. According to another message from the Vinson's public affairs officer, only a small group of the ship's leadership was informed of the burial.

    "Traditional procedures for Islamic burial was followed," the 2 May email from Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette reads. "The deceased's body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased's body slid into the sea."

    Earlier, Gaouette, then the deputy commander of the navy's Fifth Fleet, and another officer used code words to discuss whether the helicopters carrying the Seals and Bin Laden's body had arrived on the Carl Vinson.

    "Any news on the package for us?" he asked Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, commander of the carrier strike group that included the Vinson.

    "Fedex delivered the package," Perez responded. "Both trucks are safely en route home base."

    The emails include a reference to the intense secrecy surrounding the mission and why few records were held. "The paucity of documentary evidence in our possession is a reflection of the emphasis placed on operational security during the execution of this phase of the operation," Gaouette's message reads.

    Recipients of the email included Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and General James Mattis, the top officer at US Central Command. Mullen retired from the military in September 2011.

    The Obama administration has kept a tight hold on materials related to the Bin Laden raid. The AP said that in response to separate requests from the AP for information about the mission, the defence department replied in March that it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing Bin Laden's body. It also said it could not find any images of Bin Laden's body taken while it was on board the Vinson.

    The Pentagon said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for Bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of Bin Laden's body if he were killed.

    The defence department also refused to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters that carried the Seals to Abbottabad crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind. People who lived near Bin Laden's compound took photos of the wrecked chopper.

    The AP has lodged an appeal requesting more information from the defence department. The agency said the CIA, which ran the Bin Laden raid and has special legal authority to keep information from ever being made public, had not responded to requests for records about the mission.


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Drama about the killing of Osama bin Laden won three top prizes, including best film and best director

    Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama bin Laden, took a small step towards Oscars success last night after taking three top prizes at the New York Film Critics Circle awards.

    The Hurt Locker director's chronicle of the decade-long search for the Al Qaida leader won best film of 2012, while Bigelow herself took best director and Greig Fraser won the cinematography award. Zero Dark Thirty, which was conceived prior to the US navy seal raid on Bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan in May 2011, was at the centre of a high-profile US political row earlier this year over claims by the Republican party that Barack Obama's administration shared information with the production team. Written by Bigelow and her Oscar-winning Hurt Locker collaborator Mark Boal, it hopes to enjoy further success at February's Academy Awards.

    Another big Oscars hopeful, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, also took home three prizes. Daniel Day Lewis, seen as a safe bet for the Academy Award, won best actor for his turn as the 16th president of the United States. Sally Field, who plays his wife Mary Todd, won best supporting actress, and Tony Kushner won for his screenplay.

    Elsewhere, the honours largely went to films seen as less likely to perform well at the Oscars. Rachel Weisz won best actress for her performance as a married woman who has an affair with a dashing RAF pilot in Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (out in the UK last year), while Matthew McConaughey won best supporting actor for his role as the charismatic owner of a strip club in Magic Mike.

    Best animated film went to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which has a decent outside chance of Oscars success. It was named on Monday as a nominee for the annual Annie awards, which cover similar ground to the Academy Award for best animated film. The other nominees were Pixar's Brave, Sony's Hotel Transylvania, Focus Features' Paranorman, DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians, Aardman Animations' The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Rabbi's Cat's GKIDS and Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.

    Two of the current frontrunners for the Oscars, musical Les Miserables and Ben Affleck period thriller Argo, missed out on the top prizes. The New York awards are, however, just one of dozens of critics' polls that will be staged between now and 24 February next year, when the 2013 Oscars will be held at the newly renamed Dolby Theatre (previously Kodak) in Los Angeles.


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    Kathryn Bigelow's latest war thriller is a riveting account of the hunt for Bin Laden which imagines a remorseless CIA agent battling dead ends and the doubts of her colleagues

    We think we know about how Osama bin Laden was killed, about the failed attempt in Tora Bora and the manhunt that followed, the Seal Team Six raid in Pakistan and the burial at sea. But in unrelenting and intimate detail, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty enriches and complicates that story, focusing on the intrepid CIA agents who led the hunt, the minor and major tragedies that made it take so long, and the obsessions that made it possible.

    Though some of the details are fictionalised – including Jessica Chastain's lead character, Maya – Zero Dark Thirty has the weight of modern history behind it, taking us through CIA black ops sites and torture chambers, touching briefly on the 2005 London bombings and Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, and opening with a harrowing, audio-only recreation of 9/11 using phone calls from inside the burning World Trade Centre. Even as Mark Boal's script burrows inside the specifics of CIA work and asks us to keep track of a multitude of operatives and terrorists, it never loses sight of the stakes of the historic manhunt, which continued even after many in the CIA believed Bin Laden was already dead.

    Played with incredible, coiled precision by Chastain, Maya is the vital centre of this massive and wide-reaching film, doggedly pursuing Bin Laden for nearly 10 years along countless dead-end leads. Tipped off to the existence of a courier with close ties to Bin Laden, Maya hunts him down across international borders using interrogation, torture and even the occasional Lamborghini bribe. She has help from some colleagues (notably Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle) and constant skepticism from others, such as Kyle Chandler's CIA bureau chief and, eventually, CIA head Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini in a brief appearance). Maya's determination and refusal to show emotion, even after brutal tragedy, makes her an intimidating figure, but with the benefit of hindsight and Chastain's remarkable performance, we root for her impossible cause anyway.

    Operating on the investigative rhythms of a procedural, with occasional pops of suspense and sudden violence, Zero Dark Thirty shifts into a markedly different mode near the end, following the precise movements of the Seal Team Six mission that actually killed Bin Laden. That superb sequence may be what audiences are expecting from Bigelow, director of heart-pumping thrillers such as The Hurt Locker and Point Break, but the adrenaline of the end wouldn't mean nearly as much without the methodical hunt that comes before it.

    It shouldn't go unnoticed that Bigelow, the first woman in history to win a best director Oscar, has looked behind the all-male Navy Seal team that killed Bin Laden and found a woman – several of them, actually – who set it all up. Maya's femininity affects her character in many fascinating, tiny ways, but it's just one of the many rich details that makes Zero Dark Thirty so riveting. Telling a nearly three-hour story with an ending everyone knows, Bigelow and Boal have managed to craft one of the most intense and intellectually challenging films of the year.

    Rating: 5/5


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    Watch the trailer for Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to The Hurt Locker - a thriller based on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden



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    Hamid Ismailov's picaresque novel mixes genres and viewpoints to provide a fascinating commentary on Islam and central Asia

    It is easy to see why this novel has not found a mainstream publisher – who would dare? It is an extraordinary book. I am not sure it is a novel at all – but that barely matters. It is a difficult read and one can get stuck along the way, not least because it is a narrative that keeps putting itself under arrest – as if holding itself up at gunpoint. But it is worth persevering because it takes one deep into Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan and is frightening, intermittently brilliant and revelatory. Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek writer in residence of the BBC World Service, has come up with the phrase "reality novel" but that does not quite cover it. This is a picaresque journey with journalistic elements: reportage and political interviews alongside adventure, poetry and dreams.

    It purports to be a biography of Belgi, a fictional Uzbek new wave poet (slivers of his wistful poetry – hard to judge in translation – decorate the narrative). Belgi leaves Tashkent and goes to the mountains in search of a Sufi spiritual master but by the end of the novel has evolved into a terrorist in the world's eyes and, it is implied, dies in 2001 fighting for the Taliban. The book starts with the destruction of the twin towers, which the narrator, on holiday in central Asia, watches on television He lets us in on the fervent reaction in Kabul too: "Death to America! Death to the empire of Satan! Allah-u-Akbar!" and goes on to deliver a chilling portrait of Uzbek President Karimov "in power for nearly 20 years, intent on stifling political opposition". He describes a country caught between dictatorship and jihadism.

    It is when Belgi's beloved brother, Sher, "commits suicide" in prison that he, brokenhearted, takes flight to the mountains. The whole novel could be seen as a mountain range – a sequence of distinct mountain passes. There is Belgi's entertaining but terrifying encounter with a dope-smoking "Cyclops with a Kalashnikov" in a trailer. There is a superbly described childhood episode – a death-defying mountain scramble – in search of wild rhubarb and a final encounter in which, in a mountain village, Belgi is brought face to face, in a room that smells of spices, with Bin Laden. His "morbidly exquisite" face is compared to an Indian minature of a Great Mogul emperor. Elsewhere, there are fascinating descriptions of the Taliban. They gather in Kabul like Old Testament prophets, decanted from gleaming white Toyotas and embracing each other "like outlandish fish on display in some huge aquarium". The book concludes with an unexpected parable (ostensibly Belgi's work), Petals of Blood, about the creator of the Taj Mahal and his family. The theme – fraternal hatred – echoes back through the novel. But the wonderful story stands alone with its warring elephants, captive princesses and murderous sons. The beautiful, overlapping structure is like a tightly petalled rose.


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    Perhaps it's something to do with her demanding more credit for getting the al-Qaida leader – and being the focus of Kathryn Bigelow's latest movie

    Age: Thirtysomething.

    Appearance: Classified.

    What d'you mean, "classified"? Shhhh! It means I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.

    Oh. Well, please don't in that case. We'll compromise. I'll whisper, and just clout you round the head later. She is the female CIA analyst whose work over the five years preceding Osama bin Laden's death was instrumental in his capture.

    That is so cool. Isn't it, though? She tracked his network of couriers. By the time the US Navy Seals were flying out to Afghanistan, she told one of them she was "100% certain" that Bin Laden would be found in the compound in Abbottabad.

    Again, too cool. But really – should we know about this? How do we know about this?One of the Seals wrote a book about the mission, "Jen" is thought to be the real-life model for Carrie in Homeland, and now Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-tipped film Zero Dark Thirty tells her story as the woman whose brilliance and tenacity kept the biggest manhunt in history going.

    Wow. I bet she's a total hero – wait, heroine – in the CIA. Not exactly. Along with a few other CIA staff, she got a cash bonus when the mission was successful and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, but missed out on promotion last year.

    Why? Maybe because of an email she sent out to the entire agency afterwards saying, in essence: "You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award."

    Probably not the wisest move but if it's true, you can see why she'd be mad as hell. It is also said that her colleagues are envious of all the Hollywood attention she has had.

    Hmm. I suspect it would have been backslappery all round if it had been one of the boys getting credit. What's the CIA's position on the whole affair? "Over the course of a decade, hundreds of analysts, operators and many others played key roles in the hunt."

    Pah. Get the popcorn. I'm gonna go see the movie. Make it the extra-large. I'm coming too.

    Do say: "She's not Miss Congeniality, but that's not going to find Osama bin Laden." – former CIA associate

    Don't say: "Miss Congeniality in Afghanistan? I would totally watch that movie! Greenlight!"


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    Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal defend inclusion of waterboarding scene in film about hunt for Osama bin Laden

    The Oscar-winning team behind a film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, have denied suggestions that they condoned the use of torture by including a scene in which waterboarding is used to interrogate a suspect.

    Zero Dark Thirty, from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, has been at the centre of controversy in the US ever since its existence was revealed in the wake of Bin Laden's killing at his compound in northern Pakistan in May last year by a US Navy Seal squad. The project first drew flak from Republicans after it emerged that Barack Obama's administration shared information with the production team, amid pre-election fears that the movie might influence voters by portraying the president in a flattering light. More recently there have been suggestions (via an article in the Washington Post) that the real life CIA agent on whom actor Jessica Chastain's character is based is far from a heroic figure.

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    The latest row to surround the film centres on claims by some critics that Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture by showing the use of waterboarding leading to Bin Laden's killing, as well as claims that the controversial scene is not based on historical events. In a new interview with theWrap, Bigelow and Boal have denied both allegations.

    "This movie has been and will continue to be put in political boxes," said Boal. "Before we even wrote it, some people said it was an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous.

    "We're trying to present a long, 10-year intelligence hunt, of which the harsh interrogation programme is the most controversial aspect. And it's just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about Bin Laden. If you actually watch the movie, the detainee doesn't say anything when he's waterboarded. He gives them some information that's new to them over the civilised setting of a lunch – and they go back to the research room and all that information is already there."

    Bigelow added: "Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was."

    Bigelow's film finds itself so firmly at the centre of a media maelstrom that - at least according to the makers' contention - journalists are making errors left, right and centre. Chastain told theWrap that her character, contrary to speculation in US newspapers, was exactly like the reputedly troublesome real-life CIA agent she is said to be based on.

    "I think it's great that information is coming out about her," Chastain told theWrap after the film's US premiere at the Dolby theatre in Los Angeles on Monday night. "For so long I haven't been able to say anything about her, and now I can finally talk about her a little." She added: "I was talking to Kathryn this afternoon, and she said, 'Everything in the story sounds just like our character."

    The new movie already appears to be one of the early frontrunners for the Academy Awards in February, having been awarded influential prizes from New York, LA and Boston-based critics' organisations.


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    Critics, Cheney apologists and liberals are at each others' throats, but film needs the scenes – as inaccurate as they are

    "I'm betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni at the weekend, firing the opening salvo in a week-long conflagration between critics and columnists on Kathryn Bigelow's new film about the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden – more specifically, the role that torture played in that hunt.

    "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden," said Bruni. "That's what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest."

    As the awards rolled in – best film and director from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle were quickly followed by the top honors from the National Board of Review and Boston film critics – liberal ire mounted.

    "I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture," said Glenn Greenwald in these pages, despite not having seen the film. "It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this." This calculated kick to the shins elicited a swift response from the film community, not least New York magazine's Mark Harris, who went mano-e-mano with Greenwald on Twitter.

    To take a step back for a minute, Zero Dark Thirty does depict several torture sessions, under Bush, which produce information, which are shown eventually leading to Bin Laden's courier, and thence to Bin Laden himself. This reading of events – that torture led to the killing of Bin Laden – is demonstrably false.

    According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate intelligence committee, the identity of Bin Laden's courier, whose trail led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding.

    Greenwald is therefore perfectly entitled to his dismay. Anything that feeds the posturing of pumpkinheads like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, charming his morning viewers with schoolboyish enthusiasm for cramming men into coffins, is a Bad Thing.

    On the other hand, making films that stem the posturing of pumpkinheads, while a noble aim in the abstract, is ultimately a fruitless and quixotic endeavor. Pumpkinheadedness is a self-replenishing resource. And Greenwald's guesses as to what the tone of Zero Dark Thirty might turn out to be, were he to see it – "glorifying", "noble", "clinging tightly to patriotic orthodoxies" – while reasonable guesses, given the number of jingoistic, gung-ho tubthumpers Hollywood does produce every year, prove to be way off-target.

    Zero Dark Thirty is not that film. Anybody going into it expecting to come out air-punching the good ol' USA are in for a shock leaving them shaken not stirred. The movie does indeed make a case for torture. But guess what? It looks surprisingly similar to a movie making the case against it. The torture in the film is squalid, sickening and prolonged. The innocent-looking huts in which it takes place, bathed in chalky sunlight, have the corrugated drabness of Nazi death camps. The head bully-boy – played by ruggedly handsome New Zealand actor Jason Clarke – is as magnetic as Ralph Fiennes was in Schindler's List. And these are our heroes. As David Edelstein said in his review: "As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic. As a piece of cinema, it's phenomenally gripping – an unholy masterwork."

    The word "fascist" gets kicked around a little too much in connection with the arts. As a general rule, if something involves the purchase of a theatre ticket, rather than a jackboot pressing on your carotid, it's probably not fascism. And I'm as bored as the next man by people telling me I must be made "uncomfortable" by a film – to have my moral certainties shaken, my ambivalence nursed and doubts explored and so on. Too often, it means merely a cross-hatching of symmetrically-opposed sympathies – a studied neutrality, as neat as the certainties it opposes. Confounding one's certainties is such a routine part of our liberal arts diet that I can't believe anyone is remotely confounded anymore.

    Rare is the film in possession of the real thing – deep, full-bore ambivalence – and the few that are happen to be masterpieces: Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, a film that pulls off the impossible feat of being both pro- and anti-terrorist at the same time; or Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's Wagnerian epic about the Vietnam war that is also a Gonzo, gung-ho classic thanks to the contributions of writer John Milius, a self-proclaimed Zen anarchist and NRA member, who hated all the hippies infesting Hollywood at the time, and who wanted to shoot the film in Vietnam while it was still going on in order to teach them all a lesson:

    We would have arrived in time for Tet probably … and all these people who were in school with me, who had done all these terrible things like planning to go to Canada, and do something as drastic as getting married to avoid the war … they were willing to go to Vietnam … They wanted to carry lights and sound equipment over mine fields, and I think Warner Bros probably backed off because they figured most of us would probably be killed.

    But Milius's jingoism survives in the film – it's there in the ride-of-the-Valkyrie sequence, and the surf's-up scene on the beach, with Robert Duvall, himself a GI kid who grew up in a military family and served two years in the US army during the Korean war, squatting on his heels, bare-chested, taking in the "smell of napalm in the morning". It is among the greatest of all war scenes, lyrical and barbaric in equal measure, and it couldn't have been made except by a film-maker in two minds about war. How could anyone be otherwise?

    Why did Bigelow and Boal make up the stuff about torture getting Bin Laden in their film? Who knows. Maybe they wanted a dramatic opening. The word is that Boal "went native" at the CIA and fell in love with his sources.

    As much as one might hate anything that adds to the self-justification of thugs like Cheney, Zero Dark Thirty would be a lesser film without those scenes. It's Breughelian frieze of America's secret history, would feel incomplete without them – artistically redacted. I'll be interested to see what kind of audience it gets.


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    As it turns out, the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned

    (updated below)

    I've now seen "Zero Dark Thirty". Before getting to that: the controversy triggered this week by my commentary on the debate over that film was one of the most ridiculous in which I've ever been involved. It was astounding to watch critics of what I wrote just pretend that I had simply invented or "guessed at" the only point of the film I discussed - that it falsely depicted torture as valuable in finding bin Laden - all while concealing from their readers the ample factual bases I cited: namely, the fact that countless writers, almost unanimously, categorically stated that the film showed exactly this (see here for a partial list of reviewers and commentators who made this factual statement definitively about the film - that it depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden - both before and after my column).

    Of course it's permissible to comment on reviews that are written.That's why they're written - and why they're published before the film is released, in this case weeks before its release. I discussed the film's depiction of torture as valuable in finding bin Laden because I did not believe that the New York Times' Frank Bruni, the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, New York's David Edelstein, CNN's Peter Bergen and all sorts of other commentators had simultaneously hallucinated or decided to fabricate on this key factual question.

    That it's legitimate to opine on the factual claims (as opposed to the value judgments) of reviewers is not some exotic or idiosyncratic theory that I invented. All kinds of writers who had not seen the film nonetheless similarly condemned this singular aspect of it based on this evidence, including: Andrew Sullivan, twice ("Bigelow constructs a movie upon a grotesque lie" and torture techniques "were not instrumental in capturing and killing Osama bin Laden - which is the premise of the movie"); Mother Jones' Adam Serwer ("The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture"); NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen ("WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn't used to get Bin Laden?"); The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky ("Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11. . . . According to reports, I haven't seen the film, so maybe it's handled well, that decisions [sic] seems to make the film automatically and definitionally a work of propaganda"), and so on.

    None of us was "reviewing" the film but rather rebutting and condemning its false assertion that torture was critical in finding bin Laden. As Sullivan put it in yet another post about the film: "the mere facts about the movie, as reported by many viewers, do not require a review. They demand a rebuttal." Indeed (and all of that's independent of the primary point I examined - regarding critics who simultaneously acknowledge that the film falsely depicts torture as valuable yet still hail it as "great": an abstract discussion on the obligations of filmmakers that obviously is not dependent upon the film's content).

    Having now seen the film, it turns out that Bruni, Filkins, Edelstein, Bergen and the others did not in fact hallucinate or fabricate. The film absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden - exactly as they said it did - and it does so in multiple ways.

    Zero Dark Thirty and the utility and glory of torture

    I'll explain why this is so in a moment (and if you don't want "spoilers", don't read this), but first, I want to explain why this point matters so much. In US political culture, there is no event in the last decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden.

    This event has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. The news of his death triggered an outburst of patriotic street chanting and nationalistic glee that continued unabated two years later into the Democratic National Convention. As Wired's Pentagon reporter Spencer Ackerman put it in his defense of the film, the killing of bin Laden makes him (and most others) "very, very proud to be American." Very, very proud.

    For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is - by definition - to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That's why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step - the first, indispensable step - in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America's most hated public enemy.

    The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don't support it because they don't realize it's brutal. They know it's brutal - that's precisely why they think it works - and they believe it's justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.

    Indeed, here is how Slate's Emily Bazelon, who defends the film even while acknowledging that it "reads as pro-torture", describes her reaction to the torture scenes:

    "At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, [the CIA agent]'s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to US interests."

    That's the effect it had on a liberal who proclaims herself to be adamantly opposed to torture and is a professional journalist well-versed in these issues. Imagine how someone less committed to an anti-torture position will regard the message.

    If you're a national security journalist who studies and writes about these issues, then you can convince yourself that the film focuses on the part of the bin Laden hunt that you like: all the nice "police work" that ultimately led the CIA to find bin Laden's house. But the film dramatically posits that this is possible only because of the information extracted from detainees who were tortured. The unmistakable and overwhelming impression created is that, as Bruni put it: "no waterboarding, no Bin Laden."

    Everything about the film reinforces this message. It immediately goes from its emotionally exploitative start - harrowing audio tapes of 9/11 victims crying for help - into CIA torture sessions of Muslim terrorists that take up a good portion of the film's first forty-five minutes.

    The key evidence - the identity of bin Laden's courier - is revealed only after a detainee is brutally and repeatedly abused. Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: "I can always go eat with some other guy - and hang you back up to the ceiling." That's when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden's courier - after he's threatened with more torture - and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden.

    But the film touts the value of torture in all sorts of other ways. Other detainees whose arms are shackled to the ceiling are shown confirming the courier's identity. Another detainee, after being threatened with rendition to Israel, pleads: "I have no wish to be tortured again - ask me a question, and I will answer it."

    And worst of all, the film's pure, saintly heroine - a dogged CIA agent who sacrifices her entire life and career to find bin Laden - herself presides over multiple torture sessions, including a waterboarding scene and an interrogation session where she repeatedly encourages some US agent to slap the face of the detainee when he refuses to answer. "You do realize, this is not a normal prison: you determine how you are treated", our noble heroine tells an abused detainee.

    There is zero opposition expressed to torture. None of the internal objections from the FBI or even CIA is mentioned. The only hint of a debate comes when Obama is shown briefly on television decreeing that torture must not be used, which is later followed by one of the CIA officials - now hot on bin Laden's trail - lamenting in the Situation Room when told to find proof that bin Laden has been found: "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?" Nobody ever contests or challenges that view.

    This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that - whether intended or not - is the film's glorification of torture.

    CIA propaganda beyond torture

    As it turns out, the most pernicious propagandistic aspect of this film is not its pro-torture message. It is its overarching, suffocating jingoism. This film has only one perspective of the world - the CIA's - and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration.

    All agents of the US government - especially in its intelligence and military agencies - are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network (the sole exception being a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information; the only good Muslim is found at the CIA).

    Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a "mother of three", has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan.

    News footage is gratuitously shown that reports on the arrest of the attempted Times Square bomber, followed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's pronouncement that "there are some people around the world who find our freedom so threatening that they are willing to kill themselves and others to prevent us from enjoying them." One CIA official dramatically reminds us: "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." Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.

    The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain - so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves - and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.

    None of this is surprising. The controversy preceding the film arose from the deep access and secret information given to the filmmakers by the CIA. As is usually the case, this special access was richly rewarded.

    In the Atlantic this morning, Peter Maass makes this point perfectly in his piece entitled "Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty'". That, he writes, is because "it represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking." He continues: "An already problematic practice - giving special access to vetted journalists - is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA)."

    Indeed, from start to finish, this is the CIA's film: its perspective, its morality, its side of the story, The Agency as the supreme heroes. (That there is ample evidence to suspect that the film's CIA heroine is, at least in composite part, based on the same female CIA agent responsible for the kidnapping, drugging and torture of Khalid El-Masri in 2003, an innocent man just awarded compensation this week by the European Court of Human Rights, just symbolizes the odious aspects of uncritically venerating the CIA in this manner).

    It is a true sign of the times that Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America's National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade. Like the bin Laden killing itself, this is a film that tells Americans to feel good about themselves, to feel gratitude for the violence done in their name, to perceive the War-on-Terror-era CIA not as lawless criminals but as honorable heroes.

    Nothing inspires loyalty and gratitude more than making people feel good about themselves. Few films accomplish that as effectively and powerfully as this one does. That's why critics of the film inspire anger almost as much as critics of the bin Laden killing itself: what is being maligned is a holy chapter in the Gospel of America's Goodness.

    The "art" excuse

    A common objection to what I wrote about the film is that even if it falsely depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden, those kinds of "political objections" do not and should not preclude praise for the film because "art" need not accommodate ideology or political agendas. Time's critic James Poniewozik accused me of having "a simplistic way of looking at art" which, he said, is "not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art." Salon's critic Andrew O'Hehir, gushing about the film, opines: "I'm not suggesting that the moral and ethical deconstruction doesn't matter, but the movie is much bigger than that."

    Contrary to Poniewozik's insinuations, I don't think fictional works must reflect or advance my political beliefs in order to be worthy of praise. As but one example, I've defended the Showtime program "Homeland" - despite some valid criticisms that it promotes some heinous viewpoints - on the ground that (unlike Zero Dark Thirty) it includes a full range of views on those issues and thus avoids endorsing or propagandizing on them (as but one example: a US Marine Sergeant becomes an anti-US "terrorist" after he watches the US government knowingly slaughter dozens of Iraqi children in a drone attack, including one to whom he had become close - the 10-year-old son of a bin Laden-like figure - only to lie about it afterward). I agree with Poniewozik and other film critics who insist that it's perfectly legitimate for works of fiction to depict, without adopting, even the most heinous views.

    But the idea that Zero Dark Thirty should be regarded purely as an apolitical "work of art" and not be held accountable for its political implications is, in my view, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral claptrap. That's true for several reasons.

    First, this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the "journalistic" approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film's first screen assures viewers that it is all "based on first hand accounts of actual events". You can't claim you're doing journalism and then scream "art" to justify radical inaccuracies. Serwer aptly noted the manipulative shell-game driving this: "If you're thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is 'history'; if you're a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it's just a movie."

    Second, the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade: the 9/11 attack (which it starts with) and the killing of bin Laden (which it ends with). George Bush got re-elected running on the former, while Obama just got re-elected running on the latter. It was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House. Everything about this film - its subject, its claims, its mode of production, its implications - are political to its core. It does not have an apolitical bone in its body. Demanding that political considerations be excluded from how this film is judged is nonsensical; it's a political film from start to finish.

    Third, to demand that this movie be treated as "art" is to expand that term beyond any real recognition. This film is Hollywood shlock. The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.

    While parts of the film are technically well-executed, it features almost every cliche of Hollywood action/military films. The characters are one-dimensional cartoons: the heroine is a much less interesting and less complex knock-off of Homeland's Carrie: a CIA agent who sacrifices her personal life, disregards bureaucratic and social niceties, her careerist interests, and even her own physical well-being, in monomaniacal pursuit of The Big Terrorist.

    Worst of all, it does not challenge, subvert, or even unsettle a single nationalistic orthodoxy. It grapples with no big questions, takes no risks in the political values it promotes, and is even too fearful of letting upsetting views be heard, let alone validated (such as the grievances of Terrorists that lead them to engage in violence, or the equivalence between their methods and "ours").

    There's nothing courageous, or impressive, about any of this. As one friend who is a long-time journalist put it to me by email (I'm quoting this because I can't improve on how it's expressed):

    "I also feel like there's this tendency of critics to give credit to artists (argh, novelists, too) for simply raising uncomfortable issues, even when they don't bother to coherently think them through, as though just wallowing in the gray areas of the human condition is a noble thing (and sure, it can be, but it can be lazy, too)."

    Perhaps film critics are forced to watch so many shoddy Hollywood films that their expectations are very low and they are easily pleased. But if this is high-minded "art", then anything produced by turning on a camera is. As one friend, who works in the film industry, put it:


    As that blog you linked to said - it's perfect for people who are so called PC and cool liberal types. Everything about it - how it's framed and branded as some cool Traffic-style movie so people feel as though they're smart by watching it."

    But despite all that, this film deserves the debate it is attracting. It matters. Huge numbers of people are going to see it. Critics are swooning for it and it will be lavished with all sorts of awards. Mass entertainment has at least as much of an impact on political perceptions as overtly political writing does - probably more so. It's reckless to insist that a film that will have this big of an impact on matters so consequential - the commission by the US of grave war crimes both in the past and potentially in the future - should be shielded from discussions of its political claims and consequences.

    That doesn't mean it has an affirmative responsibility to preach or propagandize. If the torture claims it makes were actually true - that torture played a key role in finding bin Laden - then there would be nothing wrong with depicting that (although opposing perspectives should be included as well).

    Emily Bazelon is right when she says that "we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture . . . without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything." In all the years I've been arguing about torture, I never once claimed it never works - because that claim is, to me, both untrue and irrelevant. Torture - like murder - is categorically wrong no matter what benefits it produces.

    The issue here is falsity. The problem isn't that they showed torture working. The problem, as Adam Serwer and Andrew Sullivan amply document, is that the claims it makes are false. Given the likely consequences of this fabrication - making even more Americans more supportive of torture, perhaps even making the use of torture more likely in the future - that this is a so-called "work of art" does not excuse it (notably, Bigelow is not defending the film on the ground that she showed torture as valuable because it was; she's disingenuously denying that the film shows torture as having value).

    Ultimately, I really want to know whether the critics who defend this film on the grounds of "art" really believe the principles they are espousing. I raised the Leni Reifenstahl debate in my first piece not to compare Zero Dark Thirty to Triumph of the Will - or to compare Bigelow to the German director - but because this is the debate that has long been at the heart of the controversy over her career.

    Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I've actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl's films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

    But I always perceived myself in the minority on that question due to that ambivalence. It always seemed to me there was a consensus in the west that Riefenstahl was culpable and her defense of "I was just an artist" unacceptable.

    Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?

    I have a very hard time seeing liberal defenders of Zero Dark Thirty extending their alleged principles about art to films that, unlike this film, are actually unsettling, provocative and controversial. It's quite easy to defend this film because it's ultimately going to be pleasing to the vast majority of US viewers as it bolsters and validates their assumptions. That's why it seems to me that the love this film is inspiring is inseparable from its political content: it's precisely because it makes Americans feel so good - about an event that Ackerman says makes him "very, very proud to be American" - that it is so beloved.

    Whatever else is true about it, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressively political film with a very dubious political message that it embraces and instills in every way it can. David Edelstein, the New York Magazine critic, had it exactly right when he wrote that it "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible", though I think it crosses that border. It's thus not only legitimate, but necessary, to engage it as what it is: a political argument that advances - whether by design or effect - the interests of powerful political factions.

    UPDATE

    Having seen the film, Andrew Sullivan has now announced that not only does it not depict torture as helpful in finding bin Laden, but also, anyone who thinks it does believes this only "because they want to see that or because they are as dumb as Owen Gleiberman". Click here for the list of writers and commenators who are apparently delusional and/or dumb.

    Unfortunately for Andrew, that list now includes The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, probably the foremost journalistic expert on torture (having written the definitive investigative book about it), who published a scathing attack on the film today and writes:


    "In [Bigelow's] hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful. . . .

    "Yet what is so unsettling about 'Zero Dark Thirty' is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. . . .

    "In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, 'Zero Dark Thirty' endorses torture in several other subtle ways. . . . .

    "If there is an expectation of accuracy, it is set up by the filmmakers themselves. It seems they want it both ways: they want the thrill that comes from revealing what happened behind the scenes as history was being made and the creative license of fiction, which frees them from the responsibility to stick to the truth."


    It goes on and on like that. Read it all. Obviously, the mere fact that Jane Mayer says this does not by itself prove that it's true, but it makes it more difficult to claim, as Sullivan would like to, that it takes hallucinations or stupidity to think this is the case. She provides only some of the many examples that prove why this film - just from the torture perspective, to say nothing of the rest of it - is so disturbing and damaging.


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    Former CIA agent exposed in 2003 praises emergence of heroine 'whose most important weapon is her intellect'

    The heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's controversial new movie Zero Dark Thirty stands out for her weapon of choice when helping to run down Osama bin Laden – a quick and ruthless mind.

    Unlike other female spies portrayed in US popular culture, "Maya" – who is closely based on a real-life and unidentified CIA operative – does not use sex to seduce her enemies or, like Angelina Jolie characters, attempt to prove she can kick ass harder than men. Instead, it is Maya's drive, ferocious determination and keen intellect that bags the most wanted man on the planet.

    It is a portrayal that has struck a chord with someone who should know: the high-profile former CIA agent Valerie Plame. "In popular culture, female agents are usually either highly sexualised or hugely physical – it is either using a sequinned dress or a gun. But actually the most important weapon you have is your intellect," says Plame, an undercover operative whose exposure by Bush administration officials in 2003 caused a major political scandal linked to the build-up to the Iraq war.

    Zero Dark Thirty, which has inspired a blizzard of publicity in the lead-up to its release across America in January, is the dramatic account of the operation that led to the shooting of bin Laden in his Pakistani compound in 2011. The film, which has already attracted controversy over its graphic portrayal of torture, is a hotly tipped Oscar favourite and Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, has already been nominated for a Golden Globe. But Maya is not alone in America's cultural landscape at the moment when it comes to savvy female spies. In the hit television series Homeland, the heroine, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, is renowned for her sharp analysis.

    There is also Covert Affairs, a hugely popular TV show on the USA Network that features a young CIA female trainee whose cover is that she works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. "These are starts to getting the public used to the idea and concept that women can be significant players in the intelligence field," says Plame.

    Of course, that is no surprise to Plame herself. She had a highly successful career, including long periods undercover, that only ended when her cover was blown in a row over a CIA investigation that seemed to contradict official descriptions of Saddam Hussein's weapons programme.

    Plame says women have brought a lot to the real world of espionage. "Women can be more attuned. Women read body language better and sometimes the subtleties are really important," she says.

    In both real life and fiction, it also seems female agents have to contend with sexism – they must fight their own bosses, as well as the enemy. The Washington Post has reported that the agent who inspired the character of Maya has been passed over for promotion. In Homeland, Carrie is undermined by her superiors and drummed out of the agency. That strikes a chord with Plame – and no doubt women in other fields too. "Of course, some dinosaurs still roam the halls at CIA headquarters," she says.

    Plame, in fact, is going to add to the new fictional world of female spies with a novel, called Blowback, set to be published next year. "I was so frustrated with how female operatives are portrayed. I thought: 'I could do better'," she says.

    Yet the role of women in the intelligence service is still too often hidden – perhaps explaining the success of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland. Indeed, Bigelow admitted last week that she had been surprised to discover how important women were in espionage. "You don't think of women being at the centre of that kind of hunt, for the world's most dangerous man, so I think that was kind of a bit of a surprise and a great one at that," Bigelow told Time magazine.

    But in fact women – and not just the real-life Maya – were key to that operation, even before the 9/11 attacks. Last week, former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, who ran a unit hunting for bin Laden, revealed that he had deliberately selected a strongly female staff. "[Women analysts] seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships – and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting and going outside for cigarettes," he told CNN security journalist Peter Bergen.

    Not that women at the CIA are chosen for the gentle touch. In the film, Maya is brutally focused on her job, highly aggressive with her colleagues and sits in on a session in which a detainee is physically abused – a scene that has sparked renewed debate in the US over torture.

    In real life, the CIA agent behind Maya's character was reportedly so annoyed that colleagues got awards after the bin Laden operation that she sent an email to many of them suggesting that only she deserved any recognition.

    That story perhaps shows that while women are invaluable at the CIA, no one should be too surprised that they are every bit as ambitious and hardline as their male colleagues. "They are alpha types, both male and female. Women are capable of having egos too," says Plame.


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    Using the name of the great Native-American hero Geronimo either for the operation that tracked down Osama bin Laden to his hiding place in Pakistan, or for the al-Qaida leader himself, was an insensitive choice of nomenclature for a brilliantly executed task. This competent unauthorised docudrama interweaves the stories of the CIA's trackers and the Navy Seals who carried out the attack on the Bin Laden compound and also deals with their local Pakistani assistants who got thrown to the lions. Triumphalism is avoided, but the Seals' macho talk and a brutal fight between the two competitors for leadership of the assault team strike a false note. Kathryn Bigelow's account of the same operation, Zero Dark Thirty, promises to be better.


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    Former Republican presidential candidate says Kathryn Bigelow's film about hunt for Bin Laden is 'grossly inaccurate'

    The former presidential candidate John McCain is one of three US senators who have criticised the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film suggests that waterboarding and coercive interrogation tactics were instrumental in gathering information ahead of the successful raid on Bin Laden's compound in May 2011.

    McCain, a Republican senator for the state of Arizona, joined two Democrats – Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin – to write a public letter to Michael Lynton, the chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures, which backed the picture. They claim that Zero Dark Thirty is "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the capture".

    Feinstein is the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating the interrogation programme adopted by the CIA during the Bush administration. She has insisted that information obtained by waterboarding did not play a significant role in the search for Bin Laden.

    The letter calls on Sony Pictures to "consider correcting the impression that the CIA's use of coercive interrogation led to the operation".

    Directed by Bigelow and scripted by Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the behind-the-scenes operation to track Bin Laden via a shadowy network of al-Qaida couriers. The film implies that waterboarding was rife during the early years of George W Bush's "war on terror" but that the tactic was abandoned following Barack Obama's election in 2008. At one stage, Obama is shown on a TV screen insisting that "America doesn't torture."

    Bigelow won the best film and director Oscar for her last movie, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty is already tipped as a possible contender for the top awards next February. The film opens in the US this week and is released in the UK on 25 January.


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    Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's film claims to be 'based on a true story' but no non-fiction writer could take such liberties

    Zero Dark Thirty is a dreary and predictable movie (predictable even beyond that we know Osama bin Laden's fate). Also, it's a bit copy-cat. It's Homeland without the character quirks. ("OK… picture this… Homeland… but the girl isn't nuts – just super-focused. What about that?" is something like how the screenwriter, Mark Boal, must have pitched it.)

    The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. Pretty much everybody in the intelligence community in a position to say this isn't true has said it isn't. And then there's the girl-alone-against-the-world narrative: Maya, our heroine, thinks about nothing else but Osama bin Laden for almost 10 years and because of this single-minded obsession, American forces are able to find and kill him. That according to everybody and anybody, and to common sense, is hogwash too.

    A non-fiction writer couldn't do this. If you did this and maintained, to the extent that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty appear to maintain, that this was true, and with as little documentary evidence, either no one would publish you or you would have to invent evidence to get published. And then, you'd invariably be found out, scandal would ensue and your name would be blackened.

    Movies, on the other hand, even when they represent themselves to be non-fiction like Zero Dark Thirty, are still what we accept as a "dramatization", so therefore not really real. How that is different from a non-fiction author using novelizing techniques to bring to life his story – and subsequently being humiliated by Oprah when he turns out to have significantly stretched the truth – I don't know.

    It certainly isn't that this is just mere suspension of disbelief and that, when the lights go on, we go back to known reality. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty, wrapped in the great praise that invariably accompanies middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day, will compete as a true narrative for how al-Qaida was dealt with and Osama dispatched. (Similarly, The Social Network, an almost entirely made-up version of the founding of Facebook, has pretty much become the rosetta stone of social-media history.)

    Notably, the makers of this silly, stick-figure and cartoonish movie, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Boal, are not out on talk shows defending the verisimilitude of their film. Their affect – which perhaps journalists caught in the act of making things up ought to study – is much more sphinx-ike. They are artists and don't have to lower themselves to defend or respond.

    It's helpful to them that the convenient reverse effect of all these Washington and CIA types saying it isn't true is that it actually adds to the illusion that it is true.

    It helps too that reviewers of a certain stature – Manhohla Dargis, for instance, in the New York Times– are willing to separate truth from drama or art. Putting actual facts and documentary evidence aside, what you have, according to Dargis is "a seamless weave of truth and drama… a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs… the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11." Nice work if you can get it.

    But make no mistake truth is what is being sold here.

    Without the pretense or, in some ultimate post-modern sense, the fiction that this is true, what you would have here, with all the lovely staged scenes of cinematic torture, is something as bent and campy and revisionist as Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ.

    If this were more accurately packaged – instead of "based on a true story", something like "quite an extreme departure from a true story" – the drama would seem puerile, slapdash and unconvincing. A dramatic cliché. Fiction and drama work to the extent that you find yourself believing that they might, actually, at least in some parallel reality, be true. In this instance, the extent to which we might naturally believe the story line – CIA girl alone against the world doing nothing for 10 years but, against the wishes of her superiors, searching for Osama – would be minimal. Except if we are told it actually is true. Then, ipso facto, relying on our passivity and credulousness, our skepticism is less.

    Bigelow, more a special-effects cinematographer than a movie director, and Boal, a run-of-the-mill scriptwriter, have, like many in Hollywood, only average or sub-par dramatic skills. They are helped and elevated by "real events". Truth is a dramatic crutch.

    In some further moral inversion, it is probably not the case that they actually believe their movie to be true. Rather this is, for them, a convenient construct, a rhetorical rouse, a vulgar and opportunistic lie, which the entire apparatus of making and selling this film is happy to join: truth, or the appearance of it, sells.

    If Bigelow and Boal tried for a deal on a fictionalized version of the hunt for Osama, a fantasy, an entertainment, they probably couldn't have gotten it. That would be ho-hum.

    But back to torture, which is what this movie is really about.

    The big "truth" point here is about the efficiency and efficacy of torture. Using these terrible methods is, for better or worse, how we got the intel to ultimately find Osama.

    But that is only the surface message, the cover story if you will. The real story, the real truth the filmmakers are trying to subliminally present, is about the beauty of torture.

    The bald claim, or the meta construct, or the wink wink about this being a serious and important version of a big issue is really just so we can get to the total sexiness of physical abuse. You need a higher purpose to get out-and-out pervy stuff like this into a big-budget movie. History is the justification.

    Kathryn Bigelow is a fetishist and a sadist, which, in a literary sense, certainly has a fine tradition. But without some acknowledgement that this is her lonely journey and not a shared one – not our collective reality, not a set of accepted assumptions but, for better or worse, her own particular, problematic kink – all you have is a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda.


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    As an action woman in a medium ruled by men, the Oscar-winning director has always bucked convention. But does her new film about the hunt for Bin Laden defend the use of torture?

    Next month, the new Kathryn Bigelow movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden opens in British cinemas. It's called Zero Dark Thirty and it arrives in eye-catching style, trailing a great noisy convoy of criticism, praise and controversy.

    When production was first announced, several Republican politicians and various rightwing groups accused the film of being a propaganda weapon for the re-election of Barack Obama; the idea was that a film about the apprehension and killing of Bin Laden would reflect well on the president.

    The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch claimed that the Obama administration had unfairly and improperly given Bigelow and her writer-co-producer, Mark Boal, access to classified information. And a Republican-directed pressure group, involving former CIA officers, created a media campaign that attacked Obama's "dishonourable disclosures".

    In the event, Obama swept to victory without any help from the film and when it was finally released in America earlier this month the flak came not from the right but the left. Almost as one, America's liberal intelligentsia spoke out to denounce Zero Dark Thirty for implicitly supporting the practice of torture by suggesting that it led the American secret services to Bin Laden, whereas the available evidence shows no such thing.

    "In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding," the New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote, "Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture in several other subtle ways." Her colleague Richard Brody argued that the film not only inaccurately provided a justification for torture but that it deliberately removed any context that might have explained the jihadist cause.

    "If you fall under the movie's sway," he declared, "you become complicit in its chain of suggestions and association." Other commentators were not nearly so delicate. Michael Wolff called Bigelow "a fetishist and a sadist" who had produced "a nasty piece of pulp and propaganda".

    Bigelow has defended her film as a neutral action film whose authenticity lies in its attention to visual and atmospheric detail, rather than historical record. "The film doesn't have an agenda and it doesn't judge," she said. "I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience."

    She made a similar point about her previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, when some observers noted that it took no position on the Iraq war. And there is little doubt that over the course of her career, Bigelow has proved herself to be a visceral entertainer while steadfastly resisting the temptation to proselytise.

    She doesn't want to change the world. She doesn't even want to change cinema. She just wants to expand its experiential limits. As she has put it: "I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is and I really think it's to explore and push the medium. It's not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions."

    As one of the very few women directors in Hollywood to build a substantial body of commercial work, she has had to carry the weight of feminist expectation, especially as in some respects Bigelow is a feminist out of Hollywood central casting.

    Tall, striking and athletic, she is physically tough and emotionally independent. A youthful-looking 61, she is single and lives alone. She thrives in the kind of adverse working conditions that even the most macho of male directors would think twice about undertaking. And even her leisure pursuits – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in subzero temperatures, for instance, because, she said: "I like to be strong" – sound like endurance tests of character.

    But Bigelow has never really been a feminist film-maker. Early in her career, she made Blue Steel, a thriller about a female cop that subverted conventional images of male dominance, yet even then her interests appeared more semiotic than ideological.

    Instead, she has been described as a "Hawksian" woman, like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, a beauty who is happiest hanging out with the boys. Several of her films have either had all-male casts or have – as in the case of Point Break, the finest surfer heist movie of all time – featured only minor female parts.

    As she once said: "I never make a decision about a role with feminism as a criterion." Nonetheless, the decision to focus the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty on an independent-minded female CIA agent is one that's further riled some of the film's critics, who have seen it as a means of concealing the dubious morality of American interrogation techniques behind a progressive tale of female empowerment.

    Maya, as the agent is called, is based on a real person, but her part in locating Bin Laden has been enhanced for dramatic reasons. The film prides, and indeed sells, itself on its authenticity, but it also demands artistic liberty. Bigelow, wrote the critic David Denby, wants "to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time".

    This may be so, but perhaps Maya is also a version of the director herself. She is driven to the point of obsession with completing her task and Bigelow has spoken of her own all-consuming approach to film-making. Once she begins a project, she said: "There will be an urgency and then I can do nothing else but that."

    Yet she did not start out with the intention of becoming a film-maker. She was born in northern California to a librarian and paint factory manager who dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. Having studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, she got a fellowship to the Whitney in New York.

    She lived in downtown Manhattan when it was rough and ready and was part of a conceptual art collective that put her in touch with the likes of Susan Sontag and Philip Glass. She and Glass made a living by moving into old print factories and turning them into lofts.

    It was during this period that she experienced an epiphany at a double bill of Mean Streets and The Wild Bunch. By her own account, the visual energy of the two films "took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it. I realised there's a more muscular approach to film-making that I found very inspiring".

    It may come as no surprise to learn that she studied film theory as a graduate student. The upshot was that she decided painting was "a more rarefied art form with a limited audience" and that film was "this extraordinary social tool that could reach tremendous numbers of people".

    It was in 1978, while still on her graduate course, that she made a short film, The Set-Up, about two men in an alley beating each other up. On this occasion, she did have a political message. Discussing the meaning of The Set-Up's violence, she once said: "You think that the enemy is outside yourself – a police officer, the government, the system – but that's not really the case at all. Fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time." Doubtless her latest critics would agree.

    She sent the unfinished film to the director Milos Forman, who was then a professor at Columbia University's film school. He liked what he saw, immediately offering her a scholarship.

    Beginning her career in feature films with 1982's The Loveless, a moody reworking of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, she went on to make a series of distinctive genre films, including Point Break and the futuristic thriller Strange Days. But it wasn't until 2008's The Hurt Locker that she gained the widespread recognition that her industry reputation and body of work deserved. (She was the first woman to win the best director Oscar.)

    Much was made of the fact that The Hurt Locker, a relatively low-budget movie, competed for awards, and particularly the Oscar for best film, against the mega-budget Avatar, directed by James Cameron, who is Bigelow's ex-husband. The couple were in a two-year marriage from 1989 to 1991, but it apparently ended amicably enough because Cameron wrote Strange Days, which was released in 1995.

    As it turned out, Bigelow beat her ex to the Academy award, but it perhaps says something about the limits of her commercial appeal that The Hurt Locker was the lowest grossing best picture winner for half a century. This is the Bigelow paradox: her instincts are populist but her intellect is not. For all her vitality, she is drawn away from the mainstream, where she can give voice to the misfits, oddballs and idiosyncratic ideas that populate her films.

    One of the ironies of the Zero Dark Thirty saga is that it began life as a film about the failure to catch Bin Laden. Had the Marines not intervened at Abbottabad, Bigelow might have produced a cultishly admired film with a short life. Instead, she has to make do with a box-office success and a big stink.


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    By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden's killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture

    Dear Kathryn Bigelow,

    The Hurt Locker was a beautiful, brave film; many young women in film were inspired as they watched you become the first woman ever to win an Oscar for directing. But with Zero Dark Thirty, you have attained a different kind of distinction.

    Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in "the global war on terror", Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

    Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the "information" it "secured", information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden's capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls "the detainee program".

    What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

    Could some of the seduction be financing? It is very hard to get a film without a pro-military message, such as The Hurt Locker, funded and financed. But according to sources in the film industry, the more pro-military your message is, the more kinds of help you currently can get: from personnel, to sets, to technology – a point I made in my argument about the recent militarized Katy Perry video.

    It seems implausible that scenes such as those involving two top-secret, futuristic helicopters could be made without Pentagon help, for example. If the film received that kind of undisclosed, in-kind support from the defense department, then that would free up million of dollars for the gigantic ad campaign that a film like this needs to compete to win audience.

    This also sets a dangerous precedent: we can be sure, with the "propaganda amendment" of the 2013 NDAA, just signed into law by the president, that the future will hold much more overt corruption of Hollywood and the rest of US pop culture. This amendment legalizes something that has been illegal for decades: the direct funding of pro-government or pro-military messaging in media, without disclosure, aimed at American citizens.

    Then, there is the James Frey factor. You claim that your film is "based on real events", and in interviews, you insist that it is a mixture of fact and fiction, "part documentary". "Real", "true", and even "documentary", are big and important words. By claiming such terms, you generate media and sales traction – on a mendacious basis. There are filmmakers who work very hard to produce films that are actually "based on real events": they are called documentarians. Alex Gibney, in Taxi to the Dark Side, and Rory Kennedy, in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, have both produced true and sourceable documentary films about what your script blithely calls "the detainee program" – that is, the regime of torture to generate false confessions at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib – which your script claims led straight to Bin Laden.

    Fine, fellow reporter: produce your sources. Provide your evidence that torture produced lifesaving – or any – worthwhile intelligence.

    But you can't present evidence for this claim. Because it does not exist.

    Five decades of research, cited in the 2008 documentary The End of America, confirm that torture does not work. Robert Fisk provides another summary of that categorical conclusion. And this 2011 account from Human Rights First rebuts the very premise of Zero Dark Thirty.

    Your actors complain about detainees' representation by lawyers – suggesting that these do-gooders in suits endanger the rest of us. I have been to see your "detainee program" firsthand. The prisoners, whom your film describes as being "lawyered up", meet with those lawyers in rooms that are wired for sound; yet, those lawyers can't tell the world what happened to their clients – because the descriptions of the very torture these men endured are classified.

    I have seen the room where the military tribunal takes the "testimony" from people swept up in a program that gave $5,000 bounties to desperately poor Afghanis to incentivize their turning-in innocent neighbors. The chairs have shackles to the floor, and are placed in twos, so that one prisoner can be threatened to make him falsely condemn the second.

    I have seen the expensive video system in the courtroom where – though Guantánamo spokesmen have told the world's press since its opening that witnesses' accounts are brought in "whenever reasonable" – the monitor on the system has never been turned on once: a monitor that could actually let someone in Pakistan testify to say, "hey, that is the wrong guy". (By the way, you left out the scene where the CIA dude sodomizes the wrong guy: Khaled el-Masri, "the German citizen unfortunate enough to have a similar name to a militant named Khaled al-Masri.")

    In a time of darkness in America, you are being feted by Hollywood, and hailed by major media. But to me, the path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl's 1935 Triumph of the Will, which glorified Nazi military power, was a massive hit in Germany. Riefenstahl was the first female film director to be hailed worldwide.

    It may seem extreme to make comparison with this other great, but profoundly compromised film-maker, but there are real echoes. When Riefenstahl began to glamorize the National Socialists, in the early 1930s, the Nazis' worst atrocities had not yet begun; yet abusive detention camps had already been opened to house political dissidents beyond the rule of law – the equivalent of today's Guantánamo, Bagram base, and other unnameable CIA "black sites". And Riefenstahl was lionised by the German elites and acclaimed for her propaganda on behalf of Hitler's regime.

    But the world changed. The ugliness of what she did could not, over time, be hidden. Americans, too, will wake up and see through Zero Dark Thirty's apologia for the regime's standard lies that this brutality is somehow necessary. When that happens, the same community that now applauds you will recoil.

    Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture's handmaiden.


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    Depicting torture is not same as endorsing it, say film-makers as they accept prizes at New York Film Critics Circle award

    The makers of Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar-tipped film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, have once again poured scorn on suggestions that they endorsed torture by including scenes of waterboarding and sexual humiliation in the drama.

    Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who won Oscars three years ago for their highly acclaimed Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, made the comments as they took to the stage to accept prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle last night. The release of their new film has drawn a stream of criticism from media commentators and high-profile politicians over its depiction of the CIA's alleged use of torture to find and kill the head of al-Qaida, but both film-makers made it clear they stood by their work.

    "I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time," said Bigelow as she accepted the best director award at the Crimson Club in Manhattan.

    Boal, accepting the best film award, referenced the cases of two CIA agents who have either been jailed or are currently facing prison time following revelations of torture. "There's been a lot written about this movie; some of it has popped off the entertainment page to the news page," he said. "Let me just say this: there was a very interesting story on the front page of the New York Times today by Scott Shane, about a CIA agent who is now facing jail time for talking to a reporter about waterboarding," he said. "This gentleman is going to jail for that. And all I can say is that I read that story very closely. It sort of reminds me of what somebody else said when they were running for president, which is: 'If this shit was happening to somebody else, it would be very interesting. For us, it's quite serious.'

    "But nevertheless, I stand here tonight being extremely proud of the film we made … In case anyone is asking, we stand by the film. I think, at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future."

    Zero Dark Thirty, which stars Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke, has received considerable praise from critics and yesterday picked up more awards from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Vancouver Film Critics, to follow influential prizes from New York, LA and Boston-based critics' organisations. However, its status as one of the frontrunners for next month's Oscars has been overshadowed by the criticism with which it has been targeted. Guardian commentator Naomi Wolf last week compared Bigelow with the infamous Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl for showing the successful use of torture to capture Bin Laden.

    Both the former Republican US presidential candidate John McCain and the Democratic chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, have suggested Bigelow and Boal endorsed the use of torture by their depiction of its use. The committee is currently probing whether the pair were granted "inappropriate access" to classified CIA material.

    "I think [the committee] have a job to do, and it's very different from my job," Boal told the Hollywood Reporter after accepting his prize in New York. "It's a movie. I've been saying from the beginning it's a movie. That shouldn't be too confusing," he joked. "It's in cinemas, and if it's not totally obvious, a CIA agent wasn't really an Australian [Jason Clarke] … and Jessica Chastain isn't really a CIA agent; she's a very talented actress. But I think most American audiences understand that."

    • This article was amended on Tuesday 8 January 2013. It originally quoted Kathryn Bigelow as saying "naughty subjects" rather than "knotty subjects"


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