Why Zero Dark Thirty divides the media in half

By Alissa Quart
December 28, 2012

The thriller Zero Dark Thirty has exposed a wide gap between film critics and their counterparts in politics. Nearly every American film critic has lauded and rewarded it, including the New York Film Critics Circle, which tapped it as the best film of the year, making it a front-runner for Oscar nods. In sharp contrast, a number of major political writers have reviled the film, including New Yorker writer Jane Mayer and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, while Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin wrote a letter of complaint to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, calling the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information” that led to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The division between political writers, politicians and critics only got more pronounced as the CIA’s acting director, Michael Morell, published an unusual disavowal of the film. When it comes to torture, Morell wrote, “the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.”

All these skirmishes make me wish we could weave these two forms of commentary — film criticism and political thought — together again more strongly. In the postwar decades, the best reviewers of the day saw addressing the politics within the cultural works they reviewed as part of their jobs. Such writers included Dwight McDonaldMacdonald, Mary McCarthy, James Agee, Parker Tyler, Robin Wood and even Pauline Kael, whose critique of films on the right (the classic The Deer Hunter, of which she said, “It has no more moral intelligence than the Clint Eastwood action pictures, yet it’s an extraordinary piece of work …”) and on the left (Missing) didn’t cleanse them of their political agendas.

Writers like McCarthy, who was both a theater critic and a political writer, were more attuned to the ideological sources behind play and film, as they came up in the Depression and the war years, according to Hunter College Professor Richard Kaye, who is working on a project about McCarthy. After all, art was explicitly tied to politics within fascism as well as within communist states. Watching the power of ideology at work within fascism made writers more likely to combine politics with aesthetics. They understood the propagandistic potential of overwhelmingly dramatic popular entertainment.

Today, in part because because popular art has largely been decoupled from politics, film critics tend to be narrower in their expertise. They are also operating in an America where “partisan” and “political” have been made to equal each other in a toxic way. Thus, critics and many political thinkers can’t necessarily agree on a critical focus. Zero Dark Thirty’s portraits of CIA officers torturing detainees in the film — ultimately (if in a roundabout fashion) leading to the officers finding and killing bin Laden — enraged pundits like the Guardian’s Greenwald. He slammed film critics for praising the film while ignoring what he believed to be its troubling political message. Why were critics celebrating pacing, mise en scene and script but not addressing the political fundamentals of a film that appeared to endorse torture as a productive tool? In return, Time’s lively popular culture critic James Poniewozik hit back, writing that Greenwald’s perspective was “a simplistic way of looking at art, but it’s 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.” He continued: “Film history is full of movies that are false, amoral, brutal, sadistic, yet are triumphs of vision and storytelling.”

Poniewozik is not wrong, of course. There have been films, from Birth of a Nation to Triumph of the Will, that are aesthetically compelling but politically and ethically odious; some would add the recent films of Quentin Tarantino to this list. And political writers rarely believe art takes precedence over current events or history.

But if political writers do their job well, they understand something even more important: that ideological meaning and agendas are not incidental to thrilling films and cinematography. Why surgically remove politics from a discussion of a film’s final quality, rendering the argument so purely aesthetic that it becomes low-brow decadent, as is Richard Roeper’s in a broadcast. Roeper crowns Zero Dark Thirty the best of the year: “a masterwork of filmmaking … holy ‘bleep’ ”?  Ethical lapses or gaps in movies should be critiqued, along with bad performances or absurd storylines. As Mayer wrote of Zero Dark, “It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue.”

The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis, a critic I very much admire, was an exception: She focused on the movie’s torture and consulted a work of nonfiction, The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen. She came to the conclusion that the film’s scenes of torture were justified. “However unprovable the effectiveness of these interrogations, they did take place,” she wrote. “To omit them from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ would have been a reprehensible act of moral cowardice.”

I disagree with her interpretation but her reading the film in its political and historical context was welcome. She and the Christian Science Monitor‘s Peter Rainer (who wrote of the film, “What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, [director Kathryn] Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story”) were a minority, however.

Perhaps the solution would be for mainstream media outlets to regularly open up their cultural criticism to an even wider range of voices. One media contemporary cliché is the irrelevance of the professional cultural critic in a landscape of Amazon and IMDB review amateurs and brilliant but unpaid film bloggers. If, as it appears, everyone is indeed a film critic now, we should hear from more of them.

PHOTO: Director and producer of the movie Kathryn Bigelow waves at the premiere of “Zero Dark Thirty”at the Dolby theatre in Hollywood, California December 10, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni


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There is a lot wrong with this movie. It is such an important event it is probably hard to cover it all accurately. In my opinion, they elevated the contributions of the Maya character because they wanted a woman in the roll and nothing more. It was for politically correct Hollywood nonsense. This acting director of the CIA was so bothered by the way the investigation was portrayed, that he had to write a response.

In the film, Jessica Chastain plays a CIA operative, Maya, who is integral in locating the terror mastermind in Pakistan.“The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency — and the broader Intelligence Community — to just a few individuals,” Morell said. ”This may make for more compelling entertainment, but it does not reflect the facts. The success of the May 1st 2011 operation was a team effort — and a very large team at that.

Posted by Jayhawker98 | Report as abusive

This shows part of the big problem of the flood of frictional violence. It makes weak minds think of it as a solution to something or the capacity and willingness to do it as positive. Al of wich cause real violence to happen.

The second part is misinformation about what happens becomes the common viewpoint of all those who do not take the time to check. But dealing with war and other violence and violent people is an election issue and a political issue.

Fictional presentation of violence should be banned. The non-fiction of it must be know as all parts of the real world we have to deal with.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

I think the problem here is lack of nuance. These days everything seems to be black and white. Why can’t we acknowledge a well thought out work of art, while critiquing its political aspects. Culture and morality are intrinsically linked and not in a linear fashion. One can be excellent in one and deficient in the other. Maybe if mainstream media wasn’t obsessed with boiling movies down into a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, but rather using them as launching boards for more nuanced discussion we would have less controversy and more learning.

Posted by agsocrates | Report as abusive

Horrible and imaginary justification for abominable violence. To dream up and portray to life the fallacy that
torture was proven effective in a historical context shows a complete lack ethics, morality, and humanity. Shock violence and controversy for viewership and $ are more and more the go-to Hollywood MO.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

I haven’t seen the film. It is clear enough from the trailers that it completely abandons any notion of truth.
Apparently knowledgeable Senators from both ends of the political spectrum agree.

“…Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin wrote a letter of complaint to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, calling the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information” that led to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.”

Unfortunately too many voters cannot distinguish truth from fiction and often prefer the fiction. This contributes significantly to our extreme partisanship.

I recommend that you spend your movie dollars on “Lincoln” instead.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

So happy that this trash pro-torture CIA-funded propaganda film was humiliated at the Oscars.
Thanks for this article.

Posted by AlDorman | Report as abusive

Snip: The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis…came to the conclusion that the film’s scenes of torture were justified. “However unprovable the effectiveness of these interrogations, they did take place,” she wrote. “To omit them from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ would have been a reprehensible act of moral cowardice.”

This quote from Dargis exemplifies everything that’s wrong with her rather useless criticism: like most mainstream reviewers, she fails to grasp that filmmakers who depict barbaric acts need to have a point of view that differentiates between what is being shown to us versus what the filmmakers actually think about the act (in this case, torture) being recreated on-screen. This principle applies to filming any kind of bad behavior. Are the moviemakers getting their kicks from the horror or are they condemning or questioning it in some way? Bigelow and Boal depicted acts of torture and apparently did so in a manner to indicate their endorsement of these techniques — a fine point lost on Dargis and the herd.

Posted by NPThompson | Report as abusive