“Zero Dark Thirty”: A Guide to the Many Controversies

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Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Whether its film critics or political commentators, it seems everyone has a strong opinion about the forthcoming film “Zero Dark Thirty”- a picture that hasn’t opened yet and which most people – including some of those arguing about it – have not yet seen.

The Best Picture choice of numerous critics’ groups and the clear frontrunner for the Academy Awards, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the decade-spanning story of how the CIA and military found and killed Osama Bin Laden, has been courting an awful lot of controversy for a film its creators swear is apolitical. And it started very early in the film’s production, before it even had a title.

I have seen the film and my review will be published next week. In the meantime, an overview of the film’s many controversies:

– The Release Date Timing is Suspicious! As is often the case whenever Hollywood does anything, many political conservatives freaked out that the film would have a liberal bias, or would serve as a de facto reelection video for President Obama, seeing as how it dramatizes one of his signature achievements.

This controversy was diffused, however, when Sony moved the release date from October to December, after the election. And in fact, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush appears in the film as portrayed by an actor, although both show up in video footage.

– Classified documents! Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) started making noises in the spring about director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and others associated with the production improperly gaining access to classified documents related to the hunt for Bin Laden. Nothing much came of it until this week, when a Department of Defense inspector general referred the investigation to the Justice Department.

– Maya vs. Carrie! Are Jessica Chastain’s “Maya” and Claire Danes’ Carrie from Homeland based on the same real female CIA agent? Slate’s David Haglund raised that possibility in a blog post earlier this month. It’s unclear if there’s any non-circumstantial case for the connection.

– Torture! The bulk of the controversy about the film has centered on its treatment of the torture question. The film, for much of its first act, depicts waterboarding, starving, food deprivation and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” conducted on prisoners early in the Bush years. These acts are seen leading, albeit indirectly and very ambiguously, to information that in turn leads to Bin Laden’s location and the assault on it.

Glenn Greenwald, a political commentator who was a vociferous critic of Bush antiterrorism measures and has continued as a frequent critic of President Obama from the left, fired the first salvo in the Guardian. In a Dec. 10 blog post– written before he saw the film- Greenwald called “Zero Dark Thirty” a “torture-glorifying film” and attacked critics for raving about it.

Four days later, after viewing the movie, Greenwald attacked it as “pernicious propaganda,” in that it “absolutely and unambiguously shows torture as extremely valuable in finding bin Laden.” Journalist Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, another longtime critic of the Bush-era security regime, largely agreed with Greenwald.

On the opposite side of the debate was Kyle Smith, the New York Post’s right-leaning film critic, who called it “a clear vindication for the Bush administration’s view of the War on Terror,” while also channeling Alberto Gonzales in arguing that waterboarding, and the other techniques shown in the film, are not in fact torture.

A more nuanced view of the controversy- and one I mostly agree with- was offered by both political and national security journalist Spencer Ackerman and film critic Glenn Kenny.

Writing on Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog, Ackerman pointed out that the torture sequence “occurs at the intersection of ignorance and brutality,” and that the majority of the work that led to Bin Laden’s death had nothing to do with torture.

Meanwhile Kenny, in what I consider the definitive piece about “Zero Dark Thirty” to date, defends the film as art and questions Greenwald’s assertions both that the film lionizes the CIA and the torture regime, and that we’re meant to unquestionably sympathize with the CIA agents.

– Ellis vs. Bigelow! One controversy with much less bearing on questions of national security was the one-way “feud” between Bigelow and Bret Easton Ellis.

Formerly best known as the author of “American Psycho,” and now perhaps better known for saying silly stuff on Twitter, Ellis wrote on Twitter Dec. 5 that “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.” Ellis dug deeper in more tweets in the ensuing days, before penning a lengthy apology; Bigelow clearly got the better of the exchange, by not saying anything at all.

The movie itself, incidentally, is considering more interesting and thought-provoking than all of these controversies.

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