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A few thoughts from Steven Rockford
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JANUARY 9, 2013 9:58AM

The dark side of Zero Dark Thirty

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Docudrama or Propaganda?


At Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley states his dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his takedown, (he) can’t decide if it’s ‘like the Army’ or a glorified mob movie.”  Hartley goes on to say: 

“And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama. Notice that I say nearly. Here’s how she cheats. After opening with a powerfully affecting collage of now sadly familiar audio clips of horrified air traffic controllers, poignant answering machine adieus and heartbreaking exchanges between frustrated 911 operators and hapless World Trade Center office workers, Bigelow segues into those torture scenes you have undoubtedly heard about. Tugging at our heartstrings to incite us to vengeful thoughts? That’s not playing fair. ‘Remember how terrible that day was?’ she seems to be saying,’“…so the ends justify the means, right? Anyone? Bueller?’..” 

Dennis Hartley notes that Bigelow is saying, in respect to torture, that the ends "do" justify the means.  This is where Zero Dark Thirty moves to the dark side of America’s understanding of the legal and humane limits of “enhanced interrogation.”  Bigelow’s film is correct in portraying the US torture events that took place leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, because they actually did occur.  However, her film crosses the line when it implies, in fact emphatically states, that these techniques were not only effective - but justified. 

Many US military and intelligence experts have stated that “torture does not work,” and that, if anything, it only creates wasted effort following leads that were spoken simply to “make the torture stop.”  Ms. Bigelow may have been privy to supposedly successful torture leads during her classified CIA briefings while making the film.  But, (1) very high-level intelligence officials who were part of the OBL program have already denied that torture provided any leads to finding bin Laden, and (2) even if a torture-induced lead was correct, experts have proven that the same information could have (should have) been obtained through other legal and humane interrogation procedures.   

The United States has the most advanced intelligence gathering capabilities of any nation in the history of mankind.  They have proven to be effective.  Why should we regress to using primitive torture techniques?  Torture has been deemed to be immoral, inhumane, unnecessary and illegal by every civilized nation in the world. 

Zero Dark Thirty fails to make this point.  In fact, it glorifies the opposite of this point, i.e., torture not only works, it is necessary in order to maintain American exceptionalism.     

In all honesty, I do have a great deal of appreciation and respect for Kathryn Bigelow’s film-making talent.  As with her award-winning efforts with Hurt Locker, Ms. Bigelow has provided us with excellent plot and character development in Zero Dark Thirty, and has presented a passionate (though lengthy) story-line.  The film was meant to be a docudrama.  However, it has become a propaganda film in regard to its false representation of the US torture program established during the Bush/Cheney administration. 

In 1935 Leni Riefenstahl released her classic Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.  She received numerous awards in many countries for her creative combination of music and cinematography as well as her revolutionary use of moving cameras and aerial photography. 

Ms. Riefenstahl will always be remembered by film critics as having directed one of the best-made movies of all time.  However, she will always be remembered by the public as having directed the most infamous propaganda film ever made. 

Likewise, Kathryn Bigelow will rightfully receive many awards for her creative work in Zero Dark Thirty.  But, in the future, people will always remember her for her propaganda film justifying the US torture program. 




I originally posted this article on Monday morning, January 7th.

Following are the comments from the original post: 

JANUARY 7, 2013 10:54AM 


I loved Point Break and if Bigelow wants to do her testosterone worship in that kind of format that's fine with me. But when she applies it something like this it's sickening.

If she wants to do a dissertation on torture why not show the more likely scenario where time and effort were wasted following a false lead given? And why just show the 9/11 tragedy and not include our baseless invasion of Iraq as part of the over-reaction for context? It's a twisted film for twisted times. Should do well!


cheshyre grin     January 07, 2013 02:06 PM

You’re right cg. This is “a twisted film for twisted times.” And, you’re also correct that it “Should do well!!”



Steven Rockford     January 07, 2013 02:43 PM

american 'progressives' imagine they are the voice of the nation. but a comprehensive survey of american history reveals the real character of the nation, red in tooth and claw. this movie may have been made to make money, as was '24.' it may be subsidized propaganda from the plutocrats who profit from militarism. it is certainly violence porn.

nothing new here, folks, this is the real america.


al loomis     January 07, 2013 02:45 PM

I don't want to see this movie for a lot of reasons and you just gave me additional reasons for being completely turned off by the subject.


Margaret Feike     January 07, 2013 04:03 PM

Al and Margaret,

I appreciate your comments. As you said Margaret, it is easy to get “turned off by the subject.” But, unfortunately, as Al said, “this is the real America.”

It seems that we have reached a point where “Anything Goes!” in regard to protecting The American Empire, with no concern about the effect on innocent people or the impact of future blowback. According to ZDT's message:

“But Hey, It Works!”

Following this same logic, any neighborhood having problems with rat infestation should not consider hiring a professional exterminator. Even though exterminators are very effective, their work normally takes a long time to eliminate the problem, and you’re never sure that their work is complete. By detonating a small nuclear device in the center of the neighborhood, however, you can be certain that 100% of the rodents will be exterminated immediately. This would be messy.

“But Hey, It Works!”


Steven Rockford     January 08, 2013 11:44 AM

Rather extreme analogy Steven. But, I get your point.


Danni Rowe     January 08, 2013 12:04 PM   

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i'm sorry. did you watch the film? because i did. and, yes, there are scenes involving torture of prisoners by the CIA. but it doesn't glorify it and it certainly doesn't, as you say in your piece here, say that torture works. the information given to the CIA personnel by the main guy who got tortured is given to them **when they stop torturing him** and start talking to him and feeding him. and one more point: bigelow has never said that the film is a docudrama; in fact, has emphatically said (i watched the clip) that the film is not a documentary, that the characters (except the historical ones) are fictional. it's an incredible movie and goes a long way toward proving that torture is a terrible thing and doesn't work.
Femme forte,

I’m glad you liked the film. As I said in my post, I too appreciate and respect the film-making talents of Kathryn Bigelow. But that doesn’t detract from my concerns about its unnecessary message that torture worked. As Frank Bruni, NYT film critic, stated, the message presented in Zero Dark Thirty is “no waterboarding, no bin Laden.”

You’re correct that in the film the detainee who supposedly gave the CIA the courier’s name did this “when they stopped torturing him.” But, only after the interrogator said, “I can always go eat with some other guy, and hang you back up to the ceiling.”

Directly after the opening 9-11 scenes, the viewer is told that the film is “based on first hand accounts of actual events.” Ms. Bigelow has, in numerous interviews, been stating that she used a “journalistic approach” to presenting the material in ZDT. If this isn’t evidence of ZDT being a docudrama, I’m not sure what would be.

No where in the film does it mention that key intelligence experts have testified that OBL’s courier’s name was not obtained through torture, nor is there any talk about the expert testimony at the time that torture does not work, and the fact that waterboarding is internationally recognized as being immoral, inhumane and illegal.
You’ve brought up a good point Carl. “It’s important for one to care about their home country.” And, part of this “caring” should include a feeling of remorse (or at least personal concern) when the leaders of our home country intentionally go beyond the limits of internationally accepted humane and legal standards.

One good thing about Bigelow’s movie is that it has reopened and broadened the national debate about the use of torture during the hunt for OBL. Like it or not, it took place.

The film portrays the actions taken on the ground by the heroes who brought down OBL. They were doing their job. They were operating under orders. It is the American leaders at the time, who gave them the orders (authorization) to use torture, who should be answering the tough torture questions being asked today.

Yoo, Addington, Cheney and the other members of the Bush torture team need to come forward and justify, under oath, the reasoning they used to place our home country in this infamous historical position.
30 years ago Hollywood and the media cried to end the war in Vietnam now it is more than willing to shill for the CIA in 3-D in the name of patriotism.

To often I hear "My country right or wrong" and that is where it ends. The full quote is "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." It seems the voice of setting it right is drowned out by films like these.

It does not surprise me the CIA is involved in this film. Their fingerprints are all over the past 50 years of global unrest leading up to 9/11. Instead of asking why did 9/11 happen it has become a catch all justification for endless wars.
It’s sad really MT. The entertainment industry seems to be fixated on the “Dark Side” of American intelligence practices. The Fox series “24” set the recent trend in regard to showing the supposedly “positive” aspects of using torture. It’s all about “Good versus Evil,” and in the end the good guy always wins. And if it happens that the good guy had to use some questionable, (perhaps inhumane and illegal) means to reach that end – so be it.

Hollywood has accepted the premise that this is now the American way.

I was part of the anti-war movement 40 years ago. The push to end the Vietnam War didn’t start in Hollywood. It began in the streets and on our campuses. Hollywood took notice only when the “voice of the people” became loud enough that they felt it would behoove them (and their bank accounts) if they joined the anti-war effort.

Today, on issues like bringing the US Torture Team to justice, Climate Change, Gun Control, Closing Gitmo and many other important popular issues, the people’s voices are beginning to be heard by the leaders of the media and entertainment industry.

Let’s hope that they get on board soon. Some of these issues cannot wait for media support.
While I can see how one could imagine comparing the Bigelow work w Riefenstahl's I think the comparison is overwrought and dimimishes what 'Triumph' accomplished (the justification of a regimen responsible for or complicit in the deaths of close to 50,000,000.)

I think that just should be decided by the viewer. I bet it's a great movie, because the Hurt Locker was stunning in character. EOD people correctly point out that she took a lot of liberties with how they do it, but they also say that they like the movie.
As to torture, it was based on SERE training, in which US personnel were exposed to tactics historically used by our adversaries. 9/11 was a peculiar event, as to how much one should also make necessarily in response too I think. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. I would like to see how much of the movie could be said to leave impressions before I judged it.
i'm pointing out just a couple things, steven, and not meaning to get into an argument about this. you and obviously see the point of the movie differently.

bruni got it wrong. bigelow, by her own words in interviews, didn't intend (and the movie doesn't show) that *torture* got them the info they needed to find bin laden. as i said before, they got the intel from the guy after they stopped torturing him. pretty strong evidence that torture doesn't work, imo. which i commend bigelow for pointing out.

as to the torture that is represented, the CIA *did* torture prisoners and detainees, didn't they? and it is reprehensible and unnecessary and not productive or useful. i agree. but they did it. what was bigelow supposed to do, pretend it didn't happen? who would want that kind of a whitewash of the horrific stuff that went on under the bush administration? not me.

and bigelow doesn't need to put in some disclaimer about torture is a bad thing. she made a movie. and much like she did in Hurt Locker, she left it to the viewers to make moral judgments about what she showed them, all of it: the torture, the attacks by jihadists on the WTC, american personnel, the raid on abbottabad and the kidding of bin laden. all of it. to me, what she laid out made the conclusions pretty obvious.

The comparison between Bigelow and Riefenstahl is indeed difficult to measure since Riefenstahl’s propaganda helped create an acceptable public image of the Nazi regime which eventually allowed for the horrendous atrocities that followed. Bigelow, on the other hand, seems to be totally unaware of the “acceptable” torture propaganda aspects of the film that she directed. Time will tell whether she will be remembered for her film-making talent or her unintentional propaganda film.


You’re right. Bigelow, as I said, was right to present the torture scenes. But, if she would have also presented the many FBI and other intelligence expert’s views of the non-effective use of torture, the film would have more accurately reflected the “real” concerns about the use of torture during the hunt for OBL. By showing the CIA “This is the only way it could have been done” view, the viewers have no choice but to accept the fact that “Torture Works.”


As I said in my response to Don, I have no problem with Bigelow presenting the torture scenes, because they actually did occur. But, nowhere in your comments, or in any pro-ZDT reviews that I have read, do I hear anything that clarifies the “need” to show only the CIA chronology of events. Nowhere is there any mention of the fact that that the international community has deemed waterboarding to be immoral, inhumane and illegal. Nowhere in the film do we here from those at the time who said “torture doesn’t work.”

Bigelow made a “good” film. It could have been a “great” film if she would have balanced her extensive torture scenes with a human understanding of the immoral aspect of what she was presenting.
Yes, the film could be seen as a celebration of Underworld Mob culture, with the President as the "Don". Fair enough. But it could also be seen as mere reporting of "what Americans Think", could it not? Otherwise our Presidents would have been impeached already.
Good point Shawn. This could very well be “what Americans Think.”
Steve, you are correct, Hollywood did not get on board until the average America was feed up with the war. Hollywood is in it for the audience and money. What did change the average American's mind about the war were two things. Vietnam was was the first war that was televised. When the horrors of war were brought into the homes every evening parents started worrying about their kids. Add the draft and their fears became reality.

Neither of these things are happening because most of the major media outlets are owned by the same corporations that profit from war. Second since there is no draft, most of the fighting is done by the poor because of low job prospects.

It is no mistake that there are no Vietnam type images on the news today. How else could these wars go on for decade? It is the best kept secret in the country.
Very well spoken MT. VERY well spoken!
I saw the film yesterday and while I normally do not claim to have been overpowered by any film…I WAS overpowered by this one. It was amazing—it took me until falling asleep finally to calm down from it.

I must say that I strongly disagree with the reading that the film “glorified” torture in any way…quite the opposite in my estimation. And as for the assertion that it suggests that torture works or is necessary…I think it did no such thing. In fact, most of the information gotten that lead to the killing of Bin Laden was shown to be due to hard, sustained, very, very difficult leg work.

I think this is a great film…and I think that Katherine Bigalow directed the movie in a way to insure each viewer had to come to a decision on his/her own about the techniques used and their efficacy.

I personally think torture sucks…I despise with every fiber of my body the political decisions that started us down that path…and I came away from the movie convinced that the storyteller did an excellent job of putting that element out there in an unbiased way for me to judge.

Martin Sheen and Ed Asner ought to shut the hell up and allow the Academy voters to vote on the merits of the film rather than attempting to inject their own moral codes on them. Bigalow ought to receive the Best Director award.

This is a sensational movie…and I recommend it to any adult without qualification.
Just read the comments:

You wrote:

But, nowhere in your comments, or in any pro-ZDT reviews that I have read, do I hear anything that clarifies the “need” to show only the CIA chronology of events. Nowhere is there any mention of the fact that that the international community has deemed waterboarding to be immoral, inhumane and illegal. Nowhere in the film do we here from those at the time who said “torture doesn’t work.” was not actually the "CIA" was THE CHRONOLOGY.

This is the way it happened.

As for "not mentioning" all that stuff, Steven, apparently Bigalow wanted to treat her audience like adults and allow them to make their own mind up about those things.

You seem to be advocating that the picture should have been a moral lesson for Americans. That was not what she had in mind. If someone wants to make a picture to be a moral message and lesson on torture...they are always free to do so.

I Love Ya!.

I read your posts in the same way that I listen to the mind-numbing discussions of my ultra-conservative relatives at our annual family get-togethers. I am an old fart, like you. But, unlike you, I’ve been around the block (the worldly block) a few more times than you have.

I agree that Kathryn Bigelow presented a perfect story line that intentionally feeds into the emotional “let’s get even” theme that existed after 9-11. But, I would have hoped that you would see through the “Hollywood Hype.”

I too was blown away when I saw the film. Because of Bigelow’s excellent story-telling, at the end of the movie I became one of the brain-washed patriots in the audience who applauded when our heroic Americans brought down the stereotypical “Evil Arab Muslim Villains.”

But, that’s not the point that I was trying to make in my post. What really concerns me, and should concern anyone else who wonders how this film will be viewed in the future is that this is “propaganda.”

When you say that ZDT is not a “CIA Chronology” but a “Real Chronology” is naïve. There were numerous instances of anti-torture opinions and actions that took place at the time of the OBL search that were just as much a part of the chronological events that led up to the ZDT downing of OBL. Bigelow decided to ignore these issues.

And that’s why this movie will always be remembered as being an artistic masterpiece but also, intentionally, as a historic propaganda film supporting the Bush/Cheney torture regime.
Thanks for responding to me, Steven. I don’t wanna argue with you on this, because I read every post you write and always come away with something to reflect on…often slightly altering my perspective on that “something.”

We just have two different opinions on what the movie did.

I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking there was anything good or effective about torture; in fact, I see just the opposite as the most likely take-away. I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking the interrogators using “enhances techniques” were anything but brutal animals—and I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking that we are a better nation now that we have adopted barbaric practices that we have previously scorned.

In any case, Harriett Beecher Stowe never mentioned Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, nor any other abolitionist in Uncle Tom’s Cabin…never once quoted anything that any of them said about abolishing slavery in the book. In fact, she didn’t really talk about abolition…she just showed the stench and inhumanity of slavery and the plight of the institution on the humans enslaved…and allowed that stark view to work its magic.

Would you consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin it to be a paean to the institution of slavery because Stowe did not mention those things…or do you see it as a book dedicated to eliminating the practice by showing it in all its true ugliness?

Can you see the efficacy of the tactic?

If this is, as you see it, a propaganda film justifying the Bush/Cheney atrocities…it would be like Goebbels making a film justifying Hitler’s atrocities by constantly aiming his cameras on the people living in the death camps.
Yep Frank, it’s probably best that we agree to disagree on this one.

My views on the subject are more in line with what Matt Taibbi wrote recently in Rolling Stone.


As Matt said:

“The problem had nothing to do with the fact that Bigelow showed torture. It was the way she depicted it – without perspective, and in the context of a pulse-pounding thriller where the audience is clearly supposed to root for the big treasure find.

We tortured and humiliated thousands of people across the world. We did it on camera, in pictures that everyone in the Middle East can watch over and over again on the Internet. We became notorious for a vast kidnapping program we called by the harmless-sounding term "rendition," and more lately for an endless campaign of extralegal drone attacks, through which 800 innocent people have died in Afghanistan alone in the last four years.

Now we have this movie out that seems to celebrate the use of torture against Arabs, and we're nominating it for Oscars. Bigelow can say that "depiction is not endorsement," but how does she think audiences will receive it in the Middle East? Are they going to sell lots of popcorn in Riyadh and Kabul during the waterboarding scenes?”
its a bit much to call it propaganda, a word that is thrown around casually but doesnt deserve to be. but yes we are awash in propaganda, and the propaganda around our military is some of the most intense around. bigelow is probably starting to understand from some critical reaction that its possible to be too apolitical and she's possibly a prime case of it. have read many reviews of the movie & agree that apparently its a huge disappointment as far as conveying moral issues and subtleties at the heart of the story. for the torture-rejectors [such as myself], there is no spike-the-ball moment, and thats pretty frustrating. but it does possibly provide some psychological closure on a dark and repulsive aspect of our national history... for that it deserves some credit....
even though OBL was obviously not the real mastermind.... closure!
ps is it that old tv show 24 that showed the terrorist chaser jack bauer? the movie should be compared to that tv show & with the exact same criticisms of it as a not even 1-dimension portrayal....
I hadn't wanted to comment earlier as I only saw the movie a couple of days ago. It looked to me that the movie depicts torture as being useful in obtaining info that led to another lead that eventually led to bin Laden. And I'm sure that many viewers will draw the conclusion that absent torture, bin laden might still be alive.

femme makes a strong case that the information only came when they stopped torturing. But surely if any of us were that prisoner, we'd be thinking that if I don't talk now the nice treatment will come to a quick end.

All this is assuming that in fact useful information was obtained through torture. Senators Feinstein and Levin don't seem to think so. If they are correct then it's fair to call the movie torture propaganda. I doubt that any of us will ever know for sure whether torture did produce useful information. Maybe it did but, morality aside, that doesn't mean it's the most effective means of doing so.
[r] appreciate your analysis, Steven. I saw the movie with the intention of blogging about it. I didn't see any character development and I thought the heavy handed opening was juvenile and manipulative and did not work with me.

I had such strong opinions already it was hard to watch it artistically. I felt she fudged using lighting and darkness when it counted to let the audience see what was happening and that fudging was a personal metaphor for me for the entire CIA and special ops shenanigans. It was enlightening to hear the dialogue of the torturers though it was torture porn titillation being exploited and used for lack of real serious plot development. She inserts some personal dangers for her heroine sloppily and too late in the game when the audience is stupefied by the ploddingness of the plot.

Torture and assassination are illegal. The movie normalizes both. Depiction of torture is not a sin. Framing it with a nice CIA-normalization of it is! Torture didn't work but even if it had, it was illegal and immoral, a point blood thirsty Americans, too many, seem to not care about. As for the false-feminism of a female character out-machoing the guys with her bloodlust and emotional numbness, what a lousy role model for young women. Bigelow calls herself a pacifist. Does she not know she made a propaganda piece? As for the accolades, I am missing it. No character development. The momentum of the subtitles is a joke as well as manipulative. Showing acts of terrorism of foreigners but not the acts of terrorism beyond torture of the US during all those years.

And bin Laden's supposed body dumped into the ocean? (i am not talking about in the movie of course but the bullshit from the military) But that's okay because Maya identified him at the end of the movie. Oh really? That should be good enough.

Once again, if it were bin Laden, why wasn't he captured? Dead men tell no tales. But I believe he died long ago of natural causes or from every tall shepherd in Afghanistan being killed just in case long ago.

And also, why not mention a bit of the history of bin Laden in the film. Did Maya or Bigelow herself know about bin Laden's being created and empowered by our own CIA???? Might have been useful in context but she framed it as she framed it. CIA are the good guys. Maya was the noble cog in the machine. That is okay for a character but not if the audience isn't seriously shown that. If the filmmaker is enthralled and misses it, also. Apolitical, not so this movie. Amoral, yes! best, libby
Libby, you make a good point. The CIA has had its hand in creating OBL and the Taliban in the first place. I just wonder what future enemy they are breeding right now.
Libby and MT,

Isn’t it ironic that Bigelow made a film about bringing down OBL from the perspective of the organization that helped OBL’s support group get its start.
Steven, it does not surprise me at all. Considering that 70% of everything published, broadcast, listened to is controlled by 9 corporations. All the major media groups have very close ties to Wall Street and the same corporations that profit from global unrest. What is they say, tell a lie long enough and loud enough and it becomes truth.

What do OBL, Saddam, the Taliban, and most of the third world dictators have in common? Most got their start and funding from the CIA.
Apologies. As usual am getting to a post very. This is a great post and nicely set out and it also leads me to my own personal opinion when arguing with individuals about torture. As an adult of dysfunctional parents who were highly abusive, I can testify to the fact that I would say anything under duress and pain to make the pain stop. Yes yes the Holocaust - that was me. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that was me too. Want me to confess to other stuff? Sure, just make the pain stop. I can't fathom how torture can possibly be effective, unless of course we engage in it to create fresh enemies. War after all, is big business and having enemies is the stuff governments thrive on to keep a citizenry from questioning too much. I will definitely pass on this movie. It sounds disgusting and more of the hate and violence we have now taken into our schools.