An Outrageous Request: Please Boycott Zero Dark Thirty

UPDATE: After writing this, I saw ZERO DARK THIRTY. (I didn't pay. The studio sent me a DVD.) The torture scenes are, I think, deliberately ambiguous. Not for artistic reasons, I suspect, but for business reasons. That is, there are two American audiences for the film. One is red state, gun-loving, old school patriotic --- an audience that will cheer the torture scenes. The other audience is blue state, non-gun, latte drinking and Volvo driving --- an audience that condemns torture. The filmmakers want both audiences. Smart calculation. Also: cynical, corrupt and appalling. I was right to call for a boycott.

To call for a boycott of a movie -- that's extreme.

And for a writer, who is by definition a champion of free expression, to call for a boycott of a film he has not seen -- isn't that right out of the Taliban playbook?

It is. And yet that's exactly what I've come here to do: to urge you not to see Zero Dark Thirty, the new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

My reason is simple: The film glorifies torture.

Zero Dark Thirty starts with phone calls from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and moves rapidly to detainees being waterboarded and twisted into positions not seen in nature. That torture produces a clue. Which is useful when the film turns to traditional investigative methods.

Yes, we tortured. But that sequence of events is wrong. In the film -- and as a matter of widely-acknowledged fact -- it's only the traditional methods that pay off. No matter. Frank Bruni put the film's takeaway bluntly it in a recent New York Times column: "No waterboarding, no bin Laden."

Or as a headline in the New York Post has it: "Waterboarding is necessary. Gitmo worked. Bush was right."

The filmmakers disagree. They just show, they say. They say they don't draw conclusions.

It's no accident that we're seeing sharply divided views on those torture scenes. By front-loading the film with the gruesome reality of torture -- but not presenting a single character who sees what's happening and condemns it as illegal, immoral and ineffective -- director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, her screenwriter and co-producer, get to have it both ways.

Mark Boal has been interviewed about the fact vs. fiction element in the film. (To read it, you need to get around the Wall Street Journal's pay wall. Google "Zero Dark Thirty Takes Some Flak" to get a link that works.)

It is, he says, "preposterous to say Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture." After all, it's "a movie -- not a documentary." His obligation, therefore, is not to make the movie accurate, but to make it compelling:

"I'm not asking the film to be held to a journalistic standard. I'm asking it to be held to a cinematic standard. If I'd wanted to write a book, I'd have written a book."

On the other hand:

By necessity, the movie had to be reported because there was very little information to draw on. There have been some books that have come out since we wrapped, but when we started there was very little in the public domain. Given the sensitive nature of the material, we had to do our homework...

Our depiction of the raid was based on pretty meticulous research. We built a replica of bin Laden's compound on location, and we tried to replicate everything from the equipment used and the wardrobes of all involved to the exact positioning of the house's occupants and the Seals. I hope it puts the audience right in the scene and lets them feel what it was like to jump off the helicopters and into bin Laden's house.

And, tellingly:

"My sensory impressions of Vietnam all come from films made contemporaneous to and right after that war, especially The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now."

In other words, Zero Dark Thirty is both factually accurate and a drama "inspired" by fact. Confused? Majorly: I dare you to find consistent logic here. Not that either conclusion is of any importance to Boal, for all that really matters to him is that a movie is emotionally true. So if Zero Dark Thirty succeeds -- and it's getting four-star reviews and "movie of the year" nominations -- people will see it as the definitive account of the biggest manhunt in our history.

In American multiplexes, Zero Dark Thirty will almost surely be viewed as an action thriller in which the Good Guys catch and kill the Prince of Darkness. In those theaters, I would bet that audiences won't be sickened by waterboarding and other torture -- they'll cheer.

Audiences abroad will, I imagine, also take the film as emotionally true. But in the countries that breed terrorists, they won't cheer. There, the torture scenes will inflame audiences already inclined to see America as the Great Satan.

And then? Oh, but Hollywood, even at the elite level, doesn't look that far ahead. There is the first weekend gross to consider, and then awards season, and the release of the DVD. Within months, everyone involved will be on to the next project. But what if this film, which every critic I've read says is so brilliantly done it feels like completely authentic historical storytelling, comes to inspire completely authentic acts of terrorism? What do we call the victims: collateral damage?

If that dark postscript of Zero Dark Thirty plays out, the creators of this film and the studio that's releasing it are making the nastiest, dirtiest kind of money -- bloody money.

I can't contribute to the fund.

And so -- reluctantly -- I urge you to boycott it.

I understand that even those who condemn the filmmakers for their refusal to signal a point-of-view about the torture they depict so graphically will find it hard to resist seeing the film. It's natural to be curious. And the torture -- how can you be sure it really is appalling and counterproductive if you don't see it for yourself? Afterward, if you feel you've been snookered, you can always punch out 140 characters of condemnation on Twitter.

Just don't kid yourself. America doesn't run on Dunkin', it runs on money. The ultimate endorsement of a product is that you paid money for it. If you buy a ticket knowing the filmmakers refuse to take a position on the most important issue in the movie, you're their accomplice.

Want to do something useful with the money you might have spent on a ticket? Make a donation to reMIND, Bob Woodruff's foundation. Your money will help injured service members, veterans and their families --- there's no equivocation in that mission.

And you might go to Kathyrn Bigelow's Facebook page and tell her why you won't see her movie.

For those who might like a sampling of critical opinion, here's my sourcing.

I started with Glenn Greenwald's exhaustively sourced piece and Jane Mayer's state-of-the-art commentary. "Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment? " she asks. "In their [Bigelow and Boal] 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."

Andrew Sullivan, no fan of torture, says this is "not a pro torture film." Just the opposite. Zero Dark Thirty, for him, "exposes the lie at the heart of the Bush administration: Abu Ghraib was 'not America.' Under Bush and Cheney, it was -- and far worse." Sullivan dreams that the film will perhaps get Americans to see Bush and Cheney as war criminals and wish for them to be prosecuted. Good luck with that.

In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis practically does backflips to give Bigelow and Boal the benefit of every doubt. As she notes, there's only one scene with Barack Obama in the film: his 60 Minutes interview -- "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture" -- in 2008. It's shown on a TV screen as the CIA team watches.:

The three look at the screen without a word, and then Ms. Bigelow cuts to a close-up of one, Maya (Jessica Chastain). The analyst's face is a blank... Is she stunned by what she hears? Contemptuous? Relieved? Irritated? Indifferent? Maya's face reveals nothing and offers as much explanation as her silence. How viewers interpret this look will depend on them because here and throughout this difficult, urgent movie Ms. Bigelow does not fill in the blanks for them. Given that the opening sequences show Maya helping carry out violent, cruel interrogations of detainees, I read her expression as that of an employee absorbing a new set of marching orders from her next boss -- orders that drastically reverse her old ones.

If Ms. Bigelow leaves some of this to your imagination, it is because, I assume, she knows that the viewers for a movie like this one have been following the news for the past decade. They have read the articles, books and legal arguments about the C.I.A.'s use of what was called "enhanced interrogation" and that others have condemned as torture. Trusting the audience in this fashion is gutsy and all too rare in a movie released by a major studio. But it is an article of faith in Zero Dark Thirty that viewers are capable of filling in the blanks, managing narrative complexity and confronting their complicity. This is unusual territory for American moviegoers habituated to an industry that preaches simplified morality even as it turns torture into entertainment.

Ms. Dargas assumes a lot. Too much, I fear.

Cross-posted from