'Zero Dark Thirty' Torture Debate Dings Its Oscar Chances: For Your Consideration

Let's keep this short, as there are stockings to hang and reindeers to listen for: It's the night before Christmas, and the only thing stirring is controversy aboutand the nationwide opening of.
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Welcome to For Your Consideration, HuffPost Entertainment's weekly breakdown of all things Oscar. Between now and Feb. 25, 2013, executive arts and entertainment editor Michael Hogan and entertainment editor Christopher Rosen will chat about awards season and which films will make the most noise at the 85th annual Academy Awards.

Rosen: Hey, Mike. Let's keep this short, as there are stockings to hang and reindeers to listen for: It's the night before Christmas, and the only thing stirring is controversy about "Zero Dark Thirty" and the nationwide opening of "Les Miserables." For my money, the growing outrage over "Zero Dark Thirty" and its depiction of torture is overblown, reactionary and totally debilitating to the film's Best Picture chances. As I wrote last week: Do we really think the West Coast liberals who vote for the Oscars are going to reward a film considered by many as pro-torture? Anything is possible, but this might be a bridge too far. It's a shame, too, since "Zero Dark Thirty" is being blown out not by Harvey Weinstein, but by the U.S. government. Which raises the obvious question: Why, with regard to "Zero Dark Thirty" and its use of torture, do we actually believe the government and the CIA? And, to be fair, what else is the government supposed to say in this case? "You know the best thing we've ever accomplished? We did that through morally questionable and unscrupulous means!" I'm not saying Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow got it right, but I don't think it's as cut and dry as Sen. John McCain, CIA director Michael Morell and many others are making it sound.

As for "Les Miserables": It's going to be a huge hit, but if the reviews hold, it would have the lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating for any Best Picture winner since 2000. Even "Crash" had a better Rotten Tomatoes percentage than "Les Mis" does at the moment. Critics don't vote for Oscars, but it helps when Best Picture winners have some legitimacy from the critical community. Speaking of rewarding: Will anyone want to vote for a movie with worse critical support than "Rise of the Guardians"?

Hogan: In other words, you're saying it's time to pat ourselves on the back for sticking with "Argo" (you) and "Lincoln" (me) for Best Picture, is that it? I think we both saw the "Les Mis" critical beatdown coming from a mile away, and it wasn't exactly rocket science. At the awards lunch for "Les Mis" at The Four Seasons, producer Eric Fellner regaled the table with stories of how the original stage production in London got absolutely decimated by the critics, only to be saved by phenomenal word of mouth. This has always been a show whose gigantic gooey center has repelled critics and delighted its fans, and we're seeing the same dynamic here. Do an informal poll and you'll find the same dynamic happening with people you know: some will say they have no interest, others have been listening to the soundtrack on repeat for months in anticipation. I saw one otherwise sensible young woman on Facebook who confessed to "falling into a 'Les Mis' hole" as she posted a link to this video of four Valjeans singing "Bring Him Home." (Go ahead, don't click that link -- I dare you.)

So that's all fun. The "Zero Dark Thirty" controversy, not so much. As someone who once edited this exposé on the atrocities committed in our name by CIA interrogators, I take the criticisms of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seriously. As the filmmaker Alex Gibney pointed out in this excellent blog for The Huffington Post, saying "it's just a movie" doesn't hold water when the movie in question is being sold as a quasi-journalistic narrative about very recent history. Watching the film, I chose to interpret it this way: it's being told through the eyes of one obsessive, damaged Agency investigator who would have waterboarded her own mother if it would have led to bin Laden. To her, the prohibition on "enhanced interrogation techniques" ("EIT" if you're nasty) probably did seem onerous, unjust and weaselly. And whereas Mark Strong's supervisor character comes off as a jerk, I thought he made a very valid point: Enough of this kinky shit with the detainees; find some targets and let's kill some terrorists! (Cue angry liberal reaction to the drone program, but war is, after all, hell.) But this isn't an art film; it's a major Hollywood production that is going to be seen by a LOT of Americans, and as such Bigelow and Boal probably had a responsibility to frame the debate better and at least acknowledge that a lot of people in the CIA and FBI felt these tactics were counterproductive and frankly disgraceful.

Since they didn't do it, others are moving in to fill the void. And no, I don't think Oscar voters back a film that's being attacked from the left for being soft on torture. Especially when, as you mention, John McCain and the director of the CIA himself are joining the chorus.

The deafening silence of those at Langley who presumably fed Boal all this information and think he got it right also raises an interesting question: Are they bound by their obligations as secret agents to stay in the shadows? Or did they sell Boal a bill of goods that they would never willingly defend in public? Or both? A number of articles have pointed out that the most disturbing thing about "Zero Dark Thirty" is the way the government and the military were able to use the film to broadcast a story they wanted told without worrying about all those journalistic hassles like accuracy and accountability. The fact that no one who helped Boal is coming forward speaks volumes; I'm just not quite sure what it says.

Hey, speaking of controversy, how about Spike Lee zapping Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" for being "disrespectful"? "Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western," he Tweeted, adding that he did not intend to see the film. Chris, you know how much I love Spike and how much I loved "Django" -- this is actually a cognitive dissonance moment for me. I will say that, after years of being tagged as some kind of "voice of black America," Spike has become very conscientious about specifying that he's speaking on behalf of himself and no one else. So even though I respect his opinions, I'm going to stick by what I think: that "Django Unchained" uses genre conventions and shock value to shake us out of our complacent view of history and remind us that this was real, it was horrible and it was relatively recent. I say remind "us," and maybe that's the issue: I suspect black Americans need no reminder of any of that, but white audiences lulled into thinking America has overcome its racist past by electing a black president probably do.

Rosen: You mentioned watching the movie and let's talk about that. (Since it seems so few people want to talk about the actual movie.) We saw "Zero Dark Thirty" together at one of its first press screenings, and I remember leaving and telling everyone I could find (so, my fiancee and my parents) how morally muddy the narrative was in the best way: The prisoner we see being tortured in the beginning winds up giving the CIA a kernel of information that grows into the location of Osama bin Laden. "Zero Dark Thirty" is war on terror as butterfly effect. The question it leaves audiences is the same one posed to Maya: How far would you go to find the worst terrorist in modern history?

In my mind, it's not pro-torture unless you want it to be pro-torture. It's also not a repudiation of torture. Boal is selling a bill of goods when he says that Ammar, the tortured terror suspect, gives up his key piece of information about bin Laden's courier over "a civilized lunch." I'm not sure how lunches in Hollywood work, but I doubt they ever include a CIA agent threatening to stick their guest back inside a small box.

Here's what we'll never know: What did Boal and Bigelow think while making this movie? They've repeated that "Zero Dark Thirty" is about the guys in the trenches and I think that's fair. That was their intention. But they had to know the beginning was going to be controversial, especially because of where the film ends up, right? "Zero Dark Thirty" is basically saying that torture works, except when it doesn't, which is too often for it to be reliable. Apologies to Sen. McCain and the CIA, but that seems about right.

As for "Django Unchained" and Spike Lee, you're right. To me, it's Tarantino's most mature film and when the violence needs to be meaningful, it's meaningful. Not to spoil it for folks heading to the theaters on Christmas Day, but two parts in particular (a mandingo fight and punishment handed out to a runaway slave) are so brutal and inhuman and heartbreaking that I'm still thinking about them two weeks after seeing the film. I can't shake those images, and I don't think I'd ever want to. So "Django Unchained" worked for me. Perhaps the more interesting argument for Lee to have is this: Could Spike Lee ever get a movie like "Django Unchained" made in Hollywood, even with the same cast?

Hogan: With all due respect, I think you've hit on exactly the problem with "Zero Dark Thirty": it "seems about right" to audience members that torture would sometimes work and sometimes not work. And, taking that logic a step further, who among us wouldn't pour some water on some terrorist's face if it meant capturing Osama bin Laden? But what seems right isn't what the evidence shows. The truth is, torture doesn't work, and it didn't help us capture bin Laden. What it did was produce tons and tons of phony leads and bogus information, even as it annihilated America's moral standing around the world. To quote Gibney's recent post:

"Ammar" is a composite character likely modeled after two characters. The first was probably Hassan Ghul, who was interrogated by the CIA in 2004 with coercive techniques (NOT including waterboarding) and who did provide some details about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But according to Senator Dianne Feinstein (who has access to all of the classified files) all of the vital information was provided prior to the rough stuff. The first clues about al-Kuwaiti were obtained in 2002 through the use of traditional interrogation methods.


The point I'm making is that, when the full history of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" is told we will see that it was not only brutal and counterproductive but ridiculous. The CIA waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. Considering the repetition, just how effective were those techniques? And how good does the CIA look for insisting on mindless repetition of useless tactics?

All that said (OK, quoted), I think your larger point is valid: as they did with "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow and Boal made a movie about what it's like to be a front-line soldier in the war on terror. The film doesn't come down on either side of the torture debate, because the people in the trenches weren't involved in the torture debate (although "Dan," once he's in Washington, expresses his willingness to defend the EIT program in public, if necessary). Those soldiers were told, "This is what we're doing," and then they were told, "We're not doing this anymore." I think it's obvious that Boal and Bigelow wouldn't be getting beat up quite as badly if they didn't pose a threat to their fellow Oscar contenders (please see my favorite tweet of this awards season), but I also think got bit by their own inflated marketing claims: The Definitive Movie About How We Got Bin Laden is really an extremely high-end character study.

Great question about "Django," but what I'd really like to know is what the conversation between Kerry Washington and her reps sounded like after Spike dropped that Twitter bomb yesterday. Don't worry, Kerry, you've still got the Wu-Tang seal of approval!


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