There's a meme about Kathyrn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," set to be released next week, that is taking hold among columnists and other opinion makers: The movie, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, glorifies torture.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni on Sunday wrote he is betting that Dick Cheney would "love" the movie, and that "the movie of the year is also the political conundrum of the year, a far, far cry from the rousing piece of pro-Obama propaganda that some conservatives feared it would be." Glenn Greenwald wrote that it glorifies torture, even though he was explicit in saying that he had not seen the movie, but was writing about the reaction to it.
The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, who has been relentless in making the case against torture, picked up on it over the weekend and wrote on Monday, "I have not seen the movie yet, so I have to rely on descriptions of its plot. But if it portrays torture as integral to the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is a lie." He wrote today that Sony had invited him to a screening of the movie on Thursday.
Slate's Emily Bazelon is more nuanced, writing today that "my own theory is that with perhaps more access to the real-life CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden than any journalist has had, Boal and Bigelow adopted their sources’ interpretation, in which the “small role” played by torture looms larger than it does in the journalistic accounts." In fact, it is that very access to sources that triggered a controversy in D.C. that had conservatives claiming that the White House was bending over backwards to help a movie that depicts an administration high point, the dealth of bin Laden.
Studios dream of the publicity that comes from having a project enter the public conversation, as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" has, what with a White House screening, countless op-eds and a showing next week at the Capitol, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invited all members and their spouses to a bipartisan event. The obvious implication is that the movie has something to say about the ongoing acrimony over the fiscal cliff.
Sony, Bigelow and Boal certainly could have not have been under any illusions that their movie, which is racking up many of the early Oscar season awards and critics' 2012 picks, would sail through without any tinge of controversy. They are tackling events that have only recently unfolded, that journalists are still uncovering and that are too close to the past to benefit from the perspective of historians.
The question is whether the argument that the movie somehow elevates torture as useful --- something that Bigelow and Boal deny, as they say they are conveying what happened, not judgments of what happened --- will create the type of controversy that will hurt its awards season chances. Given the movie's subject matter, it's a trivial point, for sure, but the kudos punditry is also part of Hollywood culture this time of year. It's also a reality of the Oscar campaign: Other movies based on real-life events, like "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Hurricane," have had to weather an onslaught of doubt, sometimes triggered by the competition. That's why we're likely to hear in the coming weeks a lot of pushback against the idea that the movie glorifies torture (the movie also features footage of President Obama ordering an end to it). Ultimately, the movie will speak for itself, and even before its release it already has a substantial list of plaudits. But so does "Lincoln."
Update: In the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins identifies the scene from "Zero Dark Thirty" he says will generate the most controversy.
He writes, "The film includes wrenching scenes of a terrorist suspect being waterboarded and subjected to other forms of torture by C.I.A. operatives; the suspect eventually surrenders information that helps lead to bin Laden. Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. 'It’s a movie, not a documentary,' Boal said. 'We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.' Still, Bigelow said, 'the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.'"