By Isaac Butler
Arguments about arguments about arguments can grow tiresome right quick, so I'll keep this short:
Friend of the room Freddie DeBoer has an odd post up about Zero Dark Thirty today. He weighs in to defend Glenn Greenwald's writing about Zero Dark Thirty, a film neither man has seen:
Based on his Twitter feed, it seems he has caused a conflagration for daring to criticize the movie. The typical, and typically cheap, response is that he has no right to judge the movie without having seen it. Which would be true, were he commenting on its quality or its perspective. Instead Greenwald has a very basic point, one that is being roundly ignored: a film that has repeatedly and proudly been sold as "documentary" and "journalistic" contains a lie of profound importance. The movie, by all accounts, shows torture as being an indispensable part of the capture of bin Laden, an idea that has been roundly debunked and specifically denied by many people on the inside of the government. (Adam Serwer, with typical thoroughness and fairness, has the run-down.) To say that your movie is "a hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic," as the writer of the film did, when your movie depicts the use of torture as essential to captuing bin Laden is to tell a lie. And in a country of vitriolic anti-Muslim hatred, a dangerous lie. Whether you've seen the film or not.
Here's the thing. I would agree with Freddie here... except, well, whether or not the film "depicts the use of torture as essential to caputring bin Laden" is not a sure thing "by all accounts". Some early reports, most notably from NYTimes Opinion writer Frank Bruni, claims that it does.
But it turns out that torture's place within the movie (beyond that it takes up the film's first 45 minutes) is up for some debate. Spencer Ackerman, who has seen the movie, recently weighed in with a more detailed reading than Bruni's that makes the case the film isn't pro-torture at all, that Bigelow is getting "a bum rap." Freddie dismisses Ackerman's writing in the same post thusly:
I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. ... That's why writers like Spencer Ackerman exist, to present the proper level of squeamishness and showy moral grappling-- to say that these scenes "can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American"-- before the torture happens anyway. The key is to go through the moral indigestion but to eventually get to the all-American pride. There's a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.
As if that's the argument Ackerman is making. Which it isn't (the argument he's actually making is "The torture on display in the film occurs at the intersection of ignorance and brutality, while the vast, vast majority of the intelligence work that actually does lead to bin Laden’s downfall occurs after the torture has ended.") Or as if Spencer Ackerman didn't have a multi-year history of documenting and condemning the Bush torture regime.
This seems very strange. Given a choice between a critic who has seen the work in question and one who hasn't, one should always take the former more seriously. Freddie says this distinction doesn't matter because aesthetic quality isn't being discussed. But meaning is. And meaning is often open to interpretation, and thus requires actual engagement with the materials to discern. Freddie seems absolutely positive that Greenwald has the correct interpretation and that, sans evidence, Ackerman is acting in bad faith. These both seem curious leaps in judgment.
I have some issuees with Ackerman's piece. He doesn't grapple with the positioning of 9/11 within the narrative, or counter Bruni's problems with same. Nor does he really talk about whether or not torture's failure within the narrative should've been makde more overt. I'm also not sure I'm going to see Zero Dark Thirty. I like Bigelow as a director but have no interest in watching someone get waterboarded. Or 45 minutes of back to back torture scenes. And, as someone who was there, I'm really really fucking sick of 9/11 and it's place in our culture and I thought once Bin Laden was dead, we'd be able to move on. How very, very wrong I was.
But should I choose to not see the film, I also know that I am limiting my ability to talk about it. I can talk about how it is being interpreted by other people who have seen the movie, but I can't actually weigh in substantively on it. I haven't seen it, and in choosing not to see it, I've given up that right.
UPDATE: Another lefty who has actually seen Zero Dark Thirty weighs in on the film and explains why, in his opinion, it is definitely not pro-torture.