Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow has finally answered her critics head-on in an op-ed published in today's Los Angeles Times. The timing is opportune: her film opened at No. 1 last week despite the near-constant rebuke aimed at it by a stunning number of individuals and agencies — including members of the U.S. Senate, leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, and dozens of writers and critics and columnists — over the way it situates the torture of detainees in the larger scheme of hunting down Osama bin Laden. Oh, and she's got an awards-season mountain to climb while she's at it.
Does Bigelow's self-defense succeed? To begin, she paraphrases what she said at the New York Film Critics Circle ceremony last week: "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was ... no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time." Later, she argues that she didn't want to airbrush reality:
As for what I personally believe ... I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.
This evidences a bizarre misunderstanding of where her critics are coming from. Nobody — not even Glenn Greenwald — is suggesting that her film should not have depicted torture, or that a depiction of torture by itself constitutes endorsement. The criticism — which has been leveled by parties as diverse as C.I.A. director Michael Morell and Steve Coll at the New York Review of Books — is that Zero Dark Thirty deliberately connects torture to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in ways unsupported by reality. (A new classified report from the Senate Intelligence Committee insists that brutal treatment was not a "central component" in tracking down the al Qaeda leader.) The film establishes a strong causality where there is none.
Addressing the political content of her film, Bigelow adds:
On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.
But that's exactly what her critics say she's doing: denying the fact that torture was ultimately a waste of time, a violent diversion, in the course of sniffing out bin Laden. From the New York Review of Books:
The filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden ... Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism.