Sunday, January 13, 2013

Political Pressure and "Zero Dark Thirty"

Focusing on a CIA analyst, "Zero Dark Thirty" tells how the United States got Osama bin Laden.  Despite near-universal acclaim, director Kathryn Bigelow did not get an Oscar nomination this week.  At The Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan has a theory:
Back on Dec. 19, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote an open letter to "express our deep disappointment with 'Zero Dark Thirty.' We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama Bin Laden."
To anyone who knows the academy's traditional aversion to controversy (for example, disagreement dogged "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and the highly regarded "The Hurricane" ended up with only one nomination, for star Denzel Washington, after questions were raised about its accuracy) knew that letter meant Oscar trouble for "Zero." It's not even that surprising that it was the directors who caved in to the drumbeat of condemnation. As one of the smaller voting branches of the academy, it is more susceptible to the vagaries of outside pressure.
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The senators are within their constitutional rights to insist that "Zero" says that torture led the CIA directly to Bin Laden, but that is not the film I saw. Of the two key prisoners who are tortured on camera, one flat out lies to the interrogators and the other never says anything no matter what is done to him. Hardly a ringing endorsement of enhanced interrogation techniques.
The CIA does get a piece of information from that recalcitrant man, but it is the guile of interrogators employed well after the torture that does the trick. If "Zero Dark Thirty" has any message about what led to Bin Laden's location, it's that, rather than torture, it was the slow, meticulous, painstaking gathering of information over nearly a decade by Chastain's character Maya that did the job.
The Huffington Post reports:
As recent as this week, the debate about whether "Zero Dark Thirty" is pro-torture remained in play. As TheWrap notes, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences member David Clennon said he would not vote for the film in any Oscar category because of its content. "Zero Dark Thirty" scored a nomination for Best Picture, but Bigelow was snubbed in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards, putting the overall awards picture of the film in heavy doubt. (The 1989 film "Driving Miss Daisy" was the last Best Picture winner to capture the award without a corresponding Best Director nomination.) It's worth noting, however, that Boal did receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“Torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances,” Clennon wrote in a blog post. "'Zero' never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal. It does portray torture as getting results.”
"We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda," [Sony co-chair Amy] Pascal Pascal said in her statement. "This film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an Artist's right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is. While we fully respect everyone’s right to express their opinion, this activity is really an affront to the Academy and artistic creative freedom."