3.23.13 … Zero Dark Thirty lost me at the beginning …

Zero Dark Thirty lost me at the beginning …


Historians know that facts are not separate from interpretation and the same can be said of taste in movies. There is no single standard that would condemn or excuse both the whimsical inventions of “Marie Antoinette,” in which the Queen of France is glimpsed wearing high-top sneakers, and the wholesale revisionism of “Mississippi Burning,” which ridiculously credited white F.B.I. agents for the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.

The most serious controversy of this Oscar season has surrounded “Zero Dark Thirty.” Its detractors have seized upon its embellishments and imaginative leaps to infer a sinister agenda, accusing Ms. Bigelow and Mark Boal, the film’s scriptwriter, of endorsing or even celebrating torture. There is considerable ambiguity in the historical record, some of which remains secret, making it difficult to say with absolute certainty whether torture did or did not yield useful intelligence. What is known is that the C.I.A. used interrogation techniques on detainees like those depicted in the movie’s early scenes.

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” these techniques — indirectly and years later — lead to Osama bin Laden. Critics of the movie — including senators from both parties and journalists with deep expertise on the subject — insist that this is flatly and dangerously false.

If “Zero Dark Thirty” has been singled out for harsher condemnation than other movies and television shows that employ representations of violence, it is partly because, as Mark Bowden pointed out in “The Atlantic,” the filmmakers called attention to the reporting they did as “journalistic” and broadcast the access they gained to Navy SEAL team members and C.I.A. field officers. In other words, they staked a claim on the truth.

Such truth claims are one reason movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and some of the other best picture nominees have excited audiences: they take on historical issues that intersect with contemporary debates. For some, the apparent topicality of these movies — “Django” opened 10 days after the Newtown school massacre and “Lincoln” arrived in theaters soon after the election — makes them fodder for discussions about truth, reality and history. For others, arguments about cinematic truth have become political arguments carried out by other means. “Zero Dark Thirty,” for instance, has become the target, perhaps the scapegoat, in an important debate about the morality of American antiterrorism policies, including “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush administration and targeted killings and drone strikes under President Obama.

Audiences are used to reading the words “based on a true story” as a hedge rather than a promise (or a threat!). And we are often in the dark about just what has been changed or omitted. Even devoted history buffs may not remember the tally of votes in Congress nearly 150 years ago. But thinking adults can tell the difference between a fiction film and a nonfiction one, despite the worried warnings from politicians and others who have recently been moonlighting as movie critics. Behind some of the most inflamed concern over works like “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thinly veiled distrust of the American public — that, well, moviegoers are just not smart or sophisticated or schooled enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, on-screen lies and off-screen ones.

via The History in ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – NYTimes.com.

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