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Sometimes It's Not Just a Movie

Why I Won’t be Voting for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in Any Category

by DAVE CLENNON

I’m a member of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.  At the risk of being expelled, for disclosing my intentions, I will not be voting for Zero Dark Thirty—in any Academy Awards category.

Everyone who contributes skill and energy to a motion picture—including actors—shares responsibility for the impressions the picture makes and the ideas it expresses. If I had played the role that was offered to me on Fox’s 24 (Season 7), I would have been guilty of promoting torture, and I couldn’t have evaded my own responsibility by blaming the writers and directors.

So Jessica Chastain won’t get my vote for Best Actress. With her beauty and her tough-but-vulnerable posturing, she almost succeeds in making extreme brutality look weirdly heroic.  There’s plenty of “Oscar buzz” around Zero Dark Thirty.  Several associations of film critics have awarded it their highest honors.

I have watched the film (2hrs, 37min).  Although torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances, Zero never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal.  It does portray torture as getting results. The name of Osama Bin Laden’s courier is revealed (in the movie) by a “detainee,” Ammar, who has endured prolonged and horrifying torture.

The two lead interrogators, both white, are not torturing Ammar at the moment he gives up the name (Abu Ahmed), but he is still utterly depleted from at least 96 hours of sleep-deprivation, and he knows they will torture him again, if he resists. “Y’know, I can always hang you back up to the ceiling,” says the chief interrogator, Dan.

The “moral” of this particular screen story?  Torture sometimes works.  Not always. Later, the female interrogator, Zero‘s heroine Maya (Chastain), supervises the “enhanced interrogation” of another detainee, Faraj.  These are some of the enhancements we see her employ: first, a thick brown liquid is poured into a funnel which has been pushed into Faraj’s mouth and rammed part-way down his throat; then Maya supervises his beating and near-drowning (aka waterboarding); he gasps for air, gags, shudders and chokes.

Director Kathryn Bigelow then shows Chastain in a clean, well-lighted restroom, looking pretty, but tired and frustrated.  Bigelow does not give us a view of Faraj after HIS ordeal. Next we see Maya complaining to her mentor, Dan, that Faraj hasn’t cracked.  She indicates that we’ve been shown only a few of his torments….”And that’s using every measure we have.”  Then she turns to Dan.  “YOU want to have a run at him?” she asks, smiling hopefully.

jessica-chastain-zero-dark-thirty-592x371

Jessica Chastain, the new face of American torture.

If, in fact, torture is a crime (a mortal sin, if you will)—a signal of a nation’s descent into depravity—then it doesn’t matter whether it “works” or not.  Zero Dark Thirty clearly condones torture. Not a single character involved in “The Greatest Manhunt in History” expresses any regret about the CIA’s use of torture.  Maya/Chastain gets her man (code named “Geronimo”), and that’s all that counts. The end justifies the vicious means.

Individuals and groups protesting the easy tolerance of torture in Zero Dark Thirty have been dismissed by some commentators as having “a political agenda.” The grievous problem presented by torture is NOT political.  It’s moral. And it’s criminal.  Decent people of the left, the right, and the center would all judge the torture in Zero Dark Thirty as immoral and criminal.

If the deeply racist landmark film Birth of a Nation were released today, would we vote to honor it? Would we give an award to Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary, Triumph of the Will (See Louis Proyect’s scathing essay on Bigelow and Riefenstahl in the January issue of CounterPunch magazine)? Hundreds of millions around the world watch the Oscars, we’re told.  Are we going to show the world that we Americans STILL approve of torture?

After Jessica Chastain won Zero Dark Thirty’s only Golden Globe, I made this comment: “Right now, like it or not, she’s the face of American torture.  (As Kiefer Sutherland was, a few years ago.)  If the Academy votes her an Oscar, it’s going to look to the world like we still tolerate this vicious, criminal behavior.  It’s sad. I’m sorry, but sometimes, it’s not just a movie.  And it’s not just a job.”

Dave Clennon is a long-time actor and political agitator, probably best known for portraying the advertising mogul Miles Drentell on ABC’s  thirtysomething. His more recent projects include:  Syriana, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break, Weeds, and The Mentalist. 

[This article originally appeared on truthout.org.  Reprinted with permission]