Depicting versus Endorsing versus Censoring

25 Jan
^ This year's Best Actress lineup includes three previous nominees--in alphabetical order: Jessica Chastain (above), previously of 2011's The Help; Jennifer Lawrence, from 2010's Winter's Bone, and Naomi Watts, who was last in the running for 2003's 21 Grams.

What an incredible two years it has been for actress Jessica Chastain. In 2011, she appeared in seven feature films, including Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and two Best Picture nominees: The Tree of Life and The Help, earning a Best Supporting Actress nod for the later. Now, she’s the Oscar nominated star of another top awards contender and enjoying  box office success in two very different films.

Well, I guess congratulations are in order for Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain. This past weekend, she enjoyed the remarkable luck–some might say feat–of appearing in the two most popular movies in the country. In the number 1 spot was Mama, the latest ghoulish suspense film from producer Guillermo del Toro, whose previous credits include the Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth. The famously red-tressed Chastain is barely recognizable in the film with a short jet black do. The week’s #2 film, and the movie for which Chastain has earned her current–and second consecutive–Oscar nomination, is Zero Dark Thirty, Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s highly controversial depiction of the decade long hunt to track down terrorist Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks on America.


^ The title refers to a half hour after midnight, othewise known as the zero hour.

Depending on one’s point of view, Zero Dark Thirty has generated all kinds of wild opinions due to its depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” also known as torture, specifically the practice known as “waterboarding,” as CIA specialists try to crack the reserve of suspected terrorist grunts in the Al-Qaeda network.  Simply, those who oppose this movie, and I bet more than a few of them have not actually seen it (based on my experiences of movie controversies of the past), argue that the depiction of torture is 100 % false and that it goes against U.S. policy; others believe that it isn’t the mere depiction of horror that creates a problem but rather that the film apparently endorses torture by portraying it as a most successful means to an end, a point which many skeptics, including  a few high profile Washington insiders, believe goes against the timeline of the actual post 9/11 events as they have been officially reported. Now, suddenly, there’s a call for an investigation. Well placed politicos want to know who among the ranks of intelligence specialists spilled the beans about all this to Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (a previous Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker and also a current Oscar nominee).  Who knows if this uproar was a contributing factor in Bigelow’s snub in the Best Director category?  Sexism could have also played a role. The truth is that it was probably a little bit, make that a lot,  of both.

For her part, Bigelow, who identifies as a pacifist, claims that there is a difference between “depicting” torture, especially if it actually happened, and “endorsing” it.  Furthermore, Bigelow reminds the naysayers that her film is not a documentary, but rather a feature film based on facts, which allows for a certain amount of dramatic license. That noted, Mark Boal stands by his research. Though he is reluctant to divulge too much about that research to the press, he has at least stressed that he spoke with individuals who were close to the case at the time. What is known is that “Maya,” the character portrayed by Chastain, is based on a real person though even the details of that are being kept, well, sketchy.

Okay, here is what I know. First, I minored in Human Rights Education at the prestigious private university from which I graduated just over three years ago; I do not condone torture, nor do I believe that Zero Dark Thirty condones it. I think it is incredibly silly for anyone to deny that the then administration–those in political power at the time of the 9/11 attacks–was somehow above using torture in order to get to Osama bin Laden. I don’t have to call out anybody by name  in this matter because we all know who publicly asserted that: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” He also stated that the demands for surrender of terrorists were “not open to discussion.” He further said that those who would not “hand over” terrorists would share in those same terrorists’ fate.  That sounds pretty definitive to me, and though he did not mention torture specifically in his post-9/11 speech, he clearly  said that “every tool of intelligence” and  “every necessary weapon of war” would be waged in the war on terrorism, turning one terrorist against another–“until there is no rest”– in the process. We would not be stopped. I could go on all day, and I’m not knocking the former prez necessarily because I think he spoke for the vast majority of American during the darkest days after the attacks. As such, I find the naivete of some of these now interested parties pretty well inexplicable. I remember only  few years ago when the debate was not whether the U.S. engaged in waterboarding but whether waterboarding should actually be defined as torture in the first place. Furthermore, what about all those photos from Abu Ghraib? Really? Didn’t they look just a little like torture?

On the other hand, after reading the incredible book, Unspeakable Acts, Everyday People by John Conroy, I do believe that, well, there is every reason to believe that there are other–more humane, more successful–ways of obtaining information than through torturous acts. I think the evidence about that speaks for itself, yet even knowing that, I would be reluctant to make the claim that torture NEVER works.  Even so, and here’s a spoiler or two–well, we already know how the movie ends anyway, right?–to me, Zero Dark Thirty clearly shows that torture is not the only means of interrogation that works. I think that much is obvious. In one scene, Maya applies a little kindness to a prisoner who has been brutalized, and she (Maya) gets a tiny yet crucial piece of information to help build her case.  Does she coarsen and become a bit more receptive to the idea of torture later in the hunt? Yes. At the same time, another sequence more than adequately demonstrates that there are far greater tools of persuasion than physical abuse. I won’t give away too much, but it involves bartering on a grand scale.

David Clennon

^ Actor-activist David Clennon: Torture, bad; censorship, good.

Interestingly, actor David Clennon, perhaps best known for his Emmy nominated role as “Miles Drentell” on thirtysomething back in the day–and more recently seen in the movie J. Edgar and TV shows NCIS and Weeds (among several others)–wrote an op-ed piece for in which he explained why he would not be voting for Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture–nor anyone else associated with the film. Whoah! Clennon believes, as do many other concerned parties, that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture–and that a vote for anyone involved with the film is likewise a vote for torture. How do I even begin to process this? First of all,  I guess I’m a little shocked to find out that Clennon is actually a member of the Academy. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I think he’s a wonderful actor, but it seems to me that his greatest impact has been on TV rather than in the movies. I did not realize how well connected he was since membership into the Academy is only by invitation. Additionally, the Academy’s policy is to NOT speak about the voting process to the press. It’s quite one thing to for nominees to promote themselves, or for industry insiders to express delight over a particular film and/or performance, but it’s something entirely different to publicly campaign against a given film or a performance. If a member doesn’t like something for one reason or another, s/he should just vote for something else and be done with it. Finally, I think Clennon sometimes misses the point.  He argues that Maya is only able to get what she does get from one prisoner because he is afraid he will be tortured some more. Yes, I can see that, but I also see that by exhibiting a little kindness, Maya is getting results in a way that her fellow agent failed to do. Clennon also gripes that the filmmakers show more compassion for Maya than they do for the people who are tortured.  Sure, I’ll agree with that to an extent, but I also think that since the saga is seen through Maya’s eyes, it would be difficult to tell the story in any other way. She’s the conduit, the audience’s “in” to the rest of the narrative. Besides, Clennon has never served in the military, and I’m not judging him because of it, but his viewpoint is shaped by his experience and is not likely to be the same as someone who has seen and/or lived the events depicted in the film from a much more informed perspective–as in the review I have linked to at the bottom of this page.

Also, David Clennon, where does this end?  He clearly states in the article why he will not be voting for Chastain even though he describes her performance thusly:  ” With her beauty and her tough-but-vulnerable posturing, she almost succeeds in making extreme brutality look weirdly heroic.” Okay, Clennon. Also, I get that Oscar voters are just people–flawed and what not–and that they bring a whole variety of variables and prejudices with them when they go to mark their ballots–as we all do whenever we cast a vote. For example, I once met a woman who was adamant that even though she kind of liked John Kerry, she would not vote for him for president because she didn’t care too much for his wife. Why should Clennon be any different? Still, I feel compelled to remind Clennon and anyone else that it is the performance, not the individual, that is actually being recognized. Easier said than done, I know, but where does it end? For example…

  • Jennifer Lawrence, one of Chastain’s fellow Best Actress nominees, is officially in the race for Silver Linings Playbook, but everybody knows that Lawrence also starred in the 2012 blockbuster The Hunger Games, a dystopian epic which surely enough presents teens killing other teens as televised entertainment–and the movie makes it easy for audiences to root for Lawrence’s character since she is somehow inherently “good” while other children in the competition are presented as “evil”–and therefore deserving of death–even though they are all chosen randomly by the totalitarian government and are merely fighting for their lives–just like Lawrence’s “Katniss Everdeen.” If Clennon votes for her, will he feel a pang of regret about that? Isn’t Lawrence endorsing mindless violence just by being associated with that film even though it’s not the film for which she is officially nominated? Doesn’t that make Clennon guilty too if he votes for her?
  • Look at Naomi Watts, a nominee for The Impossible. Her film suggests that the suffering of brown skinned Asian natives in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is somehow not as compelling as the suffering of white European tourists on holiday who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Worse, the  filmmakers have whitewashed the very identity of the real-life woman Watts portrays in this true story since the actual woman is Spanish with dark hair and dark eyes in contrast to blonde haired, blue-eyed Watts. If Clennon votes for Watts, is he condoning racism, white privilege, and, again, rewriting or whitewashing history for the sake of entertainment and commercial marketability? Shame on him!
  • And what about little Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild? How can a 9 year old nominee, the youngest ever in the Best Actress category, carry any whiff of wrongdoing? Well, let me tell you something. It’s no secret that Wallis was only five years old when she auditioned for the leading role of “Hushpuppy” in Beasts of the Southern Wild, yet it’s also no secret that she lied about her age at the time. Per child labor laws, the producers were looking for actresses who were at least six years old. If Clennon votes for her, is he making a statement that it’s okay to lie in order to get what you want? Also, should Wallis’s mother be held accountable since she was neglectful in her duties as a parent when she agreed to the charade and effectively snubbed her nose at the law? Or does the end justify the means?
  • I haven’t seen Emmanuelle Riva in Amour just yet, but I do know she once starred in a movie entitled Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and, well, we all know what the Americans did to the Japanese at Hiroshima during World War II, so Riva better hope Clennon has a short memory.

Am I being ridiculous? You betcha, and I think Clennon is being ridiculous too. At the very least, he isn’t helping. Oh sure, we have freedom of the press (Yay!), and Clennon is equally free to vote for whomever he wants, but I do think there is a reason the Academy wants members to refrain from spilling too much about the way they vote.  After all, the Oscar telecast is a cash cow for both the ABC TV network as well as the Academy, and too much dissension among the ranks might turn-off viewers, which is bad for business. I also wonder if Clennon is somehow trivializing a serious discussion about torture by reducing it to the level of how he plans to vote for the Academy Awards. Only in Hollywood do people take themselves that seriously.

Kathryn Bigelow, “…a lifelong pacifist”:

Interview with screenwriter Mark Boal:

President George W. Bush Post 9/11 speech:

David Clennon’s op-ed piece at

A CIA vet reviews Zero Dark Thirty and asserts its veracity:

The matter of Quvenzhané Wallis’s age:



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