Every now and again a movie is released which creates a major change in society and the way it thinks, such is the power and influence of Hollywood at its best.
In The Heat of the Night is a classic example and it forced middle class Americans in 1967 to take a long hard look in the mirror to confront their attitudes towards race and prejudice.
Norman Jewison’s racially-charged murder mystery won several awards in the 1968 Oscar ceremony which that year had been delayed a couple of days out of respect for the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, who had been assassinated the previous week.
As the film went on general release there were reports of all-white audiences in the Deep South cheering in theatres, giving their full-throated approval of Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of a proud black man who refused to be intimidated by Rod Steiger’s redneck police chief in a small Mississippi town.
This was nothing less than extraordinary given the political context at the time but this particular movie made ordinary Americans see racism for the vile doctrine it is.
If anyone was expecting such a seminal moment from Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie Zero Dark Thirty about the demise of al Qaida leader Osama bin Ladin they will be disappointed. In fact if anything, the film will fan the flames of prejudice in those countries where burning the American flag is already a regular occurrence.
Zero Dark Thirty is so wrong on so many levels that it is bordering on being irresponsible. While the re-enactment of torture scenes might be authentic the truth is Osama bin Ladin was tracked down through good, old fashioned intelligence work. In other words, not a drop of blood was spilled nor so much as a Chinese burn administered.
For the last two years I’ve embroiled myself in an academic study which involved interviewing scores of torture victims from various wars and conflicts since 1945 and one of the most powerful testimonies came from US Republican Senator John McCain; a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the War on Terror but vehemently opposed to torture.
His was probably the one voice that George W Bush listened to and then tried to dismiss and silence such was the power of his personal experience and belief that torture does not work.
Bush reveals in his memoirs how he was surrounded by lawyers who were only too willing to defend the Commander in Chief’s plans to run his War on Terror outside normal conventions of warfare.
And to his eternal shame, Barak Obama also used law makers to become law breakers which enabled the extrajudicial killing of bin Ladin along with other men, women and children in the house in Abbottabad. Sadly the Bigelow film does not dwell on the moral dilemmas or complexities or the heated discussions which must have toasted the walls of The Oval Office.
So when it emerged that a team of Navy Seals had taken down the world’s most wanted man thanks to intelligence about a courier, the first question on Senator McCain’s lips was did the courier reveal OBL’s whereabouts through torture? It was not an unreasonable question and the response he got from the head of the CIA with regards to the raid on the Pakistan hideaway in Abbottabad was a firm “no”.
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta even wrote to Senator McCain in May 2011, stating: “..no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”
We also know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, actually lied about the identity of the courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who would inadvertently lead the CIA to their target. That fact alone proves that torture does not work.
Bigelow’s film gives the impression that OBL was eliminated purely via intelligence gleaned from full on, no holds barred torture. While this method of intelligence gathering probably now has the full approval of the unquestioning sheeple who’ve turned Zero dark Thirty into a box office hit, there is an intellectual force at play which finds the methods of interrogation portrayed in the film as abhorrent.
Torture is not only morally and legally wrong under international law; it is also unreliable and rarely effective, as I discovered in my own research. Of course I’m not the only one to reach this sort of conclusion and it is something which must have influenced the Oscar judging panel. This could be why Bigelow could have become the second casualty of the film by way of not being nominated for the coveted gold statue … the first casualty of Zero Dark Thirty was the truth.
But perhaps the most irresponsible and dangerous clip in the film portrays how a doctor was coerced by the CIA in an unsuccessful attempt to get DNA via blood samples from children living in the mystery house in Abbottabad. It’s true that a real life doctor – Shakil Afridi – is now in prison in Pakistan for using the cover of a hepatitis vaccination programme for the CIA to try and identify the occupants of the house suspected as OBL’s hideaway.
However, in Bigelow’s movie the doctor and his team wear jackets which suggest they are providing polio drops. The significance of this scene was not lost on Rob Crilly, Pakistan correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, who said last week: “In a country where polio has made a comeback in recent years, the film provides yet another blow for health workers trying to eradicate the disease and prevent Pakistan acting as a reservoir to reinfect the rest of the world.”
As I write this, news is just coming in of reports that at least nine women who were vaccinating children against polio have been shot dead in northern Nigeria by gunmen. The killings are already drawing comparisons with a series of incidents in Pakistan last December where five female polio vaccinators were also shot and killed.
These fresh waves of hostility towards immunisation drives in Nigeria, are being fuelled by some who claim the vaccines are part of a western plot to sterilise young girls and eliminate the Muslim population.
Zero Dark Thirty will do little to dispel this nonsense and plenty to encourage it. Bigelow’s film is grossly inaccurate and irresponsible and has possibly already cost the lives of innocent aid workers.
The film may yet go down for having a major global impact, but for all the wrong reasons. This is Hollywood at its worst … a disaster movie in every sense.
Had the United States lived up to its moral stature as an upholder of international law, the film we would all be talking about today would be The Trial of Osama bin Ladin … now that would’ve been a blockbuster.