Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gonzo Matt Is Right On: This 3-Month Cycle Of Crises REALLY Sucks!

Yuck! As the nation just missed going over a cliff, the sky will fall tomorrow when the meat-axe budget cuts destroy civilization as we know it, and 3 months from now — we'll see the debt-ceiling fight just prior to May 19, 2013. Bet the farm on it. Gonzo Matt calls for a plague on both sides of the Congressional aisle for this crisis-hamster wheel that seems to spin endlessly. If this is a (fair & balanced) diagnosis of national insanity, so be it.

[x RS]
Sequestration Cuts Crisis Makes Me Want To Strangle Both Sides
By Matt Taibbi

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If you can get past how horrifying it is, the looming "sequestration cuts" crisis is fascinating. It's like watching a bunch of gambling addicts play craps by throwing dice into a four-dimensional wormhole. There are so many variables that neither side can possibly know the true outcome of a failure to make a deal — which means the only certainty is that what we're watching is irresponsibility on an epic scale, wherein both of our major political parties seem to prefer government by random outcome over one managed by sensible compromise.

Obviously, most of the problem was originally driven by the intractability of a Republican Party energized politically by its Tea Party base, which preferred the nuclear option of a default or a government shutdown to increased debt and/or new taxes. These fine folks taped sticks of dynamite to their chests and threatened to blow the government, its credit rating and our entire budget mechanism to the moon if we didn't make massive spending cuts — a wild ploy that may not have made a ton of patriotic sense given the catastrophic possibilities of, say, a default, but certainly helped the party solidify its relationship with its base.

Watching the original Republican debt-ceiling warriors furiously shake their fists over this business reminded me of that great line by Claude Rains in "Casablanca," when his Captain Renault character tells Humphrey Bogart why he had to be so rough in tossing Rick's nightclub in search of the missing letters of transit. "I told my men to be especially destructive," Rains said. "You know how that impresses Germans.

This "let's blow up the American credit rating" ploy impressed hardcore anti-spending types in the same way. It was crazy, but maybe only slightly more crazy than both of the parties have consistently been for most of the last 20 years, when the two sides have continually failed to hammer out workable budgets and instead have mostly just let the national airplane fly mindlessly forward using the laziness-enabling autopilot mechanism of a continuing resolutions, or CRs. Despite the fact that working out budgets is mostly what we hire members of Congress to do, they seem to have a terrible time doing it on time, and instead routinely rely upon the CR process (in which the two sides basically agree to put things off until later) to keep funding levels static for some ludicrously short-term period like six months.

The failure to work out sensible budgets makes it impossible for government agencies to make long-term plans, and instead leaves them scrambling to spend money in the short term. It's an incredibly stupid way of doing business and if these people weren't on television so often, ranting and raving like baseball managers arguing a safe call at the plate and playing to the home crowd by pointing fingers at the other side, they would probably just do what members of Congress traditionally did in the pre-mass-media age, which is quietly and (mostly) sensibly work things out, getting as much as they could for their own constituents without crossing the line into antipatriotic acts of self-destruction – like a national default, for instance.

But since those days of sensible bipartisanship are gone, what we're left with is this. Both sides decided to play political chicken with our economic futures. Certainly the Republicans were more willing to pull the pin here, but the Democrats also gambled.

In agreeing to this crazy deal a year and a half ago — a deal they were, admittedly, forced into — the Dems banked on the notion that the Republicans would never countenance deep cuts to the Pentagon and in that way leave themselves exposed politically to accusations of making the country less safe.

But the Republicans — humorously if you can still find humor in this — have not yet blinked here, which is why the Obama administration is shamelessly rolling Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano out this week to make sure Americans everywhere know that terrorists will be crawling through their children's bedroom windows as early as next week if the Republicans don't back down on this budget thing. ("I don't think we can maintain the same level of security. . . with sequester," she said, adding that the impact will grow over time, like "a rolling ball.")

In a comically blunt use of reverse race-baiting politics, Napolitano added that she would have to furlough 5,000 border patrol agents if the sequester cuts took place, essentially threatening Republican voters with an influx of immigrants from Mexico if a deal isn't reached.

We hated it when George Bush threatened us with the specter of terrorist attacks to get what he wanted politically, so we ought to be hating this, too, although fortunately it hasn't gotten quite to Bush levels yet — I'm assuming we're still weeks away from Obama himself going out to the Rose Garden to tell reporters that unmanned terror drones will be spraying poison over New York City if the Republicans don't give him his budget deal.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on the notion that $85 billion in annual cuts isn't all that much (and considering that the Fed doled out more than that to Citigroup alone in just one month of 2009, their argument makes some sense) and the country will barely notice the damage if we have to go over this particular waterfall. The political capital they may lose with the Pentagon in (potentially) letting this happen is an interesting side issue, but one most Americans probably aren't losing much sleep over.

The whole situation reminds one of a family so dysfunctional that its members can't communicate except through desperate acts. Mom keeps getting found passed out next to empty bottles of aspirin or mouthwash, Dad keeps getting pulled over for DUIs with hookers in the passenger seat, sis listens to death metal and is saving up for a bus ticket to meet some 40-year-old in Montana she met on the Internet — but you'd never know it on most days because nobody in this family talks.

This is kind of the same thing we're seeing in D.C. Both parties understood that the debt situation had to be addressed. But neither side could think of a way to work with the other party to get that done in a way that didn't outrage its base. So what we ended up with is an insane gamble: The two sides created a system of automatic cuts that may or may not happen, and both parties are now banking on their ability to manipulate the media to blame the other side for any fallout that may occur if those cuts take place.

In other words, instead of getting together and creating an actual budget that both sides would have to sign off on and own, they created a budget-cutting mechanism that each side will try to pass off as the creation of the other.

Polls show that most Americans will overwhelmingly blame the Republicans if a deal is not reached, which probably makes sense, since the Republicans were the ones who first drew the line in the sand. But the Republicans are acting like they don't care about these polls, which is also interesting.

They may be gambling that cuts will take place and they will be proved right by the lack of a catastrophic consequence, which will lead to them later on being celebrated for showing such backbone. They may be gambling that they can convince Americans that it was actually the Democrats who refused to compromise and enter real dialogue.

Whatever it is, the whole thing sucks. It's like being permanently stuck in the NFL lockout story. Do we really have to do this every three months for the rest of eternity? Ω

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi has written Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007); The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008); and Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History (2010). Taibbi graduated from Bard College in 1991.]

Copyright © 2013 Rolling Stone

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wait Until Your Daddy Gets Home?!

Michael Ennis finds that we are suffering from leadership nostalgia. The Dumbos traditionally have offered a candidate who has been a Daddy-surrogate: Ike as the nation's grandpa, The Trickster as the bad-Daddy, St. Dutch as the Hollywood-version of Daddy-knows-best, Poppy as the bumbling Daddy, and The Dubster as the little boy wearing one of Poppy's suits. Big Love was a sociopath Daddy who strapped the family dog into a rooftop carrier on a long trip to a Canadian vacation retreat. So, Michael Ennis goes deep into Texas history and proposes a latter-day Sam Houston as the Daddy we've been waiting for. However, ol' Sam was run out of office in 1861 by the Confederate ancestors of today's Teabaggers. If this is a (fair & balanced) paternity pursuit, so be it.

[x TM]
Sons Of Sam
By Michael Ennis

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The wave of nostalgia began with The Passage of Power (2012), the latest installment of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography; picked up speed with Bill Clinton’s show-stealing speech at the Democratic convention; and crescendoed with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar juggernaut "Lincoln." Call it leadership nostalgia: in this age of gridlock, America has become wistful for the head-knocking, deal-making pragmatism that enabled these former presidents to drive us forward in the face of partisan rancor and their own personal flaws. 

Our yearning for a strong hand at the helm has its roots in Barack Obama’s lead-from-behind—or from-behind-closed-doors—style. Republicans, however, have been equal partners in running up the leadership deficit: GOP standard-bearer and political invertebrate Mitt Romney ended up as a whining sore loser, while colorless Republican congressional honchos have had to kowtow to the tea party, a faction that prides itself on lacking centralized command. 

Obama, who screened "Lincoln" in the White House, may actually have learned something from the film; his succinct, spirited second inaugural address had echoes of Lincoln’s, which was made to a similarly (if far more violently) divided nation. Of course, Obama’s opponents can reasonably hope that the president’s opening-day speech is the high-water mark of his new term. But regardless, that still leaves the Republicans—our “daddy party”—in serious need of someone to call Daddy.  

You might assume that Texas, the nation’s most populous and prosperous Republican-ruled domain, would be the ideal place to find the GOP’s absent father. But you would search in vain: after embarrassing himself on the national stage, Governor-for-life Rick Perry has ineptly struggled with humiliating rumors that he’ll be challenged in next year’s primary by one of his closest political friends, Attorney General Greg Abbott. Our senior senator, John Cornyn, tasked by his party to win back the Senate this past November, ended up losing seats. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, longtime holder of arguably the most powerful public office in Texas, got steamrolled in his Senate bid by neophyte Ted Cruz. Yet Cruz, evidently regarded by the national media as Texas’s most promising Republican, comes across as the overeager understudy to Florida senator Marco Rubio, another son of Cuban immigrants with tea party cred.  

Our current lacuna of homegrown leadership shouldn’t be surprising. The Texas team that set out to lead the free world twelve years ago—George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Alberto Gonzales, et al.—hardly returned to ticker-tape parades, and the guys running things in Texas today didn’t even make the Bush administration’s traveling squad. Of course, the Texas GOP can still comfortably win at home with third-string talent, a luxury afforded by gerrymandered districts, low Hispanic turnout, and the reluctance of the national Democratic party to pay to play in Texas. However, those short-term advantages won’t last forever in America’s second-largest majority-minority state. Because of our sheer size, diversity, and global economic interests, nobody should be running Texas who doesn’t have the political chops and breadth of intellect to lead the entire nation—and quite clearly we need a Lincolnesque role model to show us how it’s done. That doesn’t mean it should be Lincoln, whose memory remains anathema throughout the old Confederacy, or even LBJ, the Texas president who used his political magic to expand a welfare state that now faces its own sobering demographic realities. 

There is, though, a former president—president of Texas, that is—whose example could steer twenty-first-century Texas in the right direction. Sam Houston’s early life was as picaresque as that of Disney’s King of the Wild Frontier, Davy Crockett: both ran away from home as rebellious Tennessee teenagers (in Houston’s case, to live among the Cherokee), served rowdily in Congress as political protégés of Andrew Jackson, drank heavily, and had multiple wives. 

It’s when Crockett goes down swinging—as in The Alamo—that Houston (the hypothetical HBO miniseries) would start to resemble Lincoln. As commander in chief of the Texas rebels, Houston withstood furious charges of cowardice and steadily retreated to San Jacinto, eventually bushwhacking Santa Anna on turf of his choosing. With similar contrarian caution, as president of the Republic of Texas he resisted the militaristic hubris of his countrymen, putting the Texas Navy up for auction, trimming the balance sheets, and at last guiding the flat-broke republic into the safe harbor of statehood. Houston spent the remainder of his political career valiantly attempting to preserve the Union. As our first U.S. senator, he consistently voted against the expansion of slavery (though he did own slaves). And in 1861, two years after he was elected governor, he was extralegally sacked for refusing to take the Confederate loyalty oath. Prophetically, he warned his fellow Texans that the South was about to sacrifice its treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives in the disastrous Lost Cause.  

Like Lincoln, Houston was both a visionary and a clear-eyed pragmatist who saw himself as a mediator in the conflict between North and South. He conceived of a Texas mighty enough to stand above the bitter sectional divisions; as Texans prepared to join the Confederacy, Houston lamented that we were surrendering our “independence” to a consortium of much smaller states entirely beholden to “king cotton” and the Southern plantocracy. A century and a half later, Texas’s urbanized economy and diverse population dwarf the rest of the old Confederacy. Yet our state’s leaders increasingly sound as though they’re reading off a script provided by Fox News and talk radio—a script tailored to a dwindling, overwhelmingly white audience concentrated in the rural Midwest and the die-hard heart of Dixie.

As it turns out, most of the prosperous Eastern Seaboard of the old Confederacy—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida—has already turned purple, and Obama’s reelection fight may someday be regarded as the final battle of the Civil War. The irony is that Texas, which elected Houston as a staunch Unionist in 1859 and might have avoided the war and the generations of grinding poverty that followed, now seems determined to be among the last states to escape that conflict’s bitter political legacy. In our virulently antigovernment and all too often narrow-minded ideology, we endlessly memorialize the injuries, both real and perceived, of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And we fail to remember nearly as well the leadership secrets of Sam Houston, the man who could have spared us all that pain. Ω

[Michael Ennis is the New York Times best selling author of the historical thriller The Malice of Fortune (2012). His previous international best-selling historical novels are Byzantium (1989) and Duchess of Milan (1992). Ennis' essays have appeared in magazines ranging from Esquire and Texas Monthly to I.D., ARTnews, and Architectural Digest. He earned a BA in history from the University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright © 2013 Emmis Publishing dba Texas Monthly

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This Is Absolutely The Final Post About The 85th Academy Awards

Kevin B. Lee was not pleased when "Argo" was nominated as a Best Picture of 2012 and he wrote the following review of the film prior to the awards ceremony when "Argo" took the prize as Best Picture. "Argo" tells the tale of the six (6) hostages who were smuggled out of Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The film ignores the other 52 US-citizens who spent 444 days as hostages (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981). Celebrating the rescue of 6 near-hostages and ignoring the 52 hostages left behind for 444 days is akin to calling former major league infielder Willy Miranda "The Sultan of Swat." Miranda had a lifetime (1951-1959) batting average of .221 and hit 6 home runs in his undistinguished career. "Zero Dark Thirty" was a home run worthy of Babe Ruth and "Argo" was the cinematic equivalent of Willy Miranda. If this is (fair & balanced) truth to baseball to celluloid, so be it.

PS: The Senate Intelligence Committee (Oxymoron, anyone?) recently closed its wrong-headed investigation of an "improper relationship" between the CIA and the "ZBT" production team. The failure of "ZBT" to win Best Picture rendered the investigation moot. F--k you, Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain and your "investigation" of "ZBT." What a bipartisan joke.

[x Slate]
"Argo," F--k Yourself
By Kevin B. Lee

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Now that Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage drama "Argo" has garnered seven Oscar nominations to add to its mantel, upon which already sit $110 million in domestic box office, near unanimous acclaim from critics, and even a whisper campaign for Affleck to run for John Kerry’s soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, it needs to be said: "Argo" is a fraud.

Sure, "Argo’s" an easily consumable mashup of well-worn genres (exotic adventurer, political caper flick, derelict daddy redemption movie, Hollywood insider satire) whose geopolitical themes make it feel smart and important. One could even say that it’s good at what it does: giving these old Hollywood formulas a fresh coat of vintage 1970s paint (color: avocado). But this tactic is what makes the film not merely overrated, but reprehensible. Its modest achievements point to larger failures both in the film and in Hollywood’s ability to regard the world honestly.

Perhaps my disgust wouldn’t be as intense if it weren’t for the potentially great film suggested by "Argo’s" opening sequence: a history of pre-revolutionary Iran told through eye-catching storyboards. The sequence gives a compelling (if sensationalized) account of how the CIA’s meddling with Iran's government over three decades led to a corrupt and oppressive regime, eventually inciting the 1979 revolution. The sequence even humanizes the Iranian people as victims of these abuses. This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.

Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.

"Argo" makes the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most cataclysmic episodes in U.S. foreign affairs in the last 50 years, a mere backdrop to a silver-lining subplot—one that even Robert Anders, one of the "Argo" hostages, admitted was a “footnote.” The film thus distorts and belittles an event that transformed U.S. history. Ironically, the larger narrative of the hostage crisis would make for a more compelling movie from both a plot and action standpoint: A great filmmaker could make an amazing sequence of Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission that resulted in two helicopter crashes, several dead U.S. soldiers, and a subsequent overhaul of U.S. military operations. Imagine the last act of "Zero Dark Thirty," but with an unhappy ending.

I’m not naive. I know such a film wouldn’t go over well with the home audience. And I’m not demanding that Hollywood make a movie about Iran as bracing and uncommercial as Jafar Panahi’s "This Is Not a Film," my top movie of 2012 and a true reflection of Iran's reality, using all the resourceful invention that's missing in "Argo." But apologists will argue that a film like "Argo" is the best we could hope for in depicting this episode of history, which makes the film less about history than about our national addiction to happy endings in movies. Argo is ostensibly about how a fake movie saves lives, and thus about the redemptive power of movies at large. But since it’s about a fake movie, it’s not really about moviemaking—it’s about the power of Hollywood bullshit. Instead of a real filmmaker, we get Alan Arkin’s wise-guy hack producer dispensing chestnuts over how to create hype and attention to make it seem like a film is important— lessons "Argo’s" promoters no doubt took to heart. (My favorite "Argo" publicity factoid is that Ben Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies. No one mentions that he didn’t graduate.) Arkin’s remarks may very well be an accurate insight into how Hollywood really works, but they reflect the movie’s smug complacency over its ability to pull its gilded wool over our eyes.

Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.

Late in the movie, Affleck’s CIA agent dazzles Iranian soldiers at a checkpoint with storyboards from his fake sci-fi production. The scene plays into the hoary sentiment uttered at every Academy Awards ceremony, one surely to be repeated with each Oscar "Argo" wins: People across the world are movie fans at heart. But like Oscar night, the scene is really a reflection of Hollywood’s hubris in trumpeting its own power. This moment, of course, is more bullshit, a self-serving fantasy concocted by the screenwriter. But it reminds us of "Argo’s" opening sequence, when it was us dazzled into submission by a series of storyboards. A razzle-dazzle con job worthy of its CIA subject, "Argo" thinks of you just like it thinks of those buffoonish Iranian soldiers: too easily impressed with a flimsy fabrication to see beyond it. Ω

[Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, and media activist. Lee was the supervising producer of "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" in 2011. He received a BA (cum laude) in English Literature and Asian Studies from Williams College.]

Copyright © 2013 The Slate Group Division of the Washington Post Company

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Gimme A B! Gimme An S! Put 'Em Together & Whataya Got? B.S.!!!!!

The Lamestream Media refers to the deficit/debt song-and-dance team as "Simpson-Bowles" for former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Erskine Bowles, the former White House Chief of Staff for The Slickster. However, this blog's cartoonist-in-residence, Tom Tomorrow, reverses the name-order to Bowles-Simpson and arrives at an appropriate acronym for everything they say and do: B.S. The B.S.-boys have taken a prominent position in the national conversation about the nation debt and the budget deficit. Their pronouncements are full of B.S. If this is the (fair & balanced) study of biogas, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
The B.S. Approach
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to embiggen — H/T to Daily Kos — or use the zoom feature of your browser) Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2013 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Today, This Blog Gives A Thumbs-Down To Eags As A Film Critic

Eags gives a thumbs-up to "Lincoln" as Best Picture tonight at the Oscar awards show. After viewing "Zero Dark Thirty" ("ZDT") twice, he gives that flick a thumbs-down. Eags criticizes "ZDT" because it doesn't hit the CIA (and The Dubster) hard enough for the mistakes and errors that created the decade-long lacunae in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. However, the film depicted "Maya" during those years at CIA headquarters and out in the field yammering at the higher-ups in the CIA who dragged their feet for 10 years. In the meeting that ultimately resulted in sending the SEALS to Abbottabad to kill bin Laden, the unnamed CIA director, a fictionalized Leon Panetta, asked who found the Abottabad site. "Maya," sitting against the wall said, "I'm the mother-f-er who found the place." This obscene self-reference characterized "Maya's" lack of popularity with her superiors. (The CIA agent who was the basis of "Maya" in the film was denied promotion by the Agency in late 2012. Mother-f-er, indeed.) To this blogger, the best scene in "ZDT" was the final scene when "Maya" is flown solo in a C-130 and a voice off-camera asks: "Where do you want to go." "Maya" silently weeps without response and we in this country should silently weep, too. If this is (fair & balanced) cinéastisme, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Why Oscar Will Snub "Zero Dark Thirty"
By Timothy Egan

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Sunday night is Oscar night, the 85th Academy Awards, high holy day for America’s most influential cultural export. “Zero Dark Thirty,” once thought to be a favorite for best picture, has been pummeled on the way to the finish line. It increasingly looks like “Argo,” a tidy drama about an imaginative rescue mission in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, will win.

Many are blaming the fall of “Zero” on a campaign by hand-wringers against the film’s torture scenes, which are brutal and — in the view of those with inside knowledge of the realm that Dick Cheney called “the dark side” — leave a false impression.

It would be naïve to rule out the hidden hands of the many competitors vying for the great statuette. The Oscar race is a big money affair, after all, not unlike a presidential campaign, with negative advertising, planted stories and double agents of cinematic spin.

But I suspect that the real problem for academy voters with Kathryn Bigelow’s film is not the torture sequences, but how utterly devoid of larger context the movie is. Should that matter? No, unless you make the claim, as the filmmakers have done, that your version of “history’s greatest manhunt” carries the imprimatur of journalistic accuracy — durable enough to become the art of record.

The duty of a dramatist is to tell a story, with conflict, peril and resolution. The duty of a historian is much the same, with the added responsibility of assembling a factual narrative. In trying to have it both ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” lost a large segment of thinking movie lovers.

I first saw the film with two highly opinionated women, and we had the same instant reaction: best picture. Maya, the composite character of the C.I.A. band of sisters that tracked Osama bin Laden, was mesmerizing. It was emotionally satisfying to see a mass killer in a body bag. The stomach-turning visual style was similar to Bigelow’s best-picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” which I loved.

That was six weeks ago. A second viewing with journalist friends who know the story well led to a more troubling take-away. It’s not just the torture and its inherent message that young, attractive Americans got the ultimate payoff in part by doing what German bad guys used to do in the movies.

It’s the omissions. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing. This is a crucial point, because the film is likely to end up as the most popular version of the singular trauma in the first decade of the 21st century.

It’s obvious, now, why the C.I.A. was cooperative with the filmmakers: it couldn’t have asked for better product placement.

“I liked it, in balance,” said Michael Hayden, who was director of the C.I.A. in the latter half of George W. Bush’s second term. Hayden offered his endorsement at an extraordinary panel of top spooks, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute last month. With caveats for accuracy, these apologists for torture — oops, I mean “enhanced interrogation techniques” — all gave the film a thumbs up.

With “Zero Dark Thirty,” the C.I.A. has shown just how adept it is at spinning Hollywood. Dating from television’s “24,” which was torture porn for a Fox News nation, pop culture depictions of the terror war are mostly action without angst.

Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, said, “The film doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned.” So what? Bigelow can make the film she wants. But she set herself up for such criticism when she put “based on firsthand accounts of actual events” in the title sequence.

In Bigelow’s defense, she says the film is neutral, and that detractors are “confusing depiction with endorsement.” No doubt, some of the critical piling-on is hysterical and misinformed. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, are right in asserting that they could not have presented the manhunt without showing torture, one-sided though it is. But shouldn’t the same logic apply to the huge missing elements of the story?

Any definitive account of the 10-year trail from 9/11’s grief to bin Laden’s end has to include some central events, from letting Al Qaeda’s leader slip away in Tora Bora to the invasion of Iraq over a made-up terror link. A quick reminder that President Bush all but gave up on bin Laden — “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said less than a year after the murder of 3,000 of our citizens — would have plugged a vital hole in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

For my money, “Lincoln” is the best picture, because conveying brisk drama in the tedium of legislative maneuvers that ended slavery is no small thing. (I know, they hedged the truth with the Connecticut delegation vote on the amendment, a minor offense.) One film is about our greatest president at his finest hour. Another is about the greatest manhunt. As visual narratives that go to the core of American sense of self, they both deserve a telling that will survive the ages. Only one rose to the occasion. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Don't Forget To Eat Your Worms Tonight!

As you sit eating earthworms, so that you can await tomorrow night's Academy Awards show with baited breath, read Mark Bowden's defense of "Zero Dark Thirty" (ZDT). This film has been charged with the glorification of torture in a nation whose employees at the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks," according to the 9/11 Commission Report183 times before he was transferred from CIA custody to military custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The alleged mastermind's trial by a military tribunal at Guantanamo is dead in the water at this time and he is still alive. However, "ZDT" will likely be denied the Academy Award for last year's Best Picture because the film glorified torture. Wrong, worm breath. Mark Bowden can teach you why the opposite is true. If this is a (fair & balanced) cinematic rejection of hypocrisy, so be it.

PS: Why hasn't the Arab Street erupted in protest over this film? No flag burnings. No mobs storming U.S. embassies and consulates. Why?

[x The Atlantic]
"Zero Dark Thirty" Is Not Pro-Torture
By Mark Bowden

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There are two ugly interrogation scenes in the opening minutes of "Zero Dark Thirty" that haunt the rest of the experience, and that have come to haunt critical reception of the film itself.

After we hear the terrified voices of Americans trapped on the upper floors of the burning towers on 9/11 against a black screen, the movie opens on a character named Ammar, suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to both wrists. It is two years later. Ammar is bloody, filthy, and exhausted. We learn quickly that he is an al-Qaeda middleman, and a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks. Ammar is believed to know details of a pending attack in Saudi Arabia, and he is uncooperative.

His brutal questioning by CIA officer Daniel is uncomfortable to watch. It is cruel and ultimately futile. As his tormenters fold him into a small punishment box, demanding the day of the attack, Ammar murmurs "Saturday," then, "Sunday," then, "Monday," then, "Thursday," then, "Friday."

In the script, referring to the frustrated Daniel, the scene closes with the words, "Once again, he's learned nothing."

The subsequent Saudi attacks occur. Daniel accepts responsibility for the failure, along with his new associate, the film's heroine Maya. This is all in the first minutes of the movie. Torture has been tried, and it has failed. It is Maya then who then proposes something different. Why not trick him?

"He doesn't know we failed," Maya says. "We can tell him anything."

And it is cleverness, coated with kindness, that produces something useful. It is too late to stop the Saudi attack, but Ammar offers them a name. More correctly, a pseudonym, what in Arabic is called a "kunya," a nom de guerre: Abu Ahmad al-Kuwait, the father of Ahmed from Kuwait. Maya doesn't know it yet—indeed, she won't find out for years—but this is the first small clue on the long trail to Abbottabad.

"Zero Dark Thirty," by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, is an extraordinarily impressive dramatization of the 10-year-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, one that I wrote about in far more detail in my book The Finish. Warmly praised by many film critics (The Atlantic's Chris Orr named it the best film of 2012) and so far a box office hit (it goes into wide release on January 11), it is sure to be in the running for major recognition during the coming awards season. But it has also been attacked by some viewers as a false version of the story that effectively advocates for the use of torture. Those viewers argue that the film, while brilliant, shows torture to have played an important role in finding bin Laden, which they say is not true. It is reminiscent of the late movie critic Pauline Kael's memorable putdown of director Sam Peckinpah as a virtuoso of "fascist" art.

This no doubt comes as a shock to Bigelow, whom I have never met, but who has been described to me as the kind of gentle soul who "would stoop to lift a snail off the sidewalk."

The criticism is unfair, and its reading of both the film and the actual story seems willfully mistaken. Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America's messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and "Zero Dark Thirty" is right to portray that fact.

A screenplay is more like a sonnet than a novel. Action on screen unfolds with visceral immediacy, but any story with sweep—this one takes place over nearly a decade—can only be told with broad impressionistic strokes. The challenge is greater when trying to tell a true story. The interrogation scenes in the beginning color the entire tale, but they are necessary. They are part of the story. Without them, I suspect some of the same critics now accusing it of being pro-torture would instead be calling "Zero Dark Thirty" a whitewash.

The charge that the film is pro-torture is easy to debunk. I have already noted the dramatic failure depicted in the opening scenes with Ammar. The futility of the approach is part of the more general organizational failure depicted in the movie's first half, culminating in a dramatization of the tragic 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, where an al-Qaeda infiltrator wiped out an entire CIA field office. The agency is shown to be not only failing to find bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda, but on the losing end of the fight. In case the point hasn't been made clearly enough, a visit from an angry CIA chief to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in the next scene underlines it:

"There's nobody else, hidden away on some other floor," he says. "This is just us. And we are failing. We're spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We're still no closer to defeating our enemy."

The work that leads to Abbottabad in the second half of the film unfolds as dramatic detective work in the office and the field, and ends with a faithful and detailed reenactment of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. Through it all, Maya is playing a long game, in dogged pursuit of a lead, battling those in command more preoccupied with short-term goals—finding and killing al-Qaeda operational figures. Torture is presented as part of this story, something Maya accepts. But it's also shown to be at best only marginally useful, and both politically and morally toxic.

So, how true is it? It was a mistake for those involved in the film to suggest that "Zero Dark Thirty" is "journalistic," and to have touted their access to SEAL team members and CIA field officers. No matter how remarkable their research and access, the film spills no state secrets. No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc. Boal's script is just 102 pages: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.

Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate, and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label, "based on a true story," which works as both a boast and a disclaimer. There apparently was a female CIA field officer who performed heroic service in the 10-year hunt for bin Laden, and whose fixation on "Ahmed from Kuwait" helped steer the effort to success. In the film she is seen butting heads with an intelligence bureaucracy that regards her fixation on Ahmed as wishful thinking. This makes for some dramatic scenes, and gives Jessica Chastain a great many chances to brood with ethereal intensity. The real life "Maya" may have been even more lovely and tenacious, but she was just one of many officers and analysts focused on "Ahmed," in an agency that never stopped regarding him as an important lead.* The raid itself involved four helicopters, two Chinooks and two Black Hawks, not the three Black Hawks shown. Key planning sessions that happened in the White House Situation Room, chaired by President Obama, are depicted as having happened at Langley with CIA director Leon Panetta. Indeed, those who have accused the current administration of rolling out the red carpet for Bigelow and Boal in the hopes of hyping its role may be surprised to find that the president, whose participation was central throughout, has been almost completed edited out. The list could go on, but so could the list of fudged details for any film "based on a true story," whether it's the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley Scott version of my book Black Hawk Down or Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln."

Everyone understands the rules of this game. Theater is theater, not a scrupulous presentation of fact. We ought to feel betrayed only when filmmakers depart egregiously and deliberately from the record, as Oliver Stone so often has done, substituting what he thinks might be true or perhaps would like to be true for what is known. Reality, after all, is messy and only rarely lines up neatly enough for a two-hour script. Hollywood's "true story" aims only to color safely inside the lines of history.

In this broader sense, "Zero Dark Thirty" is remarkably true. The hunt for bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders began with efforts that were clumsy, costly, and cruel. We wrongly invaded Iraq, for instance. We stupidly embraced a regime of torture in our military prisons. Some of the steps we took were tragic and are likely to endure as national embarrassments. But tactics, priorities, personnel, and even administrations changed over those years. The nation learned how to fight this new enemy intelligently. Through it all, the search for bin Laden proceeded with bureaucracy's unique talent for obduracy. This isn't as sexy or dramatic as watching Jessica Chastain paling before the stink and blood of rough interrogation, a red-tressed Ahab pursuing her white whale through bullets, bombs, and boneheaded bosses... but it stays within the lines.

As for the real story, the question of what role torture played is more difficult. I wrote about coercive interrogation at length in this magazine—"The Dark Art of Interrogation," in October, 2003. I argued then, before the revelations of Abu Ghraib and other scandals, that the use of such morally repugnant tactics may yield important information and may even be morally compelling in certain rare circumstances, but that it ought to be banned and that interrogators who practiced it should do so only at risk of being disciplined or prosecuted. The word "torture" itself is pejorative, in that it equates keeping a prisoner awake with the most sordid practices of The Inquisition. But even mild pressure does tend to lead rapidly to severe mistreatment, as we saw during the Bush administration, which made the mistake of authorizing it, a step that predictably led to tragic and widespread abuses. These have been ably documented by, for one, Alex Gibney (a prominent critic of "Zero Dark Thirty") in his stirring documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," and by tenacious journalists like Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, not to mention by the candid and devastating snapshots of depraved American military jailors.

Dick Cheney and others have argued that this coercive regimen produced vital information that prevented terror attacks. So far we have only their word for it, and plenty of other informed voices that contradict it. I do not know the answer, although the reluctance of the current professedly anti-torture administration to explore and punish past abuses may suggest such practices were not altogether useless. The one thing that is certain is that they happened, and on a large scale. The abuses became such a scandal that the Bush administration itself halted the use of coercive methods in 2004. But by then the early interrogations that put "Ahmed from Kuwait" on the CIA's radar had all happened, and nearly all had involved torture.

These are facts. Critics of these practices, and of the film, now find themselves in the curious position of arguing that torture played no role in the intelligence-gathering that led to Abbottabad. This is presumably because if the opposite were true, then the hunt's successful outcome might lead weak minds to conclude that torture has been proved effective.

Their logic has become, forgive the word, tortured. The key interrogation that focused the CIA's attention on "Ahmed" concerned Mohammed al-Qhatani, whose relentless months-long ordeal was detailed in a particularly gruesome Wikileaks disclosure and prompted the Defense Department to rewrite its guidelines for interrogation—part of that overall course correction in 2004. Qhatani said that "Ahmed" was a key al-Qaeda player and one of bin Laden's prime couriers, a fact that elevated him to high importance in the search. Those who now say that torture played no role in Qhatani's revelations argue that he offered the information before the rough stuff started. I don't know if that's true, but I'll accept it for argument's sake. It hardly removes torture from the mix. The essential ingredient in any coercive interrogation is not the actual infliction of pain or discomfort, but fear. There can be little doubt that far before Qhatani was actually tortured, he knew damn well that he was in trouble. In "Zero Dark Thirty," "Ammar," who is a fictional amalgam, gives up the name after, not during, his torture sessions. Does this mean that the prior pain and discomfort played no role? In either case, real or fictional, torture creates a context. It creates fear. The only way to know if Qhatani would have been cooperative without being pressured is to have conducted a torture-free interrogation, which did not happen.

Fear was a part of the climate of American interrogations in those years. In a May 2007 Atlantic story entitled "The Ploy," I detailed the clever and essentially nonviolent interrogation of a detainee in Iraq that led to the successful targeting of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The story was later told in even greater detail in a book, How to Break a Terrorist (2008), by the interrogator himself, who wrote under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and offered the story as proof that an artful interrogator need not employ coercion. Yet the detainee in his own story voluntarily submitted to questioning in part to avoid being sent to Abu Ghraib, which by then had a fearful reputation.

The most prominent among those who now insist torture played no part in the bin Laden hunt are Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. All three serve on congressional committees with access to classified material and are in a position to know what they are talking about. Indeed, in a letter protesting "Zero Dark Thirty" to Sony Chairman Michael Lynton last month, they claim to have reviewed "six million pages" of intelligence records, which may help explain why Congress has such a hard time getting anything done.

But there is lawyerly subtlety here. In the letter, they raise the rather fine point about the timing of Qhatani's mention of "Ahmed" as proof that torture was not involved, and write that the CIA "did not first learn" of the courier's existence "from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques." True. They first heard the name from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested in 2001 at the behest of American authorities and questioned in that country and in Jordan. He says he was tortured. I believe him. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, another critic of the film's veracity, has been more careful. He does not deny that torture is part of the story, although he uses different words to describe it:

"Some [information leading to bin Laden] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well," he wrote. "And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."

I'm with Morrell on this. Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it, just as the film depicts. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture. It makes a poor case for torture because neither of the original sources, Slahi nor Qhatani, necessarily realized they were giving up something terribly important by naming "Ahmed from Kuwait." It's doubtful they even knew who he really was. Neither they nor their questioners could have imagined that "Ahmed" would end up sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad. Khalid Sheik Mohammed could not have known this either, but he certainly realized the man's importance. Despite repeated waterboarding, he lied about "Ahmed." So much for torture producing a breakthrough. Ironically, Mohammed's mendacity—his claim contradicted everyone else's—further piqued the agency's interest. Under torture he lied, but his lies helped.
We don't know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym "Ahmed from Kuwait" with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, "It's him," explaining that she happened across the nugget while "painstakingly" reviewing "old files." My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from "a third country." One high level agency official told me, "You could write a book about how we [did it]." The agency says torture was not involved, and there's no evidence to suggest it was.

If you start the story of finding bin Laden from there, and only from there, then the hunt was torture-free. It's almost a passable argument. Until then, after all, "Ahmed from Kuwait" was just one insubstantial lead among many, just a semi-fact in an ocean of facts. But torture was in the room when that semi-fact was delivered up, and belongs in any truthful telling of it.

Gibney, an especially influential critic given his standing as a filmmaker and as a principled opponent of such methods, agrees that it was right for Bigelow and Boal to show the torture, but argues that they ought to have used these scenes to more clearly demonstrate how futile and "ridiculous" such tactics were. He sees the subject of torture as "one of the great moral issues of our times," and views this story as one that could have made a strong argument against the use of torture. Bigelow and Boal might well agree with him about this. If the film leans in any direction on the subject, it is in this one. Gibney doesn't see it that way. He is a passionate artist, and makes films that are shaped by his convictions. That is a fine thing to do. But pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.

The truth about torture itself is not clear-cut. Those who argue that it simply does not work go well beyond saying that it is wrong. They may not even consider it a moral question. After all, if threatening or mistreating a detainee will always fail to produce useful intelligence, who other than a sadist would bother? I am not convinced. I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.

That is not the choice our nation made back in 2001, when this story begins. The fear that contaminated our military prisons in subsequent years became a scandal. It would be very neat to conclude that it was not only wrong, but useless. "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't do that, nor should you. Ω

[Mark Bowden — a Vanity Fair contributing editor since 2008 as well as an Atlantic Monthly national correspondent — is an author, journalist, screenwriter, and teacher. His book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999)—an international bestseller that spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list—was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bowden also worked on the screenplay for "Black Hawk Down," a film adaptation of the book, directed by Ridley Scott. Bowden is also the author of the international bestseller Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw (2001), which tells the story of the hunt for Colombian cocaine billionaire Pablo Escobar. Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award as the best book in 2001 and is currently being adapted for film, with Bowden again writing the screenplay. He is also the author of Doctor Dealer (1987), Bringing the Heat (1994), Our Finest Day (2002), Finders Keepers (2002), and The Best Game Ever (2008), about the 1958 NFL championship game. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden (2012).  Bowden was an adjunct professor at Loyola College of Maryland (2001-2010), where he taught creative writing and journalism. He graduated from Loyola College of Maryland with a B.A. in English Literature.]

Copyright © 2013 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves