Dec 19

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here.)

Before I start my review of Lone Survivor (film), I have some caveats:

- First, the one, lingering problem with the Lone Survivor film is that it will lead people to read the Lone Survivor book. You know how we feel about that.

- Second, the movie is about Navy SEALs, the “quiet professionals” who have way too much publicity. Expect more posts on this next year.

- Third, Michael C hasn’t seen the film, so their could be glaring military inaccuracies I would miss.

That said, I’ll get straight my thesis: I loved Lone Survivor until the ending. I think Lone Survivor is one of the greatest war films ever made, with brutal, excruciating action sequences and great acting. But the ending is so egregiously wrong and over-the-top, I almost can’t recommend it.

Some specifics. Peter Berg shot the action very realistically, with the SEALs sighting their enemies through their rifles and taking them down systematically and professionally. I’ve never seen this type of directing before, and it absolutely works. It’s the type of war film that will make past war films--even the great ones--look dated.

As the battle gets more intense, so does the pain you feel. To escape their attackers, the SEALs literally jump off a cliff. Their falls are some of the best, most-realistic and brutal sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Literally, the audience I watched it with cringed with each fall. It makes you physically move in your chair. On the basis of these sequences alone, I would recommend the film.

What else can I write? The film looks gorgeous, shot with small, handheld cameras but not in a way that brings attention to itself. The acting is tremendous, particularly Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, who just nail their scenes. I’m not a huge Mark Wahlberg fan, but he’s good in this role.

Technically, the film is a masterpiece.

But.

But the ending is horrendous, for reasons I’ll describe later in a much longer post. Peter Berg essentially made up the ending. He took an already inaccurate book, corrected most of those mistakes, then got to the end and was like, “Screw it, I’m making something up.” And the changes are cliched and ridiculous.

I’d recommend seeing Lone Survivor when it airs on cable. But when Marcus Luttrell gets rescued after the firefight, you can press stop, and watch something else. As Michael C pointed out to me, it’s like the inverse Zero Dark Thirty. (We recommend skipping the first hour of that film.)

So yes, Lone Survivor is an incredible, but flawed, piece of filmmaking.

Dec 16

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Last week, friend of the blog Ed Darack pointed out a mistake in Lone Survivor (film) that we had previously missed when we reviewed the trailer. That mistake is...

Ahmad Shah killed 20 marines the week before Operation Red Wings.

Lone Survivor inaccuracies fall into roughly three categories: 1. Those we can prove definitively. (Like the name of the operation.) 2. Those we can say have no evidence to support them. (Luttrell’s past claims about the number of attackers.) 3. Theoretical mistakes. (The SEAL team had more than 2 options on the hill side.)

This mistake falls firmly in the first category.

In the new film, during the briefing before the operation, someone claims that Shah killed “20 marines” the week before. In full disclosure, Eric C didn’t notice this during his first viewing of the film. Though we haven’t had a chance to see the movie again, there’s good evidence this line made it into the final cut. First, Emanuel Levy writes in his review, “Shah killed 20 marines the previous week.” Further, the screenplay of Lone Survivor on UniversalPictureAwards.com has Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen saying, “We know Shah killed fourteen Marines last Tuesday in Kandahar.”

Oh, and it’s in the trailer. (At the 40 second mark.)

In his interview with 60 Minutes last Sunday, Marcus Luttrell echoed this theme, telling Scott Pelley, “[Ahmad Shah] was...killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Of course, Luttrell amplified Ahmad Shah’s role even further in Lone Survivor (memoir) (page 179):

“...suffice it to say [Ahmad Shah] was a serious Taliban force, a sinister mountain man known to make forays into cities and known to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs...had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S. Marines.”

The truth is much less sexy. And fact-checkable, thanks to the work of iCasualties.org.

As Ed Darack writes in Victory Point, intelligence only linked Ahmad Shah to eleven attacks. Even if he had been responsible for all the deaths in that part of Afghanistan--when I deployed to Afghanistan/the Korengal valley, we called it N2KL: Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman--only three U.S. service-members died in all of 2005 because of hostile action. Two marines died in Laghman by enemy fire. (Which Shah could possibly have assisted, but most likely didn’t.) One soldier died in an IED blast near Asadabad in Kunar province. One marine drowned in the Pech River, also in Kunar. (I ended up living in both of the bases named after the casualties in Kunar of 2005, Camp Wright and Camp Joyce.)

Four is much less than 14 or 20, which is what makes this mistake so glaring. Worse, in all of Afghanistan in 2005, only 99 U.S. soldiers and marines died in total. In the week before Operation Red Wings, no soldiers or marines died in Kandahar province the week before, much less 14. Only one soldier died from a bomb in 2005 in Kunar up to that point. The worst loss of U.S. life in 2005 took place in Ghazni province in a non-hostile helicopter crash. Further, the majority of the fighting in Afghanistan was taking place in provinces far removed from Kunar and its environs. Specifically, many more casualties took place in Paktika, Paktia, Logar and other provinces.

So why did this new mistake come to pass? Like the initial Lone Survivor (memoir) mistakes, it makes for a much better story. The Universal Pictures’ Oscar website describe Ahmad Shah as a “high level al Qaeda” operative, when he was no such thing. The movie describes him killing 20 marines in one week, when he hadn’t killed that many people in the war period. The initial screenplay describes him as a national figure--Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar--when he was at best a regional player. Turning Shah into a national, al Qaeda leader who is killing marines by the dozens makes him a much better villain, but it wasn’t true.

It turns out, the truth doesn’t sell very well.

Dec 08

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

When we first wrote about Lone Survivor, we identified several clear mistakes:

1. The number of fighters involved (Luttrell put the number of enemies in interviews at over 100 when military documents kept it at 30-40.)

2. Ahmad Shah/”Ben Sharmak” (Luttrell claims he was a top al Qaeda commander and Osama bin Laden lieutenant when he wasn’t even in the Taliban, but allied with it.)   

3. The name of the mission (Red Wing versus Redwings)

4. The fact that a vote took place. (Though we can’t prove that it didn’t, the military is not a democracy.)

In addition to those mistakes, we also took issue with the idea that Luttrell only had a choice between killing the goatherders, or letting them go free. We believe the SEALS also had the options to take the goatherders captive or evacuate after they let them go, which they chose not to do.

Later, we pointed out in “Marcus Luttrell Stands by His Mistakes” that Luttrell repeats these inaccuracies ad nauseum, in interviews, speeches before the NRA and other political groups, and campaign ads.

All the mistakes above have been corrected by Marcus Luttrell in his most recent 60 Minutes interview. (We should also mention that Peter Berg also took out the mistakes in the Lone Survivor movie.) Below, we’ve cut paragraphs from the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview, to point out where Marcus Luttrell has changed his story.

Did they take a vote?

“Luttrell told us the unit discussed what to do and were divided.  In the past he’s been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.

Anderson Cooper: What did Mike finally decide to do?

Marcus Luttrell: Oh, we cut 'em loose.”

How many people attacked?

“The first guy I saw had an RPG over each shoulder and an AK-47 and then there was about 30 or 40 guys in line with him.”

Ahmad Shah, al Qaeda or Taliban?

“Their job was to locate this man whom the four SEALs had only seen in grainy photographs. He was an elusive militia leader aligned with the Taliban named Ahmad Shah.

Anderson Cooper: Who was Ahmad Shah?

Marcus Luttrell: He had a group that he ran called the Mountain Tigers. He was creating all kinds of havoc out there in that particular region that he was in, killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.

Kill the Goatherders?

Actually, this one isn’t from Luttrell, it’s from a retired officer in the Navy.

“Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire says the only options the SEALs really had were to take the goat herders captive and try to get evacuated by helicopter or let them go.”

Oh, and the name of the mission?

“They were part of a larger mission called Operation Red Wings.”

Appropriately enough, we didn’t actually buy a copy of Lone Survivor, the book, until two weeks ago. Eric C, after he saw Lone Survivor, the movie, bought a copy of the memoir to see if the ending of the film is completely made up. (Spoiler alert: it is.) And in that copy of Lone Survivor all of the mistakes remain. The inaccurate number of attackers, the al Qaeda affiliation for Ahmad Shah, and the vote.

Hell, the title still reads “Operation Redwing”.

So everyone who rushes out to buy a copy of this book will remain woefully misinformed.

Oct 08

For 42% of Americans, Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction when America invaded. They believe this because, after invading Iraq, the U.S. did indeed fail to find weapons of mass destruction. (Another 25% have no idea.)

The other 30% or so? Why do they still think Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction? Mostly, because they watch Fox News. They might, however, also read war memoirs by or about Navy SEALs.

A while back, Michael C found this tidbit in an article on Wired’s “Dangerroom” blog about the politics in Chuck Pfarrer’s non-fiction account of SEAL Team 6.   

“Author Chuck Pfarrer is taking flack over his account of the Osama bin Laden raid in his new revisionist history, SEAL Target Geronimo. But that’s overshadowed another big problem with the book: Pfarrer’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are absolutely bananas.

"To read SEAL Target Geronimo is to get sucked into a vortex of WMD insanity. Pfarrer says that Saddam Hussein had dangerous, active chemical, biological and nuclear programs up until the day of his downfall. Worse, those weapons made it into the hands of Osama himself. Why didn’t you know about it? Because craven politicians and the lying media hid the truth about what U.S. military weapons experts uncovered.”

Unfortunately, I’m not shocked. Why? Because this would only be the second book I’ve read by a Navy SEAL that makes this ridiculous claim. Yeah, I’m talking about Lone Survivor. Here’s what Luttrell and Patrick Robinson actually wrote about WMDs and Iraq:

“You may remember the CIA believed they had uncovered critical evidence from the satellite pictures of those enormous government trucks rolling along Iraq’s highways: four of them, usually in convoy, and all big enough to house two centrifuges. The accepted opinion was that Saddam had a mobile spinning program which could not easily be found, and in fact could be either lost and buried in the desert or alternatively driven across the border into Syria or even Jordan.

“Well, we found those trucks, hidden in the desert, parked together. But the inside of each one had been roughly gutted. There was nothing left. We saw the trucks, and in my opinion someone had removed whatever they had contained, and in a very great hurry.

“I also saw the al Qaeda training camp north of Baghdad. That had been abandoned, but it was stark evidence of the strong links between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden’s would-be warriors. Traces of the camp’s military purpose were all around. Some of the guys who had been in Afghanistan said it was just about a direct replica of the camp the United States destroyed after 9/11.”

When the movie comes out and people ask us, “Well, how bad is Lone Survivor actually?” I’ll respond, “Read this passage.” Luttrell not only argues that Saddam had WMDs, he argues that Iraq harbored Al Qaeda terror camps, which is so insane and so factually wrong words fail me. This is why we find Lone Survivor so distasteful.

So that’s it. Only two SEAL memoirs describe WMDs in Iraq...wait, what another memoir by a Navy SEAL repeats this claim? This example comes from American Sniper by Chris Kyle. (It’s also being turned into film.)

“At another location, we found barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons. Everyone talks about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they seem to be referring to completed nuclear bombs, not the many deadly chemical weapons or precursors that Saddam had stockpiled.

“Maybe the reason is that the writing on the barrels showed that the chemicals came from France and Germany, our supposed Western allies.

“The thing I always wonder about is how much Saddam was able to hide before we actually invaded. We’d given so much warning before we came in, that he surely had time to move and bury tons of material. Where it went, where it will turn up, what it will poison —I think those are pretty good questions that have never been answered."

Here’s another example, not as egregious, but still wrong, also from a book about Navy SEAL Lieutenant Patrick Murphy, SEAL of Honor.

“Saddam Hussein remained a threat for his refusal to allow international weapons inspectors to account for his known inventory of known chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction...”

If you have to repeat the word known twice in one sentence, that thing is probably not known.

Finally, from the book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Behm

“And in Iraq Adam remembered this photo of a Kurdish girl lying dead on the street, eyes open, after Saddam Hussein had gassed her whole town. All this argument about whether or not they had weapons of mass destruction--that was proof enough for Adam that they not only had them but that Saddam Hussein had used them against his own people.”

In conclusion, that’s five memoirs or non-fiction books--all about SEALs--by five different authors who all repeat the same, patently wrong information. I searched about 11 books or memoirs from Navy SEALs to research this post. About half of them repeated this patently false claim. Wow.

Don’t think that this has an effect? In an old post from My Pet Jawa (we'd link to it, but the site now redirects to an ad), the author writes, about Luttrell’s claims, “Maybe the libs should just try calling him a delusional chickenhawk warmonger who had no idea what he saw with his own two eyes.”

That’s my fear. When Lone Survivor and American Sniper open in box offices around the country, people will go out and buy these books. They’ll read passages like the ones above and say, “Huh. Saddam did have WMDs.”

And that’s how society remains misinformed.

Oct 01

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

As I writer, I think about mediums. Not psychics, but art mediums, wondering which ones will survive into the future. I ask myself, “If someone wants to write something that will affect the most people, what should they write?” In the 1300s, great writers wrote epic poetry. In the 1600s, plays. In the 1800s through the middle of the 2000s, novels.

In the 1950s, film became the most important art medium in the modern world. More people see films than read novels. More importantly, more people respect films than respect novels. I could discuss The Godfather or Pulp Fiction with almost anyone; good luck finding someone who’s actually read DeLillo’s Underworld. Few novels change the world these days. A few films do just that every year. (As far as other modern mediums go, TV came into its own in the early 2000s and video games are far, far too immature in content to even consider them.)

Which brings me to the series we’ve been writing for four weeks now: how do films handle counter-insurgency?

Not terribly well.

How do I know? Because we’ve already written about how Hollywood ignores counter insurgencies. In “The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood”, we describe Hollywood’s focus on the “decisive battle”, using Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Alice in Wonderland remake as examples:

“Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.”

Most insurgencies last decades; most films--chronologically--last a couple of days. Insurgencies rise and fall on the success of dozens of groups and actors; a film can only follow a few individuals. Counter-insurgencies most often end with a whimper (for example, the Iraq War); Hollywood films end with a bang. It’s why Return of the Jedi chronicled the final climactic destruction of the Empire while ignoring the Ewok insurgency that raged for years on the forest moon of Endor.

Which doesn’t mean there are no films about counter-insurgency. The guys at Kings of War made a fine list a few years ago, but take another look at their selections. Those films aren’t popular. And some of the movies--Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket--are technically about insurgencies, but not really about coalition building or coercing populations. And yes, The Battle for Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia depicted counter-insurgency masterfully, but how many Americans have actually seen those movies?

You could argue that Hollywood made a whole bunch of cinematically great, popular films about the Vietnam War--which was an insurgency--like Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and arguably Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

But those Vietnam war films perfectly illustrate what I’m talking about. First, most of those films depicted the experiences of soldiers, not the Vietnamese. Second, America stopped making Vietnam War films.

That’s right. Hollywood no longer cares about Vietnam. The last two major films about Vietnam were We Were Soldiers, released in 2002, and Rescue Dawn, released in 2006. World War II has so many films still being made about it, Wikipedia divides the article up by decade. George Clooney and Matt Damon have another WWII movie coming out this winter.

The absolute failure of most post-9/11 war movies proves the case. After wave and wave of failure, even the most successful film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker (net box office gross: less than $50 million) suffered at the box office...and it didn’t really cover counterinsurgency. Sure, filmmakers will someday make films--good, successful, accurate films--about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; I doubt they’ll cover counterinsurgency. They won’t have the time. (Lone Survivor touches on some of those issues, but I think you know how we feel about that.)

And like the Vietnam war, we won’t be making films about either war in forty years.

I wouldn’t make a film about an insurgency either. If Michael C and I had the opportunity, we’d make a film about Afghanistan, but it would depict a battle. Films can depict battles, not wars. The complexity of counter insurgency--virtually every insurgency--just can’t be covered in a two hour film. I’m not blaming Hollywood; I’m blaming the medium.

Sep 24

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Last month at a small get together during a trip down south to Orange County, I got stuck in the kind of conversation I hate, a conversation about rape.

I hate talking about rape, because 90% of the time the conversations turn to victim blaming, and this one was no different. In this case, we were discussing the military and rape. First, someone pointed out that the military got their statistics via anonymous surveys; that’s why the number of rapes were so shockingly high. Then the conversation turned to female soldiers not wanting to press charges, which must mean that they are lying. Or that they just got drunk--which violates UCMJ--then said they were raped to avoid getting in trouble.

After staying quiet for most of the conversation, I jumped in and explained why women don’t report the vast majority of rapes (listing off embarrassment, victim blaming, shame) but in the future, I know what I’ll do instead:

I’ll tell everyone to watch the documentary The Invisible War.

It is the most powerful, important, impactful and saddest documentary I’ve ever seen. The Invisible War literally brought me to tears numerous times. As a writer, it’s the most infuriating kind of thing to write about, because all I can do is hurl compliments at it. It’s so good, I literally can’t talk it up enough.

Watch it. Now. (It’s on Netflix)

If you have any doubt that rape in the military is a problem, you won’t after you see this film. (We’ll address some critiques tomorrow.) Based on extensive interviews with victims of rape, the film first proves that rape is a constant for women in the military (it backs up those interviews with the government’s own statistics), explains why the problem persists (a culture that refuses to address the issue and a command structure that cannot successfully investigate or prosecute rape charges), and closes by offering a solution to the problem (take rape cases out of the chain of command).

I mentioned above that it was one of the most impactful films I’ve ever seen. It didn’t just affect me; it also affected Capitol Hill. The Invisible War forced the issue of rape and the military onto the front pages, and, thank God, it seems to have stayed there.

I have to mention that this entire review may seem hypocritical. When I reviewed Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop, I wrote, “Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore.” I still feel that way. Most documentaries, whether liberal (Michael Moore), conservative (Dinesh D’Souza) or extremist (Loose Change, Zeitgeist), are incredibly misleading, almost designed to misinform. Even mainstream, issue-based documentaries use dubious statistics and editing tricks.

I don’t feel this way about The Invisible War. For one, all statistics provided in the film come from the U.S. government, which has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to address this issue. And when the government releases politically embarrassing statistics, that makes them more likely to be true. (Plus, the documentary takes the time to explain the methodology behind some of the statistics.)

Second, most of the film is just women--and men--describing their experiences. They put the facts out there, for you to judge.

It’s the best, most honest type of film. See it already.

Sep 19

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

We’re against torture. Eric C and I happen to believe that nations or religions which allow their soldiers, intelligence agents, clergy or police forces to torture violate a core human right. Holding that position, we couldn’t watch Zero Dark Thirty without commenting on its portrayal of torture, because it matters. (And the issue of torture is not “morally ambiguous”; it’s unambiguously immoral.)

As Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have explained, hunting down Osama bin Laden took ten years, involved hundreds of people and required thousands of manhours of work. Some scenes, people and facts had to be left out. Yet their decisions on what to leave out and what to put in created a specific narrative. The filmmakers can't defend themselves by saying they left stuff out because of time; they have to defend why the choices they made tell the most accurate story, especially if they want to say that it’s “based on a true story”.

I pointed out a number of mistakes yesterday in Zero Dark Thirty not related to torture. Today, I lay out the misrepresentations of their representation of torture. Bigelow and Boal really missed the mark.

Myth 1: There are only a handful of torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Before I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I read a lot of the coverage about its portrayal of torture. Based on this, I thought that torture played a small but controversial part in the film, maybe appearing in one or two scenes. I didn't expect the entire first hour to feature repeated torture sessions or interrogations of detainees immediately post-torture. This portrayal alone makes torture look like the primary method U.S. intelligence used to find Osama bin Laden, which isn’t true. (By the way, the movie picked up after the first hour when it became a spy thriller.)

Myth 2: America only tortures bad people. Again, this is a decision Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow made. They only showed the CIA agents torturing known, 100% guilty terrorists. We’ll never know how many innocent people the CIA renditioned to black sites. Considering how many innocent people were taken to Guantanamo, I have a feeling that a fair amount of misidentified or innocent people made it to our black sites as well. Torturing an innocent Pakistani farmer would tell a much different story to the audience, wouldn't it?

Myth 3: "Everyone breaks; it's human nature." I understand why an interrogator torturing a suspect would tell that suspect, “Everyone breaks; it’s human nature”, as one operative did in Zero Dark Thirty. In Army interrogation manual terms, it’s called "pride and ego down". Crush their hopes, make the situation seem dire, then give the tortured man a way out by talking. Still, the actual statement--”everyone breaks”--isn’t true and most of the audience won’t understand that.

To be perfectly clear, torture does not always work. Same with waterboarding. Often, suspects who "break" mislead, lie or deceive their interrogators...especially if they don't know anything. As Matt Taibbi writes:

“The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.”

Myth 4: Torture provided good intelligence. As Steve Coll points out, we just don’t know, because everything is secret:

“The first problem in assessing Zero Dark Thirty’s fealty to the facts about torture is that most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret, including the formally sanctioned use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques between roughly 2002 and 2006. So does the full record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden after September 11. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as well as work by investigative journalists such as Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Mark Danner in this journal, and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, have brought forward some details about the CIA’s interrogation program. Yet the record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions...

...The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.”

But torture does work in Zero Dark Thirty. They choose, intentionally, to show torture working, instead of showing it misleading or delaying the mission.

Myth 5: The U.S. government punished Americans who tortured inmates. President Obama appears exactly once in Zero Dark Thirty, and in that scene he condemns the use of torture in an interview on 60 Minutes. In another scene, one operative tells the main character to be careful, because someone will be left “holding the bag” on torture. It turns out--thanks to one man's willful destruction of evidence--that no one will be held accountable.

Myth 6: All the intel agencies supported torture. They didn’t. The FBI in particular (and parts of the U.S. military) had deep misgivings about the ethics and legality of “enhanced interrogation”. Some people briefed on the in-depth intelligence have even reported that most of the best intelligence had actually been gleaned before the CIA started waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty didn’t include any of this doubt or skepticism. They chose to leave it out. Bigelow in particular has defended her narrative as hewing to the truth. In her words, leaving out torture out of Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t have told the full story. True, but we think Matt Taibbi perfectly rebuts this point:

“Here's my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was "honest," but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was "honest" about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else."

If a film, in search of a better narrative, doesn't tell the most accurate story, then the filmmakers can’t say it is "based on a true story", especially when it comes to a morally complicated issue like torture. They especially shouldn’t refer to it as reportage, and critics shouldn’t praise it for its “honesty” or “accuracy” if it is--as Boal and Bigelow have defended themselves--fictional. In those cases, the film isn’t “based on a true story” but simply a fictional story using real people.

Sep 12

To keep last week’s media post short and readable, we cut a lot of the concrete examples of the media focusing on politics instead of policy, using the WSJ example as a synecdoche of the coverage. We also decided to run our examples of the good coverage today, because good options do exist, and we never want to complain without offering alternatives.

We start with the bad examples...

- The Sunday talk shows. For two successive weekends, the major network’s Sunday talk shows debated Obama’s legacy, not the Syrian civil war. Two Sundays ago, David Gregory on Meet the Press previewed two different segments by describing Syria as “...what may be the biggest challenge yet for the presidency of President Obama.” George Stephanopoulos on This Week asked, “Can his presidency survive a defeat?” Yes. Now, give us some policy implications, not politics.

- Politico. Obviously Politico covers politics, but like this? One article was titled, “United States of Weakness”. They also said a failure to go to war would “cripple his presidency.” Then Politico followed up its coverage by labeling the Obama administration’s secret briefing on Syria a “flop”. The Syria briefing honestly laid out the ways attacking Syria could go wrong, and presented the unvarnished intelligence, instead of hyping it. If it sounds like we are making an Iraq comparison, we are. Politico shouldn’t label President Obama as soft or weak or incompetent for delivering honest briefings to Congress which lay out the complexities, uncertainties and difficulties of military action.

- Political pundits. CNN, in particular, got blasted when it invited Van Jones and SE Cupp to debate Syria. As Andrew Exum tweeted, “@jaketapper You know I am a huge fan of yours, but Syria as analyzed by @secupp & @VanJones68 is why I don't watch @CNN.”

- The push for war even as Syria vowed to give up its weapons. Even as Syria volunteered to give up its weapons, media outlets started reporting that Obama was losing support for an intervention in Congress, then hyperventilated that this could end his presidency. Later in the week, some pundits--especially conservatives--praised Putin’s leadership to criticize Obama. Really?

- On The Media. Though we love this show, we feel their coverage two weeks ago really missed the mark, defending the media’s Syria debate. As their summary put it on the website, “Coverage of the proposed military intervention in Syria is attracting inevitable comparisons to the run-up to the Iraq war, which began 10 years ago. But this time around, with Iraq still fresh in the country's collective memory, the media seem to be more careful.” Nope.

Not everything was terrible. Here’s what we liked:

- The Economist had two pieces arguing for an intervention that focused primarily on the actual conflict, not politics, along with suggestions for what to read online to follow the conflict, a detailed outline of the current war, and then Immanuel Kant’s take. That’s how you cover a possible intervention, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

- The Atlantic’s Conor Friederdorf brilliantly showed how the news coverage of most major media outlets skewed pro-war. In one piece, he describes how inside-the-beltway pundits/experts make this possible; in the other, he writes the news article he wants to read.

- All In with Chris Hayes invited anti-war guests on his show, which helped to balance out the parade of generals on most of the other networks. He also called out the pro-Iraq War pundits who are still “experts” on the Middle East, despite missing the mark in Iraq.

- Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, appropriately slammed the media on his first week back, as we linked to last week.

- Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan. We also weren’t the only people who wrote an open letter to their congressman. Stephen Walt wrote one here. And Andrew Sullivan kind of wrote one here.

- Fareed Zakaria, GPS. Finally, though Fareed invited Paul Wolfowitz on his show as an expert on the Middle East, we agree with his take here, analyzing the policy missteps that got the Obama administration embroiled in Syria.