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Is "Zero Dark Thirty's" Tortured Soul an Indicator of Social Mood?


The film "Zero Dark Thirty" may be saying something about the American psyche that's been ravaged by a frustrating economy and uncertain future.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Since I joined Minyanville as a full-time staffer in October 2011, I've taken a strong interest in social mood and how it relates to the financial markets and economy. This is primarily the result of reading Todd Harrison's and Peter Atwater's extensive work on the subject, and I now find it of utmost importance to relate what I see in art, entertainment, and general commerce back to what I do for a living: help investors navigate the markets.

In particular, I pay attention to movies, which can often serve as a sort of mirror of what's happening in society.

In the 1980s, I was raised on a steady diet of American action movies where square-jawed manly men (sometimes with an Austrian accent) triumped over clear-cut evildoers through good old-fashioned courage, ingenuity, and love for the red, white, and blue. We never questioned the morals of the good guys, even if they were a little rough around the edges.

My my, how times have changed.

Last night, fellow Buzz & Banter editor Michael Sedacca and I ventured out into the cold to watch Zero Dark Thirty, Director/Producer Kathryn Bigelow's dark, gritty film portraying the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Since we all know bin Laden's fate, the ending was no surprise.

However, the movie did have a dark element that's dominated the conversation since its limited release.

in Zero Dark Thirty, one of the uglier sides of the war on terror - torture - was front and center in the plotline, even though it may not have been relevant to the actual hunt.

In the film, it is implied that torture played a significant role in finding a key lead to bin Laden. In response, Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin sent a letter to Sony (NYSE:SNE) Pictures CEO Michael Lynton saying the following:

As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative.

Furthermore, in a Washington Post essay, Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, made this comment:

In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that Zero Dark Thirty was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: "I wish it was not part of our history, but it was." Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: "This is not a documentary."

What I haven't heard anyone acknowledge is that the interrogation scenes torture the truth. Despite popular fiction - and the fiction that often masquerades as unbiased reporting - the enhanced interrogation program was carefully monitored and conducted. It bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen.

The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees - beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program that I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.

2001's Black Hawk Down transformed a truly ugly event in American history - 1993's Battle of Mogadishu where American soldiers suffered nearly 100 casualties including 18 deaths - into something resembling an Army Ranger recruiting video. (Not that I didn't like the movie as a piece of entertainment....)

But here in 2012/2013, there's a bear market in glorification. The US military's and CIA's successful execution of bin Laden is portrayed as being aided by a decidedly bad-guy tactic - torture - even though it seems that the good guys won without it!

Is torturing suspected or confirmed terrorists to obtain information good or bad? I won't pontificate on that topic in this forum.

But to me, read directly, the end of the movie implies a subtext that victory over our enemies may come with a sacrifice of our own humanity.

You know, I don't remember that particular theme in the Reagan era.

But it seemed pretty evident in 1979's Apocalypse Now, which was produced in the post-Vietnam funk.

Don't get me wrong. I thought Zero Dark Thirty was a spectacular film sparking an interesting debate about just how far we should go in pursuing the bad guys, but I can't help what wonder how it may have been different (not better or worse) had bin Laden been taken out in 2005 or 2006 when Americans were feeling better about themselves.

Would it have taken such a dark and ugly tone?

I used to despise the type of rah-rah American jingoism that implies we live in some kind of perfect, freedom-filled paradise, but I'm starting to think it's better than the overly-downtrodden tone people seem to take toward the future, or at least the one they've taken toward the markets.

As I write this, the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) is up 119% off the 2009 low at 666, yet people seem less interested in stocks than ever, which to me is rather bizarre.

Isn't the individual investor prone to chasing rising markets?

Not anymore. The pendulum has swung from people having too much faith in the economy, stock market, and corporate America, to perhaps having too little.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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