Before Hollywood blackballs "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow this Sunday evening, a final and much-deserved stare is in order at the source of this distasteful snub—Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and irresistibly along for the ride, John McCain. Had Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain (FLM) not saddled up their high horses in a Dec. 19letter to Sony Pictures denouncing the movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" would not be out of the running for best picture at the Oscars.
Unjolly Ed Asner does not have the clout to intimidate the Academy Awards into dropping Kathryn Bigelow from consideration for best director. Absent the FLM letter, what remained were articles from the fever swamps of the left-wing media, such as "How 'Zero Dark Thirty' Brought Back the Bush Administration." Efforts by "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner and others to stop Hollywood's collaboration with the senators came to naught.
But while Hollywood pulled down the shades to leave "Zero Dark Thirty" alone in the street with Washington's hitters, the film was reviving memories for many others.
After September 11, when those of us who worked in that lower-Manhattan neighborhood returned to our offices, one unforgettable memory was the pit called Ground Zero. That vast space sat vacant for years—the ripped walls, the rubble, the emptiness. Many of us walked past the pit twice a day, and nearly every hour of the year—no matter how cold the day—there would be visitors staring into it in silence. They seemed to feel that they had to visit this place and put their hand in the wound to prove anything so ghastly had happened.
At the end of the movie, when the SEALs team hits the ground in Abbottabad, it is an intense 20 minutes that, shall we say, closes the circle. After the FLM letter did its damage to "Zero Dark Thirty," a group called 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims pushed back with a statement that didn't get much notice. The movie, they said, was "a rare moment of justice and elation."
None of this was on the minds of the senators. We know that because in their letter to Sony there is no mention of Sept. 11, or the London bus and subway bombings, or Khobar Towers or any of the other acts of terror shown in "Zero Dark Thirty." Senators. Feinstein and Levin wanted attention drawn to their report on the CIA's interrogations and detentions, for which committee staff "reviewed 6 million pages of records."
So what exactly did the senators say that caused Hollywood to head for the gopher holes?
"We believe," FLM wrote to Sony Chairman Michael Lynton, "the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden." The movie's "suggestion"? Only a politician would have the skill to hang condemnation around a slippery word like "suggestion." But it worked. Sen. Feinstein completely unbalanced public discussion of the movie.
Suddenly it was a film about waterboarding, rather than what Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal produced: The story of U.S. intelligence officers spending years digesting an incomprehensible flow of half-baked data, making mistakes and wrong calls, some getting blown up themselves by suicide bombers and finally, after three of them ride around teeming Peshawar in a Jeep with some tracking device, they nail the identity of bin Laden's courier. On May 2, 2011, bin Laden was dead. That's "Zero Dark Thirty."
But not for Dianne Feinstein or the Hollywood hundreds. Here's her denunciatory letter's best part: "The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America's values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times. . . . You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right."
This letter gives moralism new meaning. "We cannot afford to go back to these dark times." How true.
If one sits to the end of the long credits for "Zero Dark Thirty," you'll see these last words about those dark times: "The filmmakers wish to especially acknowledge the sacrifice of those men, women, and families who were most impacted by the events depicted in this film: the victims and the families of the9/11 attacks; as well as the attacks in the United Kingdom; the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan; in Khobar, Saudi Arabia; and at the Camp Chapman Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. We also wish to acknowledge and honor the many extraordinary military and intelligence professionals and first responders who have made the ultimate sacrifice."
Hollywood won't do this Sunday. Instead, the members of the Academy will take a seat beside the intimidations of three U.S. senators. It is going to be an evening to remember in Hollywood's most unusual history.