Films about torture are often exploitative and sadistic, and even more so when they are state sponsored. In this episode we review the history of torture in the US, focusing in on the post-9/11 torture program and how it was portrayed in movies and TV supported by the White House, Pentagon and CIA. We examine the ways in which these products try to counter the moral and emotional objections to torture, and two films that act as a cultural antidote to this propaganda.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed
A Brief History of US Torture
While we will mostly be looking at films about the post-9/11 torture program in this episode, it is important to note that the CIA (and other branches of the US government) have been torturing people for a long time. Slavery often involved this kind of brutalisation and dehumanisation, ditto lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan.
For over 150 years the US police and border forces of varying kinds have also done these things – so called ‘third degree’ interrogations were commonplace. Around 1910 the media started to pick up on this in a serious way, leading the police to adapt their tactics to use methods that left no physical marks on the victim, but still brought about psychological damage and forced confessions. The 1931 Wickersham Commission, led by a former attorney general, found that this new ‘covert third degree’ torture remained widespread, though it supposedly declined in the decades after that.
This is despite torture being prohibited by the US constitution, because it falls under cruel and unusual punishment, especially when we’re talking about people who haven’t even been convicted of the crime they’re accused of, though even the convicted should not be tortured. The Supreme Court has held since the 1890s that these practices are unconstitutional and illegal, but they continued quite happily for decades afterwards. Again, this is the nature of statecraft – you can forbid cruelty in your law enforcement institutions, but if you don’t prosecute them when they commit acts of cruelty, then it becomes the default. In order to try to uphold the power and authority of the state, you have to violate everything the state claims to stand for.
After WW2, with all the revelations about Nazi and Japanese war crimes (and to a far lesser degree those committed by the Allied nations), torture was banned under both the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Just as we saw with the use of chemical weapons, prohibiting something via international law does nothing to stop people doing it, especially those who drafted those international laws. Some of the worst torturers since then have been the US government and other governments that it supports.
In their 1979 book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Herman and Chomsky detailed over two dozen countries – from Greece to the Philippines – that had receiving US military and/or police training between 1946 and 1975, all of whom had tortured people. In Iran, the 1953 coup and the CIA’s post-coup training to the Savak, the evil-as-shit Iranian intelligence agency, led to many thousands of people being tortured. Who is responsible for this? Well, the most directly responsible are the Savak agents and Iranian police who scooped people up, stuck them in a hole and tortured them. But would they have been doing that if Iran wasn’t such a political hotbed, largely as a result of the CIA’s coup in ‘53?
Right in the middle of this period we have the CIA’s Kubark interrogation manual which states that the threat of violence is often more effective than violence itself (very true), but still advocates the use of violence. This document, from 1963, describes electrocution, sleep deprivation and other sensory deprivation, prolonged solo confinement and other techniques that were replicated in the post-9/11 period. These techniques were used during the Phoenix Program and the CIA encouraged and supervised their use by the ARVN – the army of South Vietnam.
Then there’s Operation Condor, in which the CIA and US military trained the security forces of authoritarian governments in Latin America – many of which they had helped install in the first place – to use torture, assassination and other war criminal methods to repress rebellious populations. This included training provided by the US Army’s School of the Americas, leading us to the 1982 Human Resource Exploitation manual, which echoes much of the earlier Kubark manual in terms of focusing on psychological abuse rather than physical violence, but still advocates physical violence.
I’m sure you’re getting the picture – the US government has prohibited torture for over 200 years, the Supreme Court has backed this up for well over a century, the US is a signatory to (and in some cases the primary author of) international laws prohibiting torture. But throughout this whole period, the US government has been torturing people, whether directly or via well trained proxies.
This continued unabated – the rendition program pre-9/11 saw numerous ‘terror suspects’ abducted and tortured in friendly nations – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, wherever. This is what was done to some of those involved in the Blind Sheikh’s activities in New York, including the Kahane assassination and the WTC93 bombing. This is despite the Blind Sheikh being a CIA asset the whole time.
The Chicago and New York police in the 1980s and 90s also tortured people, including using electrocution and suffocation with plastic bags. A sheriff in Texas and three deputies were convicted of using waterboarding to force confessions, there were other cases in California – this is clearly not just some rogue cop local problem. Border Patrol officers have been caught stripping people naked, exposing them to extreme cold, depriving them of sleep, raping them and no end of threats and psychological abuses.
Leaving aside the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program we have Abu Ghraib and the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram air base and, I’m sure, many other routine instances of degradation and torture of prisoners that have not been documented yet. On top of all this we have the centuries-long torture of inmates in regular US prisons.
Evidently, torturing people is something of a US government speciality, and perhaps nothing else highlights the sheer psychopathic deception of claiming to be a democratic nation that stands up for freedom and human rights as obviously as this simple fact. The nation that marches round the world acting as the exception, the one who has the right to police and dictate to the rest of the world, constantly violates its own laws on the cruel and deliberate infliction of suffering, and has always done so.
It’s important to realise this because it proves that all the excuses the CIA and the military came out with once their torturous actions became public knowledge are lies. These weren’t aberrations, the results of poorly-planned programs that were hastily assembled in the post-9/11 panic: they were a replication of practices that had been going on in and around the US for centuries. If that isn’t the starting point for a discussion about the American obsession with torturing people, then the rest of the discussion is simply dishonest.
SERE and the origins of the post-9/11 torture program
The flipside of this is SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – training, which has been part of British and American military training for many decades. During the Korean war, and then in Vietnam, many US POWs were tortured, and so SERE was adapted to incorporate more resistance training.
There are a couple of things about this that bother me deeply. The first is that their primary concern was that their own people wouldn’t spill secrets. Think about it for a moment – if your troops are at risk of being captured and tortured for the information they have, what’s the best response to this? Aside from not putting them there in the first place, of course. Surely it’s to boost their evasion and escape training, to lessen the likelihood of being captured and to increase their chances of escaping quickly. Do that, and you don’t even have to worry about interrogations, torture and spilling secrets.
But no, they conceded that their people would get captured, wouldn’t be able to escape, and hence they needed to be able to resist torture and endure as much suffering as possible before giving up the goods. So what did they do? They tortured them, to pre-emptively toughen them up in case they get tortured in the future.
Which leads me to ask: has the US military tortured more of its own troops than anyone else? Because the majority of people who have been through these SERE courses did not go on to be captured by enemy forces and tortured by them. It’s not like being kidnapped by the Taliban or the Vietcong or whoever was the majority experience in Vietnam or Afghanistan. It happened to a lot of people, and it’s just as wrong when someone’s doing it to a conscripted US Marine as it is when someone does it to a random guy from West Africa whose phone was once used to call Ayman Zawahiri. But nonetheless, the question stands – who are the biggest torturers?
One of the reasons I ask this is because the CIA torture program was largely devised and run by two former Air Force guys, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. They were contracted – at a cost of around $80 million – to develop the enhanced interrogation techniques. Amusingly, the term ‘enhanced interrogation’ is likely derived from ‘intensified interrogation’, a term used by the Gestapo. A euphemism for torture is a euphemism for torture.
Mitchell and Jessen had never actually been through SERE training themselves, never conducted any interrogations, had no background in intelligence. I can only assume the CIA hired these two sadistic idiots to give themselves a bit of distance, to not actually have their own officers carrying out the torture. Even if they were in the room, or an adjacent room, watching it all, endorsing it all and often directing it.
At any rate, Mitchell and Jessen claimed they could reverse engineer SERE training to produce ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to be used on terror suspects. I did get into this on a subscribercast but the biggest reason why this is a nonsense argument is that the people going through SERE training know it is training, they know they’ll be released soon when the exercise is over. They just have to hold out until then. They aren’t being shoved in a hole for 16 years with no sense of time or if they’ll ever get out.
The second biggest reason that this is nonsense is that SERE training is designed to make the subject more resistant to interrogation. These methods were developed to be used on US troops to help them keep their mouths shut if they happened to be kidnapped while out in the field. So, why does simply doing the same thing to Muslims you think might be terrorists somehow produce the opposite results and make them spill their guts? It doesn’t seem anyone ever asked Mitchell and Jessen this.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, their methods didn’t work. The CIA kept claiming that they were disrupting plots all over the world based on the information coming from the detainee program, but it apparently took them a decade to find Bin Laden. They also spent at least a decade thinking that their first detainee – Abu Zubaydah – was the number 3 in Al Qaeda, when he was a tertiary figure who wasn’t involved enough to know anything about forthcoming attacks.
Shortly after his capture in April 2002, top officials in the Bush government discussed whether they could, legally, use the ‘harsh techniques’ against Zubaydah. Condi Rice, who let’s not forget is a black woman, not some evil white supremacist patriarch, signed off on torturing Zubaydah, referencing SERE training among her reasoning. Needless to say, Rice has never been through SERE training so this must have been something fed to her, likely by military officials or by her advisors.
The TV of Torture
Before we dive into some of the more important movies on this subject we should take a quick look at TV series, most prominently those supported and influenced by the state organisations who like to brutalise and torture people. As I have mentioned before, Dragnet, the long-running police procedural from the mid-20th century, was little more than a vehicle for LAPD copaganda.
Naturally, no one on Dragnet was ever depicted torturing anyone, but if you’ll excuse me this tangent (since police brutality and military/CIA torture are similar, and related) it’s a nice illustration of how state violence is handled in these productions.
As several journalists and academics have recently observed, Dragnet presented a romanticised depiction of the LA cop shop at a time when its relationship with the working class communities they policed was fairly awful. State and federal investigations were uncovering all kinds of violence and corruption in police departments across the country, but viewers of early episodes of Dragnet were given the opposite impression.
The show made its debut just nine days after the Bloody Christmas affair in 1952 which fans of LA Confidential will remember as the opening, inciting incident in the story. Around 50 officers, drunk at the department Christmas party, went down to the cells and seriously beat several Latino prisoners.
In August 1965 a traffic stop led to an angry confrontation with local residents, who were sick of police harassment and racial profiling. This escalated into what we now call the Watts riots, which lasted for several days and involved the residents, the LAPD, the California National Guard and the sheriff’s department. When the dust settled 34 people were dead, including two police officers who were accidentally shot by their partners during the mayhem. Over a thousand people were injured, and nearly 3,500 Watts residents were arrested.
The main reason this shocked so many people is that Dragnet had presented the city and the nation with a very different image of Los Angeles and the LAPD. This was unlike anything they’d seen on their TVs before, precisely because Dragnet was so deeply inaccurate. Consider for a moment how this skewed public sympathy against the rioters and in favour of the police – a 1967 poll found that 77 percent of Americans had ‘a great deal of confidence in the police’, which had increased by a tenth since the Watts riots.
However, the following year Dragnet did broadcast a couple of episodes that got into these topics to some degree. With William H Parker, the bigoted authoritarian chief of the LAPD who reviewed all the Dragnet scripts, finally gone (he died in ‘66), the doors opened up just a little. One episode, titled Internal Affairs, explored a case of an officer accused of brutality. Naturally, the case is minor – the cop hit the guy once – but the LAPD investigate and the officer is disciplined.
One bit of dialogue sees Joe Friday admonish the officer, telling him he is eroding trust in the police and in the true American values that people look to in these dark times, and so on. He tells him:
You committed one of the cardinal sins in our business – you struck a man. And I’ll use your words, a man you’re hired to protect and to serve. Now one last thing, Hillier, and maybe this is the most pregnant issue of all. These are tenuous times we live in. The young people in this country are groping, searching for a direction, and they’re having trouble finding it. The older people in our society are not much better off. They seem to have lost or misplaced one of our great American commodities, a true sense of the real values. The values that built this country into the great one that it is. I tell you, I never thought I’d live to see the day that it’d become stylish to shout down constituted law and justice, to scream police brutality at almost every opportunity. There’s the key to this, Hillier. When you lost control this morning at 2:00 a.m. out there on Garland Street, you laid another bruise on every man who wears a uniform and a badge. Your newspaper story will give credence to those whose sole aim is to kick authority right in the groin. And you’ve shaken the confidence of those who believe in order with justice. No, a lot more went down on Garland Street this morning besides a man being struck by a policeman.
So you see, the real victims of police violence are not the people on the receiving end of that violence, but the cops themselves, because it gives ammunition to those who want to criticise the police. The reason not to beat someone up at 2:00 a.m. is not that it’s wrong, but because it will erode public trust in the police if it gets out and becomes a newspaper story. The exact same logic we found in several of the Rampart scandal films a half century later.
Another 1968 episode saw Joe Friday and another officer, Joe Gannon, go on a live TV debate show called Speak Your Mind, at the request of LAPD public affairs. You see how even then they were making meta-propaganda, a TV show produced in close cooperation with the LAPD depicting the LAPD cooperating with a TV show.
Our two cops are confronted at the debate by a couple of bearded hippies who are in favour of civil rights and all that other negro-loving pro-criminal gibberish. So Friday and Gannon put them straight. For example, one editor of an alternative newspaper offers the view that the police serve the establishment, to which Friday points out that he doesn’t know who this establishment is, and his wages are paid by the citizens of Los Angeles. A beautiful sidestep, to be sure, because it’s the police who largely force the citizens of Los Angeles to pay those taxes, because that’s how the establishment wants it.
In the second half of the episode they face questions from the audience, including a blacktivist who challenges Joe Friday on the police’s racist violence towards black Angelenos. Friday responds that when it comes to brutality, ‘that’s another story. We try to prevent it in the first place by not hiring brutal men. Only one of twenty-five who applies for a job in the department ever makes it. We have three man panels composed of one sergeant and two civilians who pass on every man who wants to go to the academy. One black ball and that man is out. Occasionally a bad apple slips through or a good apple turns bad. Well, my friend, you don’t want him on the job and the department doesn’t either. One trigger happy cop making headlines is all it takes to give all police officers a black eye.’
Again, the real victims of the LAPD’s racist violence are not the people they’re beating, but the cops themselves. Also, note how twice in this little speech Joe Friday uses the word ‘black’ as a pejorative.
Now let’s fast forward to a more recent example – the reboot of Hawaii Five-0. As I have documented on Spy Culture, the show had military support both in its original incarnation and in the reboot that ran from 2010 to 2020. The basic story is that of a retired Navy SEAL (sigh) who runs a major crimes task force for the governor of Hawaii.
The very first episode of the new version originally featured a scene where one of McGarrett’s sidekicks, Chin Ho Kelly, tortures a suspect by beating him with a large ashtray. As the DOD’s notes on the episode state:
Although not a military issue per se, we think that it’s way too heavy-handed for Chin to torture Sang Min by beating him with an ashtray, but, more to the point, we can’t go along with McGarrett turning a blind eye to it. Perhaps Sang Min attacks Chin. who defends himself just as McGarrett enters and sees everything.
Instead, in the finished episode, Chin hits the guy only once, he doesn’t torture him, and it’s all about getting some vitally important information. McGarrett does walk in just as Chin hits the guy, and Chin apologises so McGarrett lets it go. This is very different to Chin torturing the guy and McGarrett turning a blind eye. And, note, it is not our noble white ex-Navy SEAL protagonist who hits the guy, it is his darker sidekick with the silly name. I’m not sure why almost every Pacific or South Asian character in US cop shows is called Chin, or Chen, or Cheng, or Chang, but I imagine the answer is a combination of dimbo prejudices and bad screenwriting.
Hopefully you see how the TV of torture, and police brutality, gives us three key messages:
- Minimisation – it doesn’t happen that often and isn’t that bad.
- Justification – it is sometimes necessary, because the criminals are so evil.
- Deflection – Making an issue out of it makes the government’s job harder, which is bad for everyone.
As we move on to examine some of the films that have dealt with the post-9/11 torture program, keep these messages in mind. And it would be remiss of me not to mention 24, the CIA and DOD-supported spy show which, more than any other, tried to hammer home the message that torture saves lives. The show was even cited by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, in defense in torture.
Rendition (2007) and Torture Porn
One of the curious things about the depiction of torture more generally in US cinema is how often it featured in the 2000s, the decade of torture porn. As we gradually heard about Abu Ghraib and Bagram, and then the John Yoo memos excusing ‘enhanced interrogation’, then the destruction of the video tapes from CIA black sites, we barely got a single film or serious TV show exploring this subject.
But we got endless films glamourising torture and turning it into a spectacle – Saw, Hostel, The Girl Next Door, An American Crime, Captivity, Untraceable, Human Centipede and so on. The enduring popularity of books such as A Child Called It and similar bestsellers about abusive, torturous experiences were in some ways a market reaction to the post-9/11 world. One of the things people do in response to trauma is to try to immerse themselves in horrible experiences, or relivings of the traumatic event or events, in the hope of desensitising themselves to it.
But it doesn’t work, it just messes you up further. I also have to wonder at how many of the people buying these products are driven by some kind of voyeuristic or sexual sadism, because that’s undoubtedly a factor here too. But with torture porn I find myself asking whether this sub-genre was in part a manifestation of a collective or subconscious knowledge that this is what we were doing – we were torturing people. Almost as though we knew, before we knew.
Then there’s the effect this had on the watching public. After you’ve seen several people have circular saws thrust through their faces, hearing on the news about waterboarding seems a little vanilla by comparison. I am sure a million conversations played out along these lines, with one person in the room talking about how awful the torture program was, while another tries to one-up what they’re saying by talking about even more horrible things, that they saw in movies. Without realising that they’re either moronic or sociopathic for doing this.
In amongst these exploitative, nasty movies we got Rendition, in 2007 – a film that was not state sponsored in the usual sense, but did have former CIA officer Bob Baer on board. This is the same Bob Baer who said that 9/11 had elements of a false flag about it, but that it was Iran who were really behind the attacks. And went on to star in a reality TV show where a group of ‘experts’ try to figure out what really happened to Adolf Hitler, assuming he didn’t die in the bunker as advertised. It lasted four seasons. He also helped make Berlin Station, one of the most dull and predictable spy series I’ve tried to watch. The movie also filmed in Morocco, with the support of the Moroccan authorities, like so many films that are set in the Middle East.
Rendition tells the story of an Egyptian-American man who is kidnapped by the CIA following a terrorist attack in a fictional North African country. The apparent target of the attack was a local police chief who has been torturing terror suspects on behalf of the Agency, but he escapes unharmed, while the local CIA station chief is killed in the bombing.
The CIA has records of telephone calls between the Egyptian guy and a member of the terrorist group, and he has a background in chemical engineering and even worked with the ATF on explosives detection. He is flying back to the US from a conference in South Africa and when he lands he is scooped up, and his extraordinary rendition and torture journey begins.
While the script for Rendition is by-the-books, it attracted a top notch cast, possibly for being the first movie to deal with this subject. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the new CIA station chief who wants to know what the Egyptian knows about the attack. Omar Metwally plays the Egyptian terror suspect, while Reece Witherspoon plays his wife, trying to find out what the fuck has happened to him. JK Simmons plays the CIA guy who initially renders the Egyptian, though his boss is laughably played by Meryl Streep, doing a very poor attempt at a Southern accent. Alan Arkin, Peter Sarsgaard and a bunch of Mossad guys fill out the cast.
It reminds me a lot of Lions for Lambs, which came out in the same year and took a similarly blunt and simple-minded approach to the war in Afghanistan. And also stars Meryl Streep. Both films tried to pose serious questions and make people feel something other than pro-war hatred or alienation and apathy. And they should be applauded for trying, but also criticised for failing – neither script has the depth of knowledge or subtlety of emotion to really land its blows.
Unlike the next film that we’ll look at, Unthinkable, Rendition isn’t particularly guilty of torture porn, especially given it came out during a spike in that sub-genre. We do see our terror suspect being waterboarded, confined in a very cold and cramped box, choked, beaten and so on, but it generally doesn’t last that long, and is done in a shadowy setting. The point is not to get all turned on by watching this man suffer.
Instead, we’re supposed to ask whether such a tenuous connection – a few phone calls that may or may not have been between the member of the terror group and the Egyptian engineer they’re torturing – is justification. And the film present a bunch of different arguments and perspectives, without drawing any real conclusion or answering this question.
For example, Reece Witherspoon goes to a guy she knows who works for a senator – the aide played by Sarsgaard, the senator played by Arkin. Sarsgaard tries to get answers out of Meryl Streep at the CIA, but she stonewalls, leading to a showdown between him and the senator. In this scene, the senator makes the argument that because they cannot be sure that the Egyptian isn’t guilty, isn’t involved, that they cannot make him the example on which to take up arguments against rendition and torture. Because of the records of the phonecalls – which may be entirely irrelevant, due to the uncertainty around who used those phones at those times – the senator refuses to make an issue out of it, and tells his aide to leave it alone.
I have two major problems with this, one technical and one moral. The first is that if the NSA and CIA were monitoring the member of the group, as we’re told, then they would have known who was on each end of the call because they’d have recorded and voicematched them. They would know exactly what was said on those calls and who made them. There wouldn’t be any ambiguity as to whether the guy they’re torturing was or wasn’t involved.
The other problem is that even if the guy was in contact with someone in a terrorist group, that doesn’t justify doing anything except maybe arresting and interviewing him. It certainly doesn’t excuse kidnapping him, torturing him, lying to his wife about what you’ve done and covering the whole thing up. In what world is that justified? As per usual the director hides behind the question of ‘where do we draw the line?’ without actually drawing any lines.
But it’s easy to do so – regardless of the evidence against this man, what they did is wrong. Even if he was a murderer, kidnapping and torturing him is wrong. What this film ends up doing, due to its lack of intellectual commitment, is simply present the doublethink inherent in counter-terrorism. Since, at the time you pick someone up, you cannot be sure that they know about a ticking bomb that may or may not exist, you have to treat them as though they are guilty and do know, just in case. But if they don’t know anything, how does this get resolved? And if they’re innocent, then the people kidnapping and torturing them are the guilty ones. But we can’t arrest them, because they’re only doing it to protect us.
This is, of course, complete bullshit that’s designed to conflate legal ambiguity with moral confusion. Let me explain: because the legal status of terror suspects is so wrapped up in contradictions and Kafkaesque paradoxes people lose sight of moral principles, i.e. that it’s simply wrong to torture someone, regardless of legal status. If that isn’t the message of your torture movie, then you’ve got to ask yourself who you really are.
The most graphic of the films depicting the torture program is Unthinkable, from 2010. It tells the story of an American former Delta Force operator turned nuclear Islamic terrorist, Yusuf. He gets himself captured after sending the FBI a videotape of him with three nuclear devices, which he says are hidden in three US cities, timed to go off simultaneously in six days.
Meanwhile, the FBI stumble onto a guy, Henry Harold Humphries, and get sent a CIA file on him, labelling him as highly dangerous. They send two FBI agents over to his house, for reasons that aren’t explained. Then, a DIA – not CIA – guy calls up our main FBI agent, tells her the file was sent over by accident, and not to approach Humphries. Then, they go and approach him anyway, and DIA guy takes him along to where they’ve got Yusuf hidden, where Humphries tortures him for several days.
I know you don’t need to hear this long-winded, overly-complex setup because it’s not really relevant to the rest of the movie, but that’s the point – why have such a complex introduction of the main characters? Isn’t there an easier way to get our three protagonists – FBI lady, played by Carrie Ann Moss, Humphries or ‘H’, played by Samuel L Jackson, and Yusuf, played by Michael Sheen, in the torture room together?
Just a suggestion: have FBI lady arrest Yusuf, then just have DIA guy and H turn up and take him off her hands, citing national security. Then she insists on going with them, inadvertently dragging herself into the world of torturing terror suspects. Having this convoluted setup, whereby she has no reason to be there or stay there, but hangs around for a week watching an absolute horror show, makes no sense. Why the DIA guy and the military invite her in, when they have no idea whether she’ll blow the whistle or try to arrest them for torturing someone (she is an FBI agent after all), makes no sense. Especially when they’re really cagey and vague about who H is, who he works for, and what the chain of command is in this situation.
The rest of the film plays out in a repeating cycle of Samuel L Jackson torturing Michael Sheen while Carrie Ann Moss looked horrified, objects, keeps saying it’s illegal but does absolutely nothing to actually stop it. Why? Because nuclear bombs might – just might – be ticking somewhere. The lone voice of dissent is the only meaningful female character, and she just weeps and wails and does nothing of any note. Also, Sam Jackson has a mute Latino assistant played by David Aceveda from The Shield, who does nothing but hand him torture implements and mop up the blood.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the terrorist deliberately got himself caught, like the Joker in The Dark Knight. You will notice this plot point turning up a lot in movies in the years after The Dark Knight came out. It seems he wanted to be tortured, either because he’s a masochist or to score some cheap moral point about who the real villains are. So, is this film a meditation on whether it’s moral to torture someone to stop a nuclear bomb going off and killing millions, or just another violent psychosexual fantasy? Because Sam Jackson’s character constantly comes across as sadistic, while Sheen’s character is shown as masochistic. And he is being tied down and assaulted with all manner of electrocution probes and suchlike, not unlike in a professional sex dungeon.
My point being that the film is sick – it devotes far more time to seeing a man suffer in the most horrible of ways (worse than Passion of the Christ) than it does to discussing whether this is right, or whether there’s another way. The ticking bomb isn’t the reason for the torture – it’s the excuse, not just for Sam Jackson but for us, the audience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this perverted, sadistic mindrape of a movie was supported by those upstanding public servants at the FBI. The ghost of Hoover is clearly alive and well in those halls. The Bureau first became aware of the movie in late 2006, when an informant told them about it. An internal database includes an entry saying:
Unthinkable movie script, as described by ███ ██████ over the telephone to EJP appeared to show FBI agents taking part in an illegal torture to elicit a confession, and other questionable activities.
So, when the writers approached them in early 2007 the FBI were prepared. They reviewed the script multiple times and provided feedback, with one email detailing:
We’ve met with them twice, and the writer is hard at work making changes to reflect our commitment and integrity with respect to the oath we took to uphold and defend the Constitution and civil rights, and the compromising position their female character is placed. They are also re-working a scene on the front end where their principle male character/interrogator, kills two agents who attempt to execute a warrant at his residence, and we are asked to turn a blind eye and sweep it under the carpet because he is a highly sensitive government asset. They’ve been impressed that this would not happen and the killing of two agents would not be “swept under the carpet”.
In the finished film, H doesn’t kill the two FBI agents – he briefly kidnaps them and gaffer tapes them to a couple of lawn chairs. Also, the FBI agent lady spends 90% of the movie going on and on about the constitution and the Geneva conventions and how this is all horribly illegal, but arrests no one despite being the only law enforcement official in the room. The only good thing about the entire film is the inevitable bit when Sam Jackson decides enough is enough, he’s had it with this motherfucking Muslim and his motherfucking nuclear bombs, and goes completely apeshit.
Bear in mind, he’s already chopped one of the guy’s fingers off, electrocuted him, pulled out all the fingernails on his other hand, drilled holes in his teeth, burst one of his eardrums using a pressure hose, stabbed him in the testicles (it seems, that bit isn’t clear), along with the usual long periods in stress positions hanging from the ceiling and the like.
But that’s not enough, so he brings in the guy’s wife and cuts her throat in front of him. Then, they bring in his children. Not just threaten to, they actually get the kids into the torture basement and H starts messing about with truth serum and whatnot. Yusuf immediately gives up the locations of the bombs, though H believes there’s a fourth bomb, leading to chaos as everyone tries to stop him torturing the children and scrambles to find the bombs. In an extended edition, it’s revealed there is a fourth bomb ticking away.
So, what’s the message of this film? That torture works, but not torturing children? That in any possible ticking bomb scenario we should assume there are extra bombs and just keep torturing suspects indefinitely? That protesting against torture is pointless and ineffective unless you’re actually going to arrest the people doing the torturing? It’s really not clear what the fuck the idiots behind this story were trying to say, let alone whether they said it. Again, perhaps a little less time serving up the gradual destruction of one man’s humanity and little more people talking about the topics of the movie might have helped. As Matt put it, the movie isn’t so much a nightmare scenario as a white paper from Freddy Krueger.
Skyfall, and the torture program in reverse
Another interesting thing happened during this period, from the mid-late 2000s and into the 2010s, as knowledge of the torture program spread. We got a string of state sponsored films that depicted Westerners being tortured by the evil antagonists they are struggling to protect us from.
Casino Royale got the ball rolling in 2006, where Bond is kidnapped and tortured by Le Chiffre for beating him at poker and stealing all that lovely money he was going to pay back the evil terrorists with.
It is unclear whether Casino Royale was supported by government agencies, but Spectre was, and in the film Bond is tortured once more, having a drill inserted into his skull. For some reason (cough, national brand value, cough) the BBFC saw fit to give the movie a 12A rating, leading to it becoming the most complained-about movie of the year.
Then there’s Iron Man from 2008, where we see Tony Stark being tortured by Afghan insurgents, supported by the US Air Force (the movie, not the insurgents). Homeland, supported by the CIA of course, depicted Brody being tortured by everyone from the terrorist mastermind who kidnapped him, to the CIA themselves, to Iranian intelligence in the third season. I am sure there are other examples, both in the state sponsored category and beyond.
One of the few counters to this was Rubicon, the slow burner intelligence drama from 2010, which depicted the CIA as still being fully involved in torture, but getting around the laws by doing it abroad and having friendly soldiers, police and spies from those countries doing the actual torture. Almost as though the Agency just can’t help itself. This is perhaps the most realistic depiction of the torture program that I’ve seen, but we’ll come back to that.
The importance of these torture program in reverse narratives is to muddy the moral waters in the wake of all the revelations. Having spent a decade saying we’re the good guys and they are the bad guys and this a fight between good and evil, between a world that believes in human rights and a backwards medieval religion that doesn’t even understand the concept of rights, these revelations proved problematic.
So, how do you deal with the truth, that here in the liberal, democratic, capitalist West we are just as evil as the made up enemies we’re fighting? Well, it’s easy, you carry out a false equivalency and take torture out of the moral debate. By which I mean that these productions send the message that everyone tortures – us, them, so what does it matter? If, in this particular instance, there’s no difference between us and them then it clearly isn’t a sufficiently important issue on which to make moral judgements.
That is to say, they doubled down on the lie that we’re the morally good ones, by pretending like torture isn’t a moral evil, because how can it be if everyone’s at it? It’s just a normal part of life, not a matter of moral principle that helps us distinguish between good societies and bad ones.
But even that wasn’t the worst thing that the state-Hollywood relationship did when it came to torture movies.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012): The Torture Program Found Bin Laden
The worst thing has to be Zero Dark Thirty, which got support from the White House and the CIA, and a little DOD support which boiled down to an interview with Michael Vickers, who you may remember from Charlie Wilson’s War. The film-makers behind The Hurt Locker wanted another academy award, and how better to do that than to tell a pro-establishment story about Osama Bin Laden. At the time of the Abbottabad raid in May 2011 they’d been working on a Bin Laden script for over a year, about the manhunt in Tora Bora in 2001. This was being put together with CIA support – they’d even met then-CIA director Leon Panetta at the White House Correspondents Dinner and discussed the project.
Then, Obama announced to the world that they’d got Bin Laden, and for some reason everyone believed them, and so Boal and Bigelow had to shift to tell a different story. Naturally, their Tora Bora script wouldn’t have contained anything about torture because the CIA detainee program hadn’t even been set up at that time, so how did that end up being the focus of the first third of their movie?
The answer, of course, is the White House and the CIA. The CIA put together talking points for the White House about the manhunt and, to a lesser extent, the raid by Navy SEALs. The White House then fed this information to journalists and used it in press conferences, but it also became the basis for Boal’s script. Enhanced interrogation provided information that led to the courier, Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti, and he led them to the compound in Abbottabad. There’s also a bit where they bribe a Saudi to get the phone number of the courier’s mother, but that’s hardly controversial compared to torturing people.
The full story of Mark Boal’s relationship with the CIA is yet to be told, though I have to say that the OIG reports into the whole fiasco are an entertaining read. It seems that Boal was having a relationship with one of the covert operations officers that helped him develop the script. The key point is when, in a series of conference calls, he verbally shared his screenplay with a group of CIA operations people, and they provided feedback.
You can read the full memo detailing this feedback on Spy Culture, as well as the other tranches of CIA documents on the movie, but two key notes stand out – they asked that Maya (our red haired protagonist) not be seen actually torturing people herself, and that the movie stick to torture techniques that were already in the public domain. In the finished movie they downplayed the use of dogs (another CIA request), mostly kept Maya away from physically torturing people (though she does help, a bit) and stuck strictly to things we’d already seen and heard.
Frankly, not that we should be keeping score, but Unthinkable goes much further in exploring the things that we now know the CIA and the DOD actually did to people than Zero Dark Thirty does. It’s kind of torture porn light by comparison, though still a deeply unpleasant watch in many places.
Where this gets really interesting is that the CIA planned it this way – to use the Abbottabad raid to excuse and justify their torture program. Months before the raid the Office of Public Affairs began producing materials to this effect, which means the decision must have been made some time before that.
This also proffers an interesting question: what if they’d got it wrong and it wasn’t Bin Laden in the compound? What if they sent in the SEALs, they shot everyone but Osama was AWOL? Would they have simply pretended that it was Osama after all, because they were relying on that to exonerate them in the public eye over torturing people?
Whatever the answer to that question, the CIA then backtracked, or engaged in some bizarre doublethink. After Zero Dark Thirty came out and was variously praised and criticised, including by John McCain who was himself a victim of torture, the acting director of the Agency put out a statement saying torture didn’t help find Bin Laden. And since then the CIA have put out videos on their own youtube channel about the manhunt, and participated in a major documentary about the manhunt, where torture isn’t mentioned at all. Almost as though this is a triple-layered lie – (1) that torture helped find Bin Laden, (2) that torture didn’t help find Bin Laden but that’s irrelevant to whether the program worked, and (3) what’s all this crap about torture, we found Bin Laden, forget about all that.
Naturally, the story told in the youtube videos doesn’t match up with the story told in the documentary, and there’s no explanation of why they stopped tracking the courier back in 2002, when they were up on his phones and emails. Bin Laden disappeared after the battle for Tora Bora, and was likely either dead or in hiding. So, wouldn’t a courier be the sort of person you’d keep tracking, since a man in hiding would need a trusted courier to keep in contact with his global network of terror cells?
Apparently not. Instead, they tortured a bunch of people who didn’t know where the courier was, or where Bin Laden was, and this either did or didn’t lead them to the courier. Somehow. Or not. And then made a movie about themselves.
Boys of Abu Ghraib (2014)
Another movie I have enormous objections to is 2014’s Boys of Abu Ghraib. For one thing, it’s a vanity project – written, directed and starring the same guy. It’s one thing to do that, it’s another to do it by exploiting the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. To use their suffering as a vehicle for promoting yourself is truly pathetic, and I’m glad to say it seems he hasn’t done anything since then, at least in the movie industry.
It was primarily shot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, presumably with the permission of the Corrections Department of New Mexico. This particular prison has a fairly terrible history – several riots in response to widespread prisoner abuse led to the original building being torn down, and a new prison built down the road. Another riot in 1980 was the worst in US history, leading to another block being closed. Even now, the prison appears to be haunted, with stories of cell doors opening and closing at random and other ghoulish phenomena. A great filming location, in many respects, but again very exploitative.
In essence, the film tells the story of a young man in the Army Reserve who is shipped out to Iraq and – with no training – becomes a de facto MP, working a cell block where prisoners are routinely being abused and tortured.
Our protagonist befriends one of the prisoners, but when he finds out the guy built a bomb that killed people, he abandons his reservations about mistreating them.
I have a lot of problems with this movie, not least its origins as a vanity project, but also because it has been praised for not pushing a political agenda and focusing on how this happened. Neither of these things is true. We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of one soldier, back at home before he ships out. He is humanised, as are the other members of his unit. Throughout the opening reel set at Abu Ghraib we’re constantly told how dangerous it is, how dangerous the prisoners are. The first person we see injured, and dying, is a soldier.
It is only then, once it has been established that these brave young men are in constant threat and could die at any moment, do we get to meet any of the prisoners. And we’re introduced to them in cells, often in stress positions or otherwise being tortured. They are already dehumanised by the time we get to meet any of them. We do not get to see any backstory of them with their families and how they ended up here, they are literally just brown bodies to be tortured.
On top of that, the one guy who has moral reservations (our protagonist) is constantly told that these people are terrorists and murderers, so they deserve it. But for some unexplained reason it is only when the prisoner he befriends admits that he built a bomb that these reservations disappear. Almost as though the person who wrote this believes that you just have to keep saying that over and over enough times until it sinks in, and people just accept torture as justified.
How is this not political? How is this merely an exploration of how this happened? It’s a fictional story that humanises torturers and dehumanises the victims of torture. There’s literally no other way to interpret this film unless you’re a moral halfwit, or simply don’t understand how movies work.
I could say a lot more about Boys of Abu Ghraib but I honestly don’t want to give it any more attention than it deserves. It is nothing more than an effort to make people think ‘oh, if I was in that situation I’d probably end up torturing people too’, which is about as vile as films get.
The Report (2019)
One film that acts as something of an antidote to all this propaganda is 2019’s The Report, which bizarrely came out via Amazon. While it does contain some of the most graphic depictions of torture of any of these films, arguably second only to Unthinkable, it does so in service of a very anti-torture story. So, while still a little exploitative, it is doing so in a very different context to these other movies.
It tells the story of Daniel Jones, the former FBI agent turned senatorial aide who headed up the Senate Committee on Intelligence’s investigations into both the destruction of some of the interrogation tapes by the CIA, and the subsequent wider investigation into the detainee program as a whole. In short, he wrote the Torture Report, hence the title.
It is styled like a 70s thriller, updated for the non-linear age, and Adam Driver does an excellent job in the lead role. Corey Stoll, one of my favourite actors, is good as his lawyer, and Annette Benning puts in an excellent turn as Diane Feinstein. We not only see how Jones got into such a strange and important job, but the movie also reconstructs much of what we do know of the torture program itself.
So we see Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, the so-called Queen of Torture, we see Jessen and Mitchell getting hired by Jose Rodriguez at the CIA, we see Ali Soufan objecting to their insane approach to prisoner interrogation. We even see John Rizzo, the Agency’s chief lawyer, advising them on what they can and cannot get away with. For some reason all these people – John Brennan too – are identified by their real names, Bikowsky is not. It’s clearly her, she’s shown having a background in pre-9/11 intelligence, there’s a scene of her in the CIA ops center during the attacks which is definitely a reference to Bikowsky. But much like several characters in The Looming Tower, which tells the story of her time in Alec Station, she gets a different name in The Report.
Aside from the clever non-linear structure and the seriousness with which it approached its topic, what I respect about The Report is to take a really boring story – the tale of the writing of a nearly 7,000 page report that hardly anyone has read – and make it dramatic, and impactful.
What I especially enjoy about the film is how it is not just an exploration of the torture program and the investigation into it – complete with CIA obstructions and attempts at sabotage – but also that it is self-consciously an antidote to the TV and movies we’ve looked at. In particular, the section about the Bin Laden manhunt depicts Zero Dark Thirty and the Abbottabad raid for exactly what they were – political PR operations.
The reason this is so important is that the operation to ‘bring justice to Bin Laden’ was used to excuse not just the torture program, but the entire war on terror up to that point. The drone strikes. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The enhanced security state. The mass surveillance. But also the torture. And while far fewer people will have seen this film than have seen the endless news items in the wake of the raid, the endless documentaries reconstructing the story, and Zero Dark Thirty, those who do will have a far better understanding of what happened. This is very much a quality over quantity film, in terms of its impact on the audience.
The only criticisms I have of The Report are the ending, but it’s very difficult to end a movie like this, and that we don’t really get to know any of the detainees who suffered. But given the breadth of the story it tells, that is an unfair demand, without the film becoming a mini-series. Also, if you want to get a detailed account of what it was like to be scooped up and thrown in a black site or Guantanamo Bay then you can watch The Mauritanian from two years later. Between that and The Report we have been offered quite an effective antidote to the propaganda of previous films.
Jack Ryan, The Recruit and Guantanamo
However, there has been a rebirth of torture porn propaganda in recent years, itself acting as a counter to films like The Report and The Mauritanian. In the opening episode of Jack Ryan season one, Jack flies off to a black site in Yemen where terror suspects are being tortured. He looks concerned, before Greer tells him not to be a ‘boy scout’. In the opening episode of The Recruit, Owen flies out to a black site in Yemen to ask a covert operative some questions, so she kidnaps him and pulls one of his fingernails out. In both of these CIA-supported series we get a trivialisation – and hence a normalisation – of torture.
One further example – in 2017 a series called Guantanamo was in development, with Oliver Stone attached to direct the first episode. DOD documents record how they were:
Contacted by a writer who is working on the Showtime series based on NAS Guantanamo Bay, asking if we can facilitate a comprehensive research trip for him there. We have informed him that for us to even contemplate such a request, we would first need a thorough description of the series, its premise, story arcs, and what production support the filmmakers anticipate requesting from us. Oliver Stone is reported to be directing the pilot episode.
Naturally, the writer never got their research trip, and in 2018 the project was killed, mostly due to its association with the Weinstein Company. Having originally committed to a 10-episode season, Showtime pulled out and I haven’t read anything about it being resurrected. Curiously, one of the producers involved was Alexandra Milchan, daughter of Israeli spy and movie producer Arnon Milchan.
In sum, the TV and cinema of the torture program is somewhat varied. Initially we got exploitative dramas like 24, Rendition and Unthinkable, which deflected and distracted audiences from their own internal morality, while titillating them with sadistic and sadomasochistic fantasies. The logic of fear of the unknown justifying the horrific is hardly unique to excuses for torture, but it is the most common excuse, and these products screamed it loudly and repeatedly.
Then, we got more precisely targeted films based on real events – Zero Dark Thirty and Boys of Abu Ghraib. Both presented as stark portraits of events we thought we already knew, while offering us an inside look. The former is more historical, the latter fictionalised and psychological, but they eschewed all the nuclear bombs and suicide terrorists of earlier movies to tap into real-life events. The first decade of the war on terror mostly told its story through speculative fiction, but the second decade saw a wave of ‘true to life’ movies, this pair among them. While both continued the torture porn element of the earlier films, by offering us seemingly grounded stories about real people, their excuse-making for torture was arguably more effective.
Once again I have to ask – how does this make Hollywood liberal? At the time the liberals were in power, both in the White House, where Obama banned torture, and on the Intelligence Committee, where they conducted an investigation. But Hollywood was going in the opposite direction – promoting and excusing torture in any way they could, arguing against the moral objections or at least trying to emotionally bludgeon people into dropping them. While there are a couple of major exceptions, and one weird outlier in Rubicon, the promotion, trivialisation, justification and normalisation of torture continues in Jack Ryan and The Recruit. We cannot even come to terms with what we’ve done culturally speaking, let alone legally or morally. And while that’s quite a depressing thought to end on, it is the truth.