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Alex Gibney on the Reaction to His ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Article and Why He Chimed In On The Debate

Alex Gibney on the Reaction to His 'Zero Dark Thirty' Article and Why He Chimed In On The Debate

Indiewire caught up with Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney at the TCA Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, where he’d come to talk about the television premiere of his film “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” on HBO. We’ll have a full interview with the filmmaker about that doc closer to its air date on Monday, February 4 at 9pm — in the meantime, we spoke with Gibney about the piece he wrote for Salon in December titled “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is indefensible,” part of the ongoing debate about the depiction of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, the latest volley in which has come from Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. (Bigelow addressed the topic herself at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.) Gibney told Indiewire about what led him to write the piece and what the reaction has been like.

I received, privately, criticism. Publicly, seemingly, a lot of praise. I thought long and hard about it before I raised my voice. There’s actually much about that film that I really admire, but I felt they got this one subject wrong. And I feel that that subject — the subject of torture — is not incidental, it’s terribly important to who we are as a nation. It’s not just an interrogation technique, it’s not something technical. I felt that because [Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal] were representing the film as journalistic, and that word was used, that I needed to reckon with that subject, because I’d spent a long time thinking about it.

In “Taxi to the Dark Side,” I photographed my dad [journalist Frank Gibney] just before he died because he wanted to say something to me about that topic, and ended up including some of it in the film, which is what caused me to narrate the film myself as opposed to hiring a third person narrator. So it was quite personal to me. I felt I had to say something about it.

It was tricky, because I’m a filmmaker, not a critic. But I felt this was an issue of some public debate. Some inside the industry have criticized me for doing it because they felt it was somehow unseemly to be criticizing a colleague — and I thought, well, wait a minute, this is a film, and a film is meant to be shown and a film is meant to be talked about, so what’s the big deal?

Films are made, films are viewed and people talk about them, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m talking about it, and that’s it. I feel that the subject merits discussion. Both the fact that the filmmakers referred it as journalistic and also referred to their access to key CIA sources… That also was a fraught answer for me because I know a little bit about that and I know that there are people within the CIA who are still trying to defend the enhanced intertogation program, So it raised questions about whether or not access granted and information given was done in the service of selling us a vision of the world that I don’t happen to agree with.

Films are textured, so it’s difficult to pick them apart, and also difficult to separate intention from result. A filmmaker can say “that’s not what I intended” — well, maybe, but now it’s a film and people are watching it, so this is what I think it means. We can all argue about what it means, and I think that’s healthy. And I don’t think anybody should see anything else but that — it’s a debate. I think some of the rhetoric has gotten a little overheated. Some people have compared Kathryn Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, which I think is very unfair. But when you make a film, you can’t say it’s a journalistic account and then when you’re criticized for it say “Oh, it’s just a movie.” Films mean something. If they don’t mean something, why do we watch them?

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I've read Gibney's article on Salon, and I'm a fan of his work. But he's wrong to blast Boal and Bigelow, and their film as indefensible. Everything is defensible. Gibney's main argument is that the filmmakers make connections that he believes to be untrue, mainly by showing scenes of torture, and then showing scenes where the plot moves forward, the filmmakers are implying that torture is productive. Gibney never denies that the torture actually happened, he's just critical of ZD30 for suggesting it led to productive results. It's a fictional movie, not a documentary that lasts 200 hours. Things are compressed, consolidated, and even left out to move the movie forward, and it's not anyone's place other than the filmmakers to determine what those things are. Secondly, no one actually knows what lead to productive results. It might have been pure accident or luck that any of the information led to productive results. The idea that anyone can definitively say that useful information was gleaned strictly through non torture techniques, and no useful information was gleaned after torture techniques is kidding themselves. No one knows if those interrogation logs are accurate or weren't compromised. What happened to those 182 CIA interrogation tapes that were destroyed? Gibney suggests that ZD30 should have shown more mistakes that resulted from faulty information obtained via torture, or more moral uncertainty when deciding to use torture. But that's not his place to say. That's not the film Boal and Bigelow made or wanted to make, and that's their right. The fact that they didn't make the film Gibney wanted to see, doesn't make it wrong, or indefensible. If you don't like the film, don't like it, but be able to distinguish your own personal tastes from what you consider to be indefensible filmmaking.

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This happened. We all know this happened. Narratives are different than documentaries. I don't even know why we're having this conversation. Different set of rules. How Gibney doesn't understand that greatly reduces his credibility, not Bigelow's.


If Gibney feels that strongly about a film, I don't think he should be reprimanded for speaking out – he's right on one point, films are supposed to be open discussion, otherwise it defeats the purpose of art. If people don't like what he has to say, they're certainly free to put forth a counterargument. Personally, I don't think the film glamorizes or supports torture at all – torture is shown to fail repeatedly (the first and most dramatic example is when it fails to prevent a lethal planned attack), the information extracted through it is never consistently reliable, and the 'key' piece of intel that allegedly came from it (that point is debatable, but Gibney argues it did) was also shown to be already in the possession of the intelligence community, having been already obtained through civil means, but it was just sitting in their files for all those years, "lost in the shuffle." Gibney may not like the fact that the film never shows any of its characters openly arguing against torture, but quite frankly, it's a lot more interesting and compelling to look at how these people do things they know to be fundamentally wrong. Jason Clarke's performance alone is great for this reason – he "ran it, he'll defend it," he won't say a bad word about the program, but he's going to be damaged for it. (Just remember that quick, subtle look on his face after he smiles and says he'll stand by the program in exchange for allocated resources for Maya.) The fact that Bigelow chose not to direct this film with the kind of ham-fisted, didactic filmmaking preferred by Gibney shouldn't be held against her or her film.


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jean vigo

I'm surprised at Gibney's reaction, particularly hinging his argument "on who we are as a nation." If it is about the film's ostensible misinformation, then let's ask: what's more important? A previous White House administration declaring as fact to the American people and the world that Iraq had WMDs as a reason for invasion and war and NEVER coming clean about their ruse, or a movie playing with facts in a fiction based on "actual events."

I understand the 4th estate has an integrity to find the truth, but Bigelow & Co., even using the term "journalistic" are still manipulating their narrative.

Gibney should know that documentaries, too – his medium of choice – are always subject to levels of mediation by the filmmaker. There never is an absolute truth in filmmaking unless we're talking about unedited surveillance cameras.

The discussion needs to be about how the same people who see movies are the same people who are citizens of a nation. And the hypocrisy of our elected officials' integrity needs to be held up to scrutiny. Yes, cry wolf. A handful of congresspeople actually read the details of the bills they vote for or against. THAT'S scary.


Tell the Oscars:

Dear Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,

I am writing to inform you of my intention to create a campaign to disqualify the film Zero Dark Thirty from receiving your awards on the basis that the filmmakers deliberately crafted false propaganda in the service of making illegal torture practices seem acceptable and productive.

This deceitful twisting of the facts, coupled with special insider access to CIA sources, ties the filmmakers to the government in an unseemly and dishonest arrangement. As the Senate Intelligence oversight committee has set the record straight and pointed out the falsehoods presented in the film, and as this issue is of vital and current significance to the nation, the awarding of this deceitful film your honors would confer on it an unacceptable legitimacy that can be harmful to the rule of law and to justice in the United States. These are not trivial matters and have international significance. The awarding of top honors to propaganda films sends a message to the entire world on where America’s values truly stand. This is a great responsibility of the Academy, and it should not attempt to divorce the artistry of a film from its obvious political, ethical, moral and legal implications. Creating false dramatic situations that justify torture is unacceptable, and torture is a war crime punishable by 20 years incarceration or the death penalty if the victims die — as several have done.

I hope to make an issue out of this disregard for the deceits contained within the film, and the Academy’s apparent condoning of this false historical propaganda.

Joe Giambrone

The Political Film Blog


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I really admire Gibney as a documentarian. He's not just a filmmaker though, but an Oscar-winner and presumably an Academy member. All the smears against Zero Dark Thirty of "glorifying torture" smacked of dirty campaigning. If he's in the Academy, he should be reprimanded for speaking out like that.

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