Episode 44: The Shadow of the Torturer

ZERO DARK THIRTY with Spencer Ackerman

  
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Details, credits, errata: This week’s guest is friend of the pod and all-around good guy Spencer Ackerman, who won the Pulitzer and the IRE Medal for his work on the Guardian’s Snowden coverage team and a National Magazine Award for his reporting on anti-Muslim training materials used to teach FBI recruits. His book Reign of Terror, which builds on that excellent reporting, is due out from Viking on August 10; you can pre-order it here. Sam has read it; it’s very good.

Our film, I’m sorry to say, is Kathryn Bigelow’s despicable 2012 Oscar-bait torture apologia Zero Dark Thirty, one of the most morally repellent things I’ve had the misfortune to watch, down there with The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Spencer is great on it; we apologize for foisting it on him since he is also one of the great writers on the topic of torture, but his expertise on that subject is absolutely invaluable and so we hope you enjoy his perspective. Spencer has also consulted on better movies, notably Armando Iannucci’s UK-US politics farce In the Loop, and he has a lot to say about the difference between verisimilitude and veracity here. Spencer broke the news that the CIA tried to suppress the work of Dan Jones, a staffer for Dianne Feinstein, as he helped the Senate compile its torture report (you may remember this from the excellent movie The Report, which is about Jones’s disclosures). One other writer we want to shout out is Jason Leopold, who did the incredible reporting revealing the extent of the filmmakers’ cooperation with the CIA in the making of the movie.

Our image for this week is from Wikimedia commons, used with our thanks to user EPBechthold; it is of a number of supposed torture devices including the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, a coffin with big spikes in it that the medievals supposedly closed on victims, which would indeed have been a horrible way to die if it was real, but it wasn’t. It was made up to demonstrate the barbarity of a different civilization, which certainly had its flaws and cruelties but wasn’t composed of bizarre, sadistic un-people. Some of the devices are real, and some aren’t. The tendency to invent atrocities to justify atrocities is worth bearing in mind if you watch this movie along with us.

Our theme song is Louis Armstrong and His Hot 5’s Muskrat Ramble, made freely available by the Boston Public Library and audio engineering shop George Blood, LP through the Internet ArchiveZero Dark Thirty is copyright 2012 Annapurna Pictures. Brief audio excerpts are used herein for purposes of review. All other material is copyright 2021 Sam Thielman and Alissa Wilkinson.

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