An Open Letter to Glenn Greenwald

Dear Glenn:

I liked your recent post criticizing those film critics who are championing Zero Dark Thirty despite its false depiction (and implicit celebration) of the role of torture in capturing Osama bin Laden.

But I think you’re going about this business of criticizing film critics all wrong.

Here’s a little pro-tip I learned in my recent foray as an amateur critic of Lincoln.

Apparently it’s not good form to ask a film to be something other than what it is. You can’t criticize the film you didn’t see—only the film you did see. (I know, James Agee makes a hash of that distinction, but he’s no Roger Ebert.)

In your case, that means you have to criticize the criticism we have, not the criticism you wish we had. So if the critic is defending a film that glorifies torture, you can’t criticize said critic for defending said film. That’s like taking Spielberg to task for not including in a film about black emancipation more depictions of blacks emancipating themselves and pushing for emancipation.

Instead, you should…beats the shit out of me.




  1. Ray Haberski December 12, 2012 at 9:53 am | #

    Corey, there is a second part to Agee’s critique of ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’ He concludes that second review with a statement that captures better in one paragraph what many of us having been arguing over in regard to ‘Lincoln.’ While it seems we all recognize ‘Lincoln’ is only a movie and Spielberg and Kushner or no Foner or Masur, Agee grapples directly with the dilemma found at the interesting crossroads of Hollywood entertainment and American culture: “I can hardly expect that anyone who reads this will like the film as well as I do. It is easy, and true, to say that it suggests the limitations which will be inevitable in any Hollywood film, no matter how skillful and sincere. But it also a great pleasure, and equally true, to say that it shows what can be done in the factory by people of adequate talent when they get, or manage to take themselves, the chance.” (in ‘The Nation,’ December 14, 1946)

  2. BobK December 12, 2012 at 10:01 am | #

    there’s an apples-oranges distinction between CR’s ‘Lincoln’ criticism and GG’s ‘Zero’. The former is actually CR’s desire for another film or story — one that Speilberg did not tell, but one, nevertheless, that was generally honest given its narrow perspective. GG’s critique is about the
    obviously intentional effort by the filmmaker to distort matters and present false claims as true, undeniable fact.

    • Corey Robin December 12, 2012 at 10:03 am | #

      It’s as if you wish I were a different blogger, or writing different blogs.

  3. Nate December 12, 2012 at 10:06 am | #

    Usually, the criticize-the-film-the-filmmaker-made principle is a good one, but I understand that principle to actually be at work in your _Lincoln_ review. After all, Spielberg wants us to think his film is, at least, not entirely misrepresenting history. If the film does, then the film he made is not the film he intended to–oh wait, is that the “intentional fallacy”?

    Clearly the film aims to say something historically accurate without distorting the history it represents. To the degree that Spielberg made a film that he hoped would not harmfully distort history (i.e. make it seem that the people enslaved were always simply passive about their condition), he has not made the film he thinks he has made–and your review pointed that out. Why shouldn’t a reviewer evaluate a work based on the what the filmmaker clearly intended to accomplish versus what he actually accomplished? (Or (to avoid IF), why shouldn’t a reviewer evaluate a work based on aims clearly indicated by the work versus how well those aims are actually realized in the work?)

    • Corey Robin December 12, 2012 at 10:10 am | #

      I agree that my criticism in fact did comport with the rules that critics of my criticism claim are de rigeur for film reviews. I was just so struck by the by mind-numbing repetition of the “criticize the film you saw, not the one you wished you saw” (without any defense of that principle) — as well as the fact that that was in fact precisely what I did — that I decided to go after the principle itself. Seems like there should be more than one way to approach a film.

  4. Dene Karaus December 12, 2012 at 10:30 am | #

    Thanks, Corey, for speaking out – this has to be kept alive until the falsehood implicit in the movie and the “Chaney” narrative becomes widely understood and false. Dene Karaus

  5. Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 12, 2012 at 10:54 am | #

    As a filmmaker who has done both documentary and drama, I have explored (but not yet settled) exactly that same point: You can’t critique the film you did not see, and it is (probably) pointless to wish that someone had made the film you would have preferred to see.

    While critiques of power’s articulation – even “liberal” power – in mainstream culture is always worthwhile (this is how we find out how deep the boss’s ideology penetrates the art of the culture industry, and how widespread that ideology is such that it can go narrated without the notice of the untrained eye) those of us with little to no power but who consume mainstream culture will simply locate it into the bin with the rest of the consumer products. After all, what is the point? Even to those in the working class who might enjoy entertainment that is also truly progressive, such a project is simply not on the agenda – fighting the boss, and keeping fed, housed, and healthy top the list. Cultural/historical analysis of mainstream popular productions – not so much.

    So what about those of us who cast our lot with (and are members of) the working class, ethnic subalterns, women, LGBTs – and also have that “trained eye”? What is our job?

    One option is offered here. If you saw a film and because of it you wish another had been made instead of the one you just saw because what the present movie explored was for one reason or another not adequate, a story it could have used was not told (or worse, was simply mendacious) then there is something you can do.

    You can make the film yourself. That is what Blacks have done since the silent era, and in response to racist attacks by mainstream cinema. That is what feminists have done in response to sexist cinema. And so on. This is only one option out of others.

    Mikel Dufrenne has a collection of essays, translated by a buddy of mine, the now retired philosophy professor but still active writer Mark S. Roberts, titled “In The Presence Of the Sensuous – Essays In Esthetics”. One of the essays makes reference to cinema and notes that the most radical things one can do is to give someone a camera. I’d say the issue may also involve what progressives think the work of popular culture is, ideally now, supposed to be. In a capitalist consumer economy, need we remind ourselves. Progressive critics of mainstream culture still have a serious job to do – we just have to understand what that job is, given the circumstances.

    So – for everyone else – get yourself a goddamn camera and make the movie that you wish that you – and others – could see. “They” are not going to make that movie. But you can. It is not Spielberg’s job to tell “our” story. It’s ours.

    • Cavoyo December 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm | #

      Let me know when you find $65 million lying around so we can make a film that rivals Spielberg’s Lincoln. Then let me know when you find a few million more to advertise it. Until then, we’ll continue to criticize Hollywood films for being inaccurate representations of history.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 13, 2012 at 8:02 am | #

        If you think it takes $65 million dollars to make a movie to rival Hollywood’s productions, then you have not been paying attention to last seven decades of world cinema. If you think I advocate silencing criticism of Hollywood cinema only to replace such criticism with our own filmmaking, then you have not been paying attention to what I have been trying to say, as if moviemaking and criticism of dominant cinema were somehow opposed projects for the progressive interest, or that I somehow think our own cinema has magic powers. If you think that criticizing Hollywood for its mendaciously bourgeois approach to history and race relations is our only option, then you have a profoundly impoverished view of what progressive intervention is capable.

  6. Ernest Frisbee December 12, 2012 at 11:37 am | #

    “In your case, that means you have to criticize the criticism we have, not the criticism you wish we had.”

    That’s exactly what Greenwald did. He criticized the critics who lauded the film despite admitting it had inaccuracies that had the effect of justifying torture. He criticized the “criticism he had.”

    “So if the critic is defending a film that glorifies torture, you can’t criticize said critic for defending said film.”

    This is phrased as a conclusion (“So…”) but it follows from nothing. Furthermore, the statement is ridiculous on its face, Can a critic not be criticized for defending a snuff film?

    In general, as long as the object of criticism is represented accurately and fairly, it can be criticized on any of its attributes. What you’ve written here is a mess.

    • Corey Robin December 12, 2012 at 11:39 am | #

      I’m afraid you’ve quite missed the point of this post. That might be my fault. I was merely invoking a mantra I’ve found to be quite silly and applied it to Glenn’s criticism — as a way of demonstrating how foolish the mantra is, not as a way of demonstrating how foolish Glenn’s position is. My apologies for the confusion.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm | #

        We may be facing a new “Birth Of A Nation” moment, where mainstream critics laud a reactionary artwork which assumes historic pretentions while flattering a pathological cultural ethos. Criticizing such critics is sorely needed (as well as making corrective films in reply) as a defense against letting productions go unchallenged on their way to iconic cultural status. In graduate school, I wrote just such essays, and my longest was on “Birth”.

        Fortunately, we may not have to wait as long as the first critics of those who put “Birth” into the pantheon of American Masterworks of Cinema had to wait, before decades of recent intervening history made an accurate understanding inevitable.

        In the late 1990’s I once gave a presentation to a film screening of “Birth” and just before we showed it, I actually had to explain to someone what that movie was really about; he did not believe me until AFTER we showed it and I took questions, during which he gave an embarrassed comment admitting as much.

  7. Roquentin December 12, 2012 at 11:48 am | #

    Is distorting the picture of events by willful omission different than putting outright falsehoods on display? That seems to be the question here. You can tell a consistently true story while leaving out all sorts of information which does not fit well with the narrative you are creating. I’d go so far as to say you can’t do otherwise, because a film, essay, or book is finite so some omission will always be necessary and it is up to the author(s) to decide what stays in and what gets left out. I’d also say it is completely legitimate to criticize what is omitted from a film.

    However, I don’t think this is really what’s going on. In film, TV, and American entertainment on the whole we are supposed to play a game, and that game is that there is no ideology being presented in these works, even films which demand to be taken seriously and aspire to receive Academy Awards. It is quite common to fall back on “It’s just a film” or a loose equivalent when tough questions are raised. These are attempts at effacement, or to put it another way the ideology is self-effacing (it operates and part of its operation includes the denial that it even exists). Zizek has made points similar to this.

    For a third point, I think people endorsing torture in the wake of 9/11 and events like Abu Garib should be seen as part of the same cultural motion. Torture was about sadistic revenge and humiliation(not getting useful information), and the idea that standard legal protection should be in place did not deliver this satisfaction. The other half of it is that people are uncomfortable with their bloodlust and desire for violent retribution, so the common thing is to wallpaper it over with some kind of moral justification. The series 24, for example, a fantasy where there is some kind of immanent attack which can only be stopped by these extreme methods is a prime example. It is much more comfortable to believe this had to happen, rather than admitting you get off on such things.

    • Dan December 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm | #

      What was interesting about 24 to me was how many times the fictional lead in that show was invoked in defense of torture during the Bush years. It really was a useful fantasy for people who wanted revenge and might be uncomfortable just stating so under normal circumstances.

  8. scott December 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm | #

    There really does seem to be a weird reluctance among many progressives or liberals to make moral arguments or voice moral objections. This whole hullabaloo really boils down to the sense that torture is evil and that a movie glorifying it or falsely claiming that it’s positive/useful is problematic. That’s it. Pretty simple and vanilla if you’re a liberal, right? Instead, we’re all told that we’re aesthetic Stalinists (LGM’s phrase) if we have any kind of moral qualms about it. It just seems to me that the progressive blogosphere just is very uncomfortable with hearing or making moral claims and will go through all kinds of mental gymnastics (art isn’t political? really?) to avoid them. Pathetic. I don’t like conservatives for lots of reasons, but one thing I admire about many of them is that they aren’t bashful about what they believe in moral terms and defending it, or telling you directly when something bothers them in moral terms. Why we on the progressive side have to invent a million different (BS) rationalizations for not doing that is a puzzle.

  9. harper December 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm | #

    I find it bizarre how anyone can argue that it’s wrong to criticize a film for not being what the critic wanted it to be.

    It’s perfectly reasonable (indeed, it’s an obligation) to point out Hollywood’s persistence in reducing the victims of oppression (whose suffering is supposedly so crucial to the film’s storyline) as bystanders, without their own voice and agency in their own struggle. Spielberg, and Hollywood generally, persistently & historically refuse to allow victims of oppression to be the fkg subjects of their OWN DAMNED HISTORY.

    Instead, we always have members of the oppressor class portrayed as the heroes and the great liberators. Black people can’t be the subjects of their own fkg story, for god’s sake!

    THAT’S the crux of any film whose intent is to simply use the oppression of a class of people in order to elevate one individual as a hero & liberator — esp when that individual is a member of the oppressor class.

    It’s worse when Spielberg doesn’t even TRY to show even the merest hint of that agency-he takes the time to show black people on screen, gives them lines. Instead he wastes those precious few moments in not allowing them even a suggestion of agency (except for the film’s very first scene) — what’s worse is that choice is historically inaccurate. Not just for the black characters in the film but also for Lincoln himself, as pointed out by Kate Masur in the NY Times.

  10. Nate December 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm | #

    There were two important parts to Robin’s critique: (1) the film primarily attempts to portray, in an historically accurate way, the passage of the 13th amendment as the product of many agents in order to reveal an historical truth about the event (this offered to counter the claim that the movie is primarily a biopic), and in doing so (2) it unaccountably and suspiciously leaves out the slave population’s role in their own emancipation. If you agree with (1), which most reviewers implicitly do, and you want to offer the film high praise, you should provide some persuasive reason for why (2) isn’t a big ethical and artistic howler. I think everyone can see that it is an ethical howler, but some people seem to be hard-pressed to say why it is an artistic one as well. Instead, critics of Robin’s review have attempted to paint him as a neophyte who just clearly cannot understand this one unbreakable rule of film criticism. If that response is meant to simply undermine Robin’s bona fides, well, okay—not worth responding to. On the other hand, if it is meant seriously, I think it misapplies the principle it aims to invoke. Yes, a film should be more or less judged by criteria it sets for itself. But this is not an iron law and needs to be intelligently applied. That is, the principle is meant to keep people from producing idle criticism. It is as if critics of Robin’s Crooked Timber post think he is reviewing _Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter_. If he had been, then, yes, the film-you-wish-you-had-seen critique might apply. But _Lincoln_ purports to be an historically accurate film of serious moral intent.

    So, if (1) is true, then pointing out that the film almost entirely ignores the role that slaves played in their own emancipation is not judging the film based on the film the critic wishes the filmmaker had made; rather, it is judging the film based on the film the filmmaker aspired to make. And isn’t that just what good criticism does?

  11. Glenn December 12, 2012 at 11:46 pm | #

    I am first going to criticize the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment based on their language.

    The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South, where the North did not have control, but not in the North, where it did have control. Slavery was not abolished by this instrument.

    The first clause of the Thirteenth Amendment here:

    “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT AS PUNISHMENT FOR A CRIME WHEREOF THE PARTY SHALL HAVE BEEN DULY CONVICTED, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    The Thirteenth Amendment did not abolish slavery, it made it contingent on state legislation prescribing slavery as a remedy for a crime.

    Slavery remains legal under the Constitution as long as any individual state legislates slavery as a punishment for a crime—perhaps one such as vagrancy.

    Any discussion of Lincoln’s abolition of slavery is of a myth devoid of facticity.


    The ruling class, (which denies its own existence) will not intentionally make any law that it cannot abrogate. The sovereign acts in exception to the rule of law as commonly understood or as written. This is evident by a quick glance at any day’s news.

    As an example:

    Bush vs. Gore restated the Founder’s intent that no person has the right to vote for President.

    In conclusion:

    Consider both “Lincoln,” the movie, and other discussion of it without reference to the North’s failure to constitutionally enact abolition to be moot.

    Therefore, the movie can be criticized on the basis of no more than a few pertinent questions and without the necessity of being subjected the onerous task of watching it.

    Point for Cory.

  12. Kiwanda December 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm | #

    “taking Spielberg to task for not including in a film about black emancipation more depictions of blacks emancipating themselves and pushing for emancipation”

    Such a taking-to-task is dead-on for the movie “Black Emancipation!”; it’s less clear for the movie “Lincoln”. Somebody should spend $65 million to make “Black Emancipation!”, but it’s not clear why it’s necessary to go on and on about one particular director not making that movie at this particular moment. Next up: taking-to-task for terrible versions of the movies “Saving Private Ivanovich” and “Everyone Schindler Didn’t Save”.

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