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Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’

Zero Dark Thirty

a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
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Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty

It is not unusual for filmmakers to try to inject authenticity into a movie’s first frames by flashing onscreen words such as “based on real events.” Yet the language chosen by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to preface their film about events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden is distinctively journalistic: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” As those words fade, “September 11, 2001” appears against a black screen and we hear genuine emergency calls made by victims of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. One caller describes flames spreading around her and says that she is “burning up”; she pleads against death and then her voice disappears. Before any actor speaks a single fictional line, then, Zero Dark Thirty makes two choices: it aligns its methods with those of journalists and historians, and it appropriates as drama what remains the most undigested trauma in American national life during the last several decades.

Since Zero Dark Thirty’s release in New York and Los Angeles in December (it opens nationwide on January 11), the film has provoked a split reaction. Critics have celebrated it for its pacing, control, and arresting but complicated depictions of political violence. The New York Film Critics Circle has named the film best picture of 2012, and it has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for the best picture of the year. The qualities some critics admire in the film are familiar from The Hurt Locker, the previous collaboration—about an American bomb squad in Iraq—between the scriptwriter, Mark Boal, and the director, Kathryn Bigelow. (The film made Bigelow the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, in 2009, and it also won an Oscar for Best Picture.)

At the same time, a number of journalists and public officials—including three United States senators—have excoriated Zero Dark Thirty. Their main complaint is that the film greatly overstates the role played by torture—or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in the CIA’s terrifying euphemism—in extracting from al-Qaeda-affiliated detainees information that ultimately led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.

The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques…were the key to finding Bin Laden,” Michael Morell, the acting CIA director, wrote to agency employees in December. “That impression is false.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein and the two senior members of the Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, coauthored a letter calling the movie’s version of recent counterterrorism history “grossly inaccurate.” The senators said the film’s flaws have “the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”

Boal is a former journalist who conducted interviews with CIA officers, military officers, and White House officials as he prepared to write Zero Dark Thirty. The Obama administration and CIA leaders reportedly authorized at least some of these interviews, apparently in the belief that the public would appreciate the movie that resulted. Boal has said that he conducted other reporting on his own initiative. Boal and Bigelow have offered two main responses to the criticism they have received. One is that as dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative, they must be granted a degree of artistic license.

That is unarguable, of course, and yet the filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy. Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism. Bigelow has called Zero Dark Thirty a “reported film.” Boal told a New York Times interviewer before the controversy erupted, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”

Boal has said that he believes his script captures “a very complex debate about torture” because it shows some prisoners giving up information under duress, while others dissemble. There is no reason to doubt that Boal and Bigelow intended to depict the role of torture in the search for bin Laden ambiguously. The Hurt Locker was a film of understated complexity drawn out through action, not didactic explication. Yet The Hurt Locker’s story offered a microcosm of war that did not try too hard to address the larger subject of the tragic invasion of Iraq, and so a viewer had no cause to compare the film’s choices to a record of historical fact.

Zero Dark Thirty has the inverse shape: it is an epic history that the filmmakers try to compress into a microcosm, by telling the story of the decade-long bin Laden hunt, which involved many hundreds of CIA officers and military personnel, primarily through the experience of a single analyst, “Maya,” who is played by Jessica Chastain, and who is based on a real-life CIA employee whom Boal reportedly met. In the film, the personal story of Maya’s pursuit of bin Laden—which is original and convincing—is juxtaposed against explosive external events, such as the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005, and the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008. As much as the filmmakers’ claims to journalistic method, this narrative approach—the summoning of recent, dramatic public events—invites the viewer into judgment about the film’s reliability.

The first problem in assessing Zero Dark Thirty’s fealty to the facts about torture is that most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret, including the formally sanctioned use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques between roughly 2002 and 2006. So does the full record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden after September 11. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as well as work by investigative journalists such as Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Mark Danner in this journal, and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, have brought forward some details about the CIA’s interrogation program. Yet the record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions.

An estimate of how large the chasm is between what the public knows and what still-secret records describe can be drawn from accounts of a recently completed Senate Intelligence Committee staff report about the CIA program. The staff report is said to run to six thousand pages, based upon a review of about six million CIA documents and cables to and from “black sites” where just fewer than one hundred al-Qaeda suspects were held and where at least some of them were interrogated brutally, as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. The Senate report remains highly classified, however, and is unlikely to be released in full anytime soon.

The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, has said that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were “not central” in developing the clues that led to Osama bin Laden’s hideout. Yet Michael Hayden, the final CIA director of the Bush administration, wrote last year that information gleaned from detainees who were “subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation” proved “crucial” to the search. The most thorough, independent account published on the bin Laden hunt to date—Manhunt, by the journalist Peter Bergen1 —mainly supports Feinstein’s view, but the CIA and other officials Bergen interviewed also asserted that some al-Qaeda detainees who were tortured provided relevant pieces of evidence.

The easiest question to consider is what Zero Dark Thirty actually depicts about the part torture played in locating bin Laden. As best as is known, the CIA’s crucial discovery was to identify a courier, who was known to al-Qaeda colleagues by his nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Agency officers then traced the courier to Abbottabad. Many detainees and other sources contributed information that confirmed the courier’s identity and importance. Ultimately, in the film, Maya tells one detainee that twenty sources have helped to describe al-Kuwaiti’s role.

There can be no mistaking what Zero Dark Thirty shows: torture plays an outsized part in Maya’s success. The first detainee she helps to interrogate is Ammar. He is tortured extensively in the film’s opening sequence, immediately after we hear the voices of World Trade Center victims. Ammar’s face is swollen; we see him strung up by ropes, waterboarded, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep through the blasting of loud music, and stuffed into a small wooden box. During his ordeal, Ammar does not initially give up reliable information. After he has been subdued and fooled into thinking that he has already been cooperative while delirious, however, he gives up vital intelligence about the courier over a comfortable meal.

Some viewers might regard Ammar’s final confession in the midst of warm hospitality as an example of torture that did not work, or worked only partially. In fact, this sequence of the film depicts precisely how the CIA’s coercive interrogation regime was constructed to break prisoners, according to Jose Rodriguez Jr., a former leader of the CIA Clandestine Service, who has described and defended the interrogation regime in a memoir, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives.2 For if a CIA detainee initially refused to cooperate, interrogators applied “enhanced” techniques in an escalating sequence until the prisoner reached what Rodriguez calls “the compliant stage.” Once the detainee “became compliant and agreed to cooperate,” the harsh methods stopped, Rodriguez wrote, and the prisoner might be fed and coddled in reward for confessions he had not previously made.

We later see Maya review videotaped interrogations of half a dozen other prisoners who provide information about al-Kuwaiti. It is not clear in the film whether these detainees are in CIA custody or in the custody of friendly Arab or other governments. We see the videotapes over Maya’s shoulder. The images are dark and menacing. Many of the prisoners appear to be in the process of being tortured or to have recently been tortured.

Later, Maya conducts two additional interviews directly. In the first, her subject agrees to cooperate with her only after declaring, “I have no desire to be tortured again.” Her last interview is with Abu Faraj al-Libi, an al-Qaeda operations leader. We watch al-Libi undergo waterboarding and physical abuse. Al-Libi denies knowing the bin Laden courier, but by now, Maya has so many other sources that she takes his denial as evidence that the courier is so important that al-Libi would endure torture to protect his identity.

In virtually every instance in the film where Maya extracts important clues from prisoners, then, torture is a factor. Arguably, the film’s degree of emphasis on torture’s significance goes beyond what even the most die-hard defenders of the CIA interrogation regime, such as Rodriguez, have argued. Rodriguez’s position in his memoir is that “enhanced interrogation” was indispensible to the search for bin Laden—not that it was the predominant means of gathering important clues.

  1. 1

    Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (Crown, 2012). 

  2. 2

    Threshold, 2012. 

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