‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’

Zero Dark Thirty

a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
coll_1-020713.jpg
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,…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.