Zero Dark Thirty Director Clueless about Film’s False Justification for Torture

Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Kathryn Bigelow

In telling the story of how the United States hunted down Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) claims the use of torture played a key role in locating the al-Qaeda leader. This part of the movie has set off a fiery debate in Hollywood and Washington, with critics of the American torture program upset that ZD30 tells its audience that the controversial use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques was effective and justified.


Especially upsetting to some is the scene in ZD30 that shows an older prisoner indicating he’ll talk to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—and provide key intelligence that will ultimately lead to locating bin Laden—as long as his interrogators agree not to torture him anymore. This event as portrayed in the film didn’t happen in real life, despite Bigelow’s assertion that her film is a “journalistic account” of what took place to get the most hated terrorist in the world.


Filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, won the Academy Award in 2008, wrote in the Huffington Post that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal “have been irresponsible and inaccurate in the way they have treated this issue [of torture] in their film.”


Gibney notes that Boal and Bigelow did not pussyfoot around in showing the CIA did torture detainees in the wake of September 11. “But what’s distressing…is that the filmmakers don’t ever question the efficacy of torture. We don’t see how corrupting it was, how many mistakes were made.”


This misrepresentation has also upset leaders in Washington. Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and John McCain (R-Arizona) wrote a letter to Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of misrepresenting the facts and “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.”


In addition to critics on Capitol Hill, the CIA’s acting director, Michael J. Morell, has spoken out about ZD30’s exaggeration of the role that torture played in producing clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts.


According to The New York Times, Morell wrote in a message to CIA employees that the film “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false.”


“The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led C.I.A. analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad [Pakistan],” Morell added. “Some [intel] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques.” … “But there were many other sources as well.”


As for Bigelow, she seems not to understand the implications of the questionable scene, implying in interviews that the film was not meant “to debate policy” and that it “doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.”


Screenwriter Boal has been more aggressive in his defense. He told The Wrap, “The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there—from a number of detainees who are not being coerced.”


Unfortunately, Boal is referring to a different section of the film than the one in which the older prisoner agrees to give breakthrough information in return for not being tortured.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, David Wallechinsky


To Learn More:

The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty (by Alex Gibney, Huffington Post)

Zero Conscience in “Zero Dark Thirty” (by Jane Mayer, New Yorker)

Acting C.I.A. Chief Critical of Film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (by Scott Shane, New York Times)

Letter to Michael Lynton (Senator Dianne Feinstein)

Zero Dark Thirty: Why the Film's Makers Should Be Defended And What Deeper bin Laden Controversy Has Been Stirred (by G. Roger Denson, Huffington Post)

CIA Emails Reveal How Hollywood Won Rights to Bin Laden Killing Details (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

CIA Director Panetta Says No Evidence Torture Led to Osama bin Laden’s Location (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

6 Things We Thought We Knew about the Killing of Osama bin Laden That Turned out to be Wrong (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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