Not Just Another Movie

Zero Dark Thirty lies. End of story.

Jonathan Olley/ Zero Dark Thirty, LLC.
Jonathan Olley/ Zero Dark Thirty, LLC.

I recently took my favorite retired screenwriter (my husband) to see Zero Dark Thirty. For years, we have been sparring over creative license and historical accuracy in national security films. Usually our movie dates go something like this: he talks about plot development, character arcs, cinematography, and the power of silences. I complain about what isn’t true and suggest a reading list of peer reviewed journal articles on the subject. When I told him the movie Deterrence should really be called Compellence (a better reflection of Thomas Schelling’s Nobel prizewinning work on the subject), he started seeing more movies without me.

I fully expected him to walk out of ZD30 issuing a ringing defense of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, hailing the importance of artful storytelling, and underscoring the prevailing Hollywood view that movies are not real life and everyone knows the difference.

Boy was I wrong. For the first time in more than a decade of Screenwriter vs. Professor, we agreed. Mr. Creative License felt as strongly as I did that Zero Dark Thirty deceptively posed as objective and journalistic when it was nowhere close.

Most policy wonks have focused on two aspects of the film: its depiction of torture and its claims to reportage. Senators, terrorism experts, journalists, and even the CIA’s acting director have criticized the film’s misleading torture scenes, in which "Ammar" (a composite fictional character) is broken by torture and ultimately gives up the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s trusted courier. The movie is unambiguous on two points: (1) the courier’s pseudonym is portrayed as the key break that led to bin Laden, and (2) the name was first elicited from a CIA detainee who opened up only after being softened up by torture. But no government official with access to the classified record has corroborated these claims, and plenty have flatly contradicted them.

To be clear, much of the historical record remains classified. The only public record is what some people say they know, which may not be the same as what they actually know or what is known by others. Several senior CIA officials have vigorously defended the agency’s "enhanced interrogation program" as a vital source of information in the hunt for bin Laden. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden wrote in a June 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed that it is "nearly impossible" for him "to imagine any operation like the May 2 assault on bin Laden’s compound … that would not have made substantial use of the trove of information derived from CIA detainees, including those on whom enhanced techniques had been used." Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. who oversaw the CIA’s counterterrorism operations and later led its clandestine service, wrote in the Washington Post last April that "the trail to bin Laden … stemmed from information obtained from hardened terrorists who agreed to tell us some (but not all) of what they knew after undergoing harsh but legal interrogation methods." He describes a 2004 interrogation of a terrorist detainee who, after enhanced techniques were applied, "told us many things — including that bin Laden had given up communicating via telephone, radio or Internet, and depended solely on a single courier who went by ‘Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.’" Sounds convincing.

But look closely. These guys have spent their entire professional careers being oh-so-careful with words. Neither Hayden nor Rodriguez claims the torture program was the key to finding bin Laden. Neither claims that enhanced interrogation methods were how the agency first unearthed the courier’s nom de guerre, identified his true name, or his whereabouts. (In fact, Hayden concedes that "the first mention of the courier’s name came from a detainee not in CIA custody.") And several other officials with access to the classified record, including former CIA Director Leon Panetta, come down on the other side. In May of 2011, Panetta wrote in a letter to Senator John McCain, which said, "we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002," and went on to say, "no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means."

The still-classified 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee review, which took three years and examined 6 million pages of documents, concurred. The money findings, released by Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and Senator Carl Levin last April:

CIA did not first learn about the existence of the [Osama bin Laden] UBL courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the agency discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.


The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.

When the movie controversy erupted, Acting CIA Director Michael Morell issued this statement to his CIA colleagues: "[T]he 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." Morell added, "[T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well."

A full view of history will take history. But the best available evidence tells a very different story than ZD30: Torture was not, in fact, how the CIA got the courier’s name, and it was not the key to nabbing Osama bin Laden.

Yet Bigelow and Boal have been marketing ZD30 as a faithful reporting of the facts, even calling it a "reported" film. This rankles real reporters. The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer penned a blistering review, noting that the film "doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue." Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll called the film "troubling" and a failed work of journalism. While filmmakers often flash words like "based on real events" in a movie’s opening frames to "inject authenticity," Coll writes, ZD30 goes further. The film’s opening states that it is "Based on first hand accounts of actual events."

First-hand accounts. Actual events. These are strong words. And Bigelow keeps using them — repeating the "based on first-hand accounts" mantra while defending her film on Stephen Colbert’s show last week. It was a surreal moment: a filmmaker masquerading as a journalist telling a comedian masquerading as a news anchor that her fictional film masquerading as a documentary is a "first draft of history." Incredibly, Bigelow managed to be both wrong and pretentious at the same time.

There are also powerful artistic forces that enhance the film’s faux journalistic feel — a point that my filmmaker husband got immediately but that we wonks have missed. As he explained, one of Bigelow’s storytelling gifts is her aesthetic sensibility. She shoots in a gritty, documentary style that makes you feel like you are right there, in the interrogation room, in the chopper, next to bin Laden’s body, watching real time unfold with night vision goggles on and heart pounding. Boal is a beautiful and subtle writer who avoids cheap, over-the-top writing like those 24 scenes where the terrorist sings like a canary the instant Jack Bauer inflicts serious pain. Bigelow and Boal’s artistry makes the movie feel like journalism.

But here’s the thing: feeling like journalism does not make a movie journalistic. It makes it deceptive. Throughout the film, my husband kept asking me what was real and what wasn’t. Was Ammar a real detainee? No. Did the courier’s name come from torture? No. Did the U.S. detainee program end when torture was banned, as the movie leads us to believe? No. Did a CIA official say that he had more confidence that Iraq had WMD than that bin Laden was in Abbottabad? Yes, that really did happen. By the end, I couldn’t be 100 percent sure exactly what was true and what was made up. And I study this stuff for a living.

There’s another big difference between journalism and moviemaking. Great journalism is about fact-finding — unearthing and presenting multiple perspectives to paint a rounded picture of complex reality. But great filmmaking is about emotional storytelling, and the most dramatic stories are often told through one person’s eyes. This is what ZD30 does, pulling us into the feelings, actions, perspective, and journey of one fictional CIA officer named Maya. The film is not rounded or objective. It is narrow, intensely personal, and intentionally subjective, tethering the audience’s feelings to the protagonist’s in a shared journey.

Bigelow and Boal put us on the same emotional page as their heroine from the film’s first seconds, playing the haunting voices of 9/11 victims calling from the burning World Trade Center on a black screen. The film then cuts to Maya entering a dark cell where a beaten terrorist detainee, Ammar, is being held. The filmmakers do not want us to enter that cell as dispassionate bystanders of history, but as outraged Americans sharing Maya’s raw pain and desire for justice. With the victims’ voices fresh in our heads, we and Maya witness Ammar’s torture together. In that moment, exactly how many audience members are saying to themselves, I am appalled by the inhumanity of this interrogation? And how many are thinking, I hope that motherfu*#king terrorist gives it up so we can put a bullet in bin Laden’s head? I’m betting the latter.

Maya’s story is our story, and there is no doubt that she comes to see torture as necessary and efficacious, approving the very methods that first make her squirm. In the movie, after enhanced interrogation methods are banned, the leads go dry; Maya and her dogged hunches are all the CIA has left. And we are rooting for her, waterboarding and all, straight to Abbottabad.

My husband and I also agreed that Zero Dark Thirty is not "just a movie." Bigelow claims that her film is just putting it out there for others to debate the issues. But Zero Dark Thirty is not neutral about the effectiveness of torture any more than Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is neutral about the horrors of the Holocaust. (Make up your own minds: Nazis, good or bad?) Nor is ZD30 about ancient history. It charges headlong into headlines about an ongoing debate that is still shrouded in secrecy — while claiming the mantle of truth based on some interviews with senior officials who dribbled out selected bits of information and had every reason to portray their own decisions in a favorable light.

The stakes are high. It is one thing for Argo to spice up the plotline of a 30-year old CIA hostage escape operation by downplaying Canada’s role. Angry Canadians are unlikely to affect U.S. national security policy. It is quite another thing to weigh in on one of the most controversial counterterrorism tools while the war on terror rages on and lives are on the line.

Bigelow recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement." Well, those of us who work in the academy know something else: all too often, depiction is bad education. This is especially true with the CIA, where public information is scarce but public interest and controversy are intense. My research has found disturbing evidence — in national polls, Senate hearings, and press interview transcripts — that spy-themed entertainment is shaping public attitudes towards torture, coloring the questions asked in CIA director confirmation hearings, and even influencing how presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices think about intelligence issues. Fake spies are influencing real intelligence policy.

Bigelow and Boal have prodigious talent and a powerful medium. What they do not have is a free pass to present their film as truth and hide behind artistic license when the real world cries foul. If you’re going to see Zero Dark Thirty, I’d suggest skipping the first frame and reading this instead:

This film is a work of fiction that tells the story of the hunt for bin Laden from one imaginary CIA officer’s perspective. Some of the events depicted are real. Many are not. You won’t be able to tell the difference. Plus we made up a lot of shit about torture. We arrogantly contend that this motion picture is the first draft of history even though actual history says otherwise. But don’t judge us: it’s just a movie.

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

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