Washington Is Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty

The movie is misleading, but that hardly warrants a congressional inquiry.

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein talks with reporters before heading to the Senate floor in Washington, DC on May 8, 2012.

Zero Dark Thirty, the subject of this week’s TIME cover story, has garnered multiple Oscar nominations, but the movie also has an unprecedented distinction: it is now the subject of a congressional inquiry. Instead of the hushed, well-appointed screening rooms that are their more usual habitat, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may instead end up on hard wooden chairs being grilled by senators in an over-lit congressional hearing room. That’s because the Hollywood duo gained unusual access to senior officials at the Pentagon and CIA who were deeply involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. This access prompted a storm of protests from Republicans such as Rep. Peter King of New York who worried that the resulting movie would be a puff piece for the Obama administration. It is anything but. Once the film was released, the chorus of criticism directed at the movie came not from the right but from those who worried that the film’s lengthy, multiple scenes of the coercive interrogations of a CIA-held al-Qaeda detainee who provided the critical lead that led to bin Laden would give filmgoers the false impression that torture had netted al-Qaeda’s leader.

(MORE: The Truth About Torture)

In May I published a book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled Manhunt, which was excerpted in this magazine and was turned into a documentary by HBO. As a result, in October, several weeks before Zero Dark Thirty was first released, I was asked to screen an almost-final cut of the movie. I advised Mark Boal that the torture scenes were overdone. While al-Qaeda detainees held by the CIA were certainly abused, they were not beaten into a bloody pulp, as was the case in the almost-final cut. Boal told me that subsequently some torture scenes were “toned down.”

(MORE: The Last Days of Osama bin Laden, by Peter Bergen)

But there was something else that bothered me when I saw the final cut of the film on the eve of its public release. No matter that Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent movie in many ways and that it does a good job of presenting how several other leads to bin Laden accumulated beyond the one derived from torture, what was worrisome was that surely many millions of moviegoers would come out of the theatre under the impression that coercive interrogations had played a critical role in finding bin Laden.

And that just isn’t the case. Eight months before Zero Dark Thirty was released, the sober overseer of the Senate Intelligence Committee, California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, had publicly said that coercive interrogations had played no role in how bin Laden was found. She made that assertion with confidence because her committee had spent the past three years painstakingly investigating the CIA detainee program. And now she is leading the congressional inquiry into the nature and content of the meetings between the filmmakers and the intelligence officials they spoke to as they researched the bin Laden hunt.

No recent movie about an historical event has attracted quite the level of debate that Zero Dark Thirty has. That is because the filmmakers set themselves up for this kind of scrutiny. A title card at the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty says that it is based on “first hand accounts of actual events.” And Bigelow and Boal have given multiple interviews explaining that the movie is a journalistic account of the hunt for bin Laden for which they performed their own research. This is a far cry from the standard Hollywood disclaimer that a movie is “based on real events.”

(MORE: Why Zero Dark Thirty Isn’t Your Usual Hollywood Fare)

Since they have presented their film as a form of history it has been judged on historical grounds and it has been found wanting. It a great piece of filmmaking; it’s a far weaker work of history. The filmmakers have defended themselves by saying that coercive interrogations were integral to the “war on terror” and that they had an obligation to show them. But Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about the war on terror; it’s about the hunt for bin Laden.

One possible fix the filmmakers could make is to add a title card at the beginning of the movie saying that the Senate Intelligence Committee has found that coercive interrogations did not lead to bin Laden. But the congressional inquiry into Zero Dark Thirty is overkill of the first order. This inquiry will surely have unintended consequences. Firstly, it would likely end the quite reasonable practice of filmmakers occasionally interacting with government officials, and even more damagingly it could potentially put a chill on the work of genuine historians and serious journalists who work in the national security arena.

The First Amendment is the first amendment because it gives everyone the right to say their piece, even when they are wrong. From this market place of ideas the ones that most closely resemble the truth will hopefully rise to the top and help to better inform our democracy. The right way for the issues raised by Zero Dark Thirty to be judged is in the court of public opinion not in congressional proceedings. It is, after all, a movie; not the Iran-contra affair.

MORE: Read TIME’s cover story, “Art of Darkness,” by Jessica Winter

10 comments
Rubyhun
Rubyhun

Właśnie widziałem ten film i udał się z otwartym umysłem. Nie sądzę, że połączone stwierdzenia JPZTB torturom. Są one połączone jest złożyć informację, że pogrążał papiery wartościowe się w biurze CIA i pracy detektywistycznej / przekupstwa znaleźć podejrzanego mama numer telefonu. Stąd terminy śledzenia CIA związku. Następnie po miesiącach bezczynności, zapadła decyzja, aby przejść w. Nie mogli powiedzieć, czy rzeczywiście było to UBL w rezydencji, ale z 60% szans, wydawało warte ryzyka. Dzięki Bogu, w tym ostatecznej decyzji.


DennisRhode
DennisRhode

Torture is great... Aint nothing wrong with it...it works regardless of what the pansies (liike most people here) seem to think...get educated on warfare and the history of...ruthless brutality and absolute violence of action is the only way

warwickl
warwickl

"what was worrisome was that surely many millions of moviegoers would come out of the theatre under the impression that coercive interrogations had played a critical role in finding bin Laden." - Peter Bergen.   Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2013/01/24/is-washington-overreacting-to-zero-dark-thirty/#ixzz2JjhpnNNe

Peter Bergen , and apparently "many millions of movie-goers" have got the bull by the udder and has mis-understood the movie...  The interrogations led nowhere.   The movie's message is that torturing didn’t lead to revealing the whereabouts of Bin Laden - only to 10 years worth of blind alleys.  The futility of CIA reliance placed information gleaned from torture was one of the central themes of the movie for me.  Later on in the movie, a junior CIA analyst re-examines a tiny long-forgotten archived dossier, and that dossier leads to the discovery Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

DavidMeadows
DavidMeadows

The CIA accusing Hollywood of spreading disinformation... now THAT'S funny!

yorgosmalama
yorgosmalama

Peter Bergen - I agree 100% with your assessment of the movie.   Good show!

AnitaBrady
AnitaBrady

I just saw the movie and went in with an open mind. I do not think that they connected the finding of UBL to torture. They connected it to file information that languished in a CIA office and detective work / bribery to find a suspect's mom's phone number. From there, CIA tracking lead to the compound. Then after months of inaction, the decision was made to go in. They could not tell if indeed it was UBL in residence, but with a 60% chance, it seemed worth the risk. Thank goodness for that ultimate decision.

str8vision
str8vision

Had the movie not claimed to be factually accurate when it quite obviously isn't there wouldn't be so much scrutiny. The truth is just too mundane and boring. Endlessly following many people of interest around, eavesdropping on a myriad of conversations/communications, monitoring financial transactions, blackmailing, coercing and or bribing various individuals into cooperating, stakeouts, tips and a dash of random luck.... such would never appeal to a broad audience. I like the movie just the way it is but personally don't consider movies a valid source for history lessons.  

barthomersimpson
barthomersimpson

It is hard to believe that when two helicopters landed inside the fence of Bin Laden's house in Abbottabad, Pakistan he did not have a back-up plan for escape? The person who has done so much calculated damage over the years, just simply stayed there? Does it sound normal? 

yorgosmalama
yorgosmalama

@barthomersimpson  His own compound fenced him in.   It is difficult to scale 10 foot walls, besides, he had no idea of where the US forces were.   As it turns out, they were within the walls as well as outside the walls

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@barthomersimpson 

He was washed up watching old videos of himself all day.

I suggest you come back to reality instead of thinking of Osama as an evil genius in a Bond film.