Washington Is Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty

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

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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