CONGRESSIONAL TORTURE: EXAMINING THE CONTROVERSY OF “ZERO DARK THIRTY”

Now we know what some members of Congress were doing when they should’ve been dealing with the fiscal cliff and passing an aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy: They were catching a movie.

And ever since seeing Zero Dark Thirty, their main interest has been catching members of the intelligence community who consulted on it with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind 2008′s The Hurt Locker. This past Thursday the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation into the matter. Seriously.

The critically hailed dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden opens nationally this week so it’s probably the perfect time for a recap of this unprecedented movie brouhaha (Google as I might, I can’t find a comprehensive analysis anywhere). Let’s begin with the torture. Just as the film does.

Bigelow starts things off with a powerful juxtaposition. The screen is black as we listen to a collage of terrified voices, recordings of real 911 calls from the morning of September 11, 2011. The first thing we see is the brutal interrogation of a detainee two years later at a CIA black site. The inference is clear: the former has led to the latter.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, an operative “just off the plane from D.C.” in the words of Dan (Jason Clarke), the colleague responsible for the rough stuff. She quickly gets into the swing of things, soon employing enhanced techniques herself (assisted by a silent hulk who supplies slaps and punches at her direction).

Eventually a suspect Dan and Maya abusively interrogate for days gives up the name of bin Laden’s courier, the figure who’ll ultimately lead agents to the compound in Abbottabad. Again, the inference is crystal: torture and enhanced techniques led to the information that led to bin Laden.

Except they didn’t. At least not according to key players like President Obama, ex-CIA director Leon Panetta and acting head Michael Morell as well as high ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and others in Congress who’ve reviewed the classified record.

“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture lead to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” Senator John McCain grumped to CNN last month. “That’s not the case.” McCain is part of the group—which includes senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin—that has reviewed government documents and now wants to get to the bottom of who at the CIA told what to Bigelow and Boal and, by implication, why the filmmakers made a movie suggesting torture was pivotal to the manhunt’s success when it wasn’t.

Given how immersive and meticulously detailed its account of the decade-long search for the world’s most wanted man is, it’s surprising how uncompelling its creators’ response to the controversy has proven. In a statement the filmmakers released together they denied their picture takes a position on the role torture played. “The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.” Huh?

Perhaps in an attempt to improve upon that non-answer answer, Boal has since told The New Yorker, “It’s a movie, not a documentary. We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program.”

The problem with that, of course, is that everybody already knew they were. We hardly needed a Hollywood procedural—even a well made, immensely watchable one—to inform us that America took the moral gloves off in the aftermath of 9/11. The question remains then: Why did Bigelow and Boal decide to make the point that torture led to intelligence that led to bin Laden when that evidently wasn’t the story they got from insiders? There appear to be two possibilities.

The first is that they’re pro-torture. That seems unlikely. The second is that they simply believed it made for a better story—that a saga of dogged detective work wouldn’t have proven dramatic enough—and somehow failed to anticipate poetic license on this subject would provoke such outrage. In other words they screwed up, as Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman suggested in a December 19 piece, writing “One of the things that occurred to me was the possibility that the director and screenwriter didn’t understand their own movie.”

It’s safe to say the creators of Zero Dark Thirty expected to be hearing more about Oscar nominations and less about Senate panels as their movie neared wide release. When it hits theaters Friday, everyone will finally have an opportunity to see what all the hubbub’s about. When we’ll start getting straight answers from Bigelow and Boal, on the other hand, is anybody’s guess.

Updated to Add:
Shortly after this was written, Bigelow and Boal addressed the controversy during the New York Film Critics Circle Award Ceremony.




Posted on January 8, 2013 in Features by
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9 Comments on "CONGRESSIONAL TORTURE: EXAMINING THE CONTROVERSY OF “ZERO DARK THIRTY”"

  1. Rob on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 8:26 pm 

    I find it funny that so many want to hide the fact that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do in fact work and played a valuable role in not only catching Bin Laden, but also Saddam and the majority of Terrorist opposition. No matter what Obama or the bleeding hearts want you to believe. McCain is a kiss ass who is lucky to even a job at this point and is just proving his blatant irrelevance as a lap dog after getting his ass kissed, it’s embarrassing.


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  2. Rick Kisonak on Wed, 9th Jan 2013 11:53 am 

    “I think at the end of the day,” Boal said Monday, “we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.” So no straight answers yet.


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  3. Don R. Lewis on Wed, 9th Jan 2013 2:40 pm 

    Say what you feel you must about Senator McCain but he’s a man who withstood YEARS of torture as a Vietnam POW. I think he might have a little insight and feelings towards it’s use. Granted, I’m not fan of his current politics, but he should be allowed a voice in this without politics clouding it.

    I’ve yet to see the movie so I can’t speak to Rick’s piece, but torture is unAmerican no matter how you look at it. Not saying Boal/Bigelow are saying it is or isn’t, that’s just something I believe to be true. I’m excited to see the film if they ever decide to release it widely :-/


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  4. An American on Mon, 28th Jan 2013 2:14 pm 

    Kathryn Bigelow changed the story. That’s bad, but it is worse than that. This movie shows torture as acceptable, and even leading to positive results (sorry, it never happened this way). If you care at all about our men and women serving overseas, than write Ms Bigelow and ask for a retraction. Our enemies can torture our brave soldiers too. When we celebrate and endorse torture, it gives them justification and moral license to do it too. Sometimes it just knowing what the other side will or will not do that saves you from the same treatment. Lieing and glorifying this as she has done to make it appear that it lead to Bin Laden capture is disgusting. That may seem no reason to shame her to you, but if your an American POW, what Ms. Bigelow did was yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater. She has no shame.


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  5. JustSayin on Mon, 28th Jan 2013 11:30 pm 

    Alfred W. McCoy writes the definitive history of US torture. He shows us that it can work, but only when the torturers are willing to torture a broad spectrum of the target community–not just selected suspects. The example here is the war on the Casabah of Algiers, where the French rounded up large numbers from the community at random and tortured freely. Thus, the recipe for effective torture (i.e., getting useful information from the victims) is to torture indiscriminantly, leaving behind any and all notions of justice, then cross-check the information you get from the victims. The torture of women and children is as useful in this kind of project as of male toughs. He must be willing to maim the innocent in the name of innocence. He is the Sandy Hook killer who imagines himself a patriot. In a word, the effective torturer is a monster, and leaves behind all claims to our respect.

    A movie about torture must either give us a false picture of what torture accomplishes, as apparently this movie does, or it must show us a picture of ourselves that suggests we are less than fully human–capable of killing even our own sense of outrage.


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  6. Mr. Collins on Tue, 5th Feb 2013 5:47 pm 

    Rob <——- must work at the CIA and have personal knowledge that "enhanced interogation techniques" led to the killing of Bin Laden and the majority of terrorists. Where is evidence of these "facts" that you claim exist? There are none! This is your flawed opinion and I and most of the world disagree with your BS!


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  7. ray on Sat, 16th Feb 2013 8:35 pm 

    Torture,works??Do you realize a person in pain will say anything to make that pain stop??And we are supposed to be christians .Do christians torture any one??Does torture make us any better then our enemys?I have observered torture done by the united states so i do believe it has been and is being done.Seems our respective government has been lying to us all as much as to the world.WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GENEVA CONVENTION??And atrocitys such as women and children being killed?Well the are usually labeled as acceptable casualitys??Does any one out there think we do not have monsters in our armed forces?Because if you do better look again.People are being tortured and abused in YOURS and mine names even right now.


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  8. michael mullikin on Fri, 22nd Feb 2013 2:49 pm 

    With all the complaining about the interrogation scene in O Dark 30, apparently they never saw “Unthinkable” with Samuel L. Jackson?


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  9. Rick Kisonak on Tue, 26th Feb 2013 12:12 pm 

    The Senate Intelligence Committee very quietly closed its investigation yesterday reportedly having ascertained that CIA staff who consulted with the filmmakers did not tell them enhanced techniques led to the information which led to bin Laden. Interesting post-Oscars timing.

    So the question remains: if nobody at the CIA told Boal that torture played a pivotal role in the hunt for OBL, why did he write that it did?

    It would be nice if someone in the press would ask him that simple question some time before the next Academy Awards.


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