Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the Osama bin Laden hunt, has been causing drama on Capitol Hill. The latest scene took place Tuesday at the Washington, D.C., premiere, when director Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and former Senator Chris Dodd tried to quash criticisms from lawmakers who say that the movie miscasts history–particularly the role “enhanced interrogation techniques” played in leading to bin Laden’s death.
The film opens with scenes depicting waterboarding and ends with the Navy SEALs‘ dramatic, successful raid on a certain Pakistan compound. Last month Senators from both parties–John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin–sent a letter to acting CIA director Mike Morell requesting details about the CIA’s involvement in informing the plot, which they believe gives too much credit to such practices. Two days later, Morell posted a statement to CIA employees on the agency’s website: he said any impression that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “the key” to finding bin Laden is false but also noted that some intelligence used to place bin Laden in Abbottobad “came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques.” His statement only led to renewed calls from the Senators for more clarity from the CIA, while many more Congresspeople offered their own moral and historical beliefs.
On Tuesday night, Bigelow emphasized the fictional bent of her practice. Taking questions on the red carpet, she repeatedly told reporters that her film is “not a documentary.” In a statement she read to the audience before the film showed, she acknowledged the “national conversation” that the film had started and emphasized that she “tried to bring this story to the screen in a faithful way.” Even so, she argued, all the relevant details spanning the decade between the 9/11 attacks and bin Laden’s death were likely known to no one. Boal doubled down on the artistic-license defense in a live Q&A with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz after the film. “The research was over there in a pile, and I had to write a screenplay, make a movie,” he said. “The goal was to capture the essence of the underlying reality.” He too said that there was no single “underlying reality” of the bin Laden story that anyone, especially people with strong political ties, would agree on.
Both are fair points: arguing about “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the role they’ve served during the “war on terror” is inevitably done without all the facts, and the larger ethical debate contains grey areas. The issue is a perennial third rail in D.C., a reality demonstrated by protestors who had gathered outside the Newseum, where the film was shown. Some were dressed as detainees, draped in orange jumpsuits with black bags over their heads and arms behind their backs; they stood silently in front of a sign that read “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Code Pink activists held a sign that read “Women say NO to torture.”
When Dodd, now head of the Motion Picture Association of America, made his case for the film, he also argued that those “bickering” should understand that Zero Dark Thirty is just a movie–one that’s really about the dedication of civil servants who doggedly tracked down the world’s most wanted man. But as he started to pontificate about the power of films to affect society at large, he inadvertently supported the critics’ case. “How many people changed their views on [HIV/AIDS] because of Philadelphia?” he said. “How many people’s views of anti-Semitism changed because some people in Hollywood made a movie called the Gentleman’s Agreement?” Legislators concerned about the film’s message are worried about a similar question: “How many people’s views of ‘enhanced techniques’ will be forever shaped by the dramatic depiction in Zero Dark Thirty?”
The precise fidelity of the film to its sources is unclear–and is likely to remain so: when Raddatz asked Boal who he spoke to when researching the plot and which parts he fictionalized, questions that the Senators are investigating too, Boal did not give specifics. And he’s not the only one holding cards to his chest. Democratic Senators on the Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs, produced a 6,000-page, still-classified report on the CIA interrogation program that the panel voted 9-6 to adopt last month.
In his statement, Morell said that the “CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.” Others familiar with the CIA interrogation program have said that the reality “bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen.” Americans do get their impressions of what the CIA is like from films, and the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty unfold after a note informing viewers that the story is based on first-hand accounts. Still, most moviegoers also know that “based on a true story” accounts must be taken with the many grains of salt in their tub of popcorn.