‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Catches Criticism Over Torture Depictions and Accuracy

January 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A new film by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal is supposedly based on first-person accounts of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, causing questions from lawmakers about classified information and depictions of torture. Jeffrey Brown discusses the film with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer and The Atlantic's Mark Bowden.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN:  And finally tonight, this was Oscar nomination day. 

The civil war-era drama “Lincoln” led the pack with 12 nominations, followed by the fantasy “Life of Pi” with 11, and “Les Miserables” with eight. 

Another new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” looking at contemporary history, received five nominations, including for best picture, best screenplay and best actress.  But even before it’s been released nationally, the film is generating a great deal of debate. 

The movie starring Jessica Chastain as a tireless CIA operative sweeps from the haunting first moments of the 9/11 attack to the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May of 2011. 

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning 2009 film “The Hurt Locker.”  The new film tells viewers at the beginning that it is based on accounts from those involved in the manhunt. 

KATHRYN BIGELOW, Director:  It puts the audience in the shoes of those individuals at the heart of the hunt, so it’s very experiential. 

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MARK BOAL, Writer:  A movie that’s riveting, a movie that’s powerful, a movie that’s exciting, and a movie that takes you behind the scenes of a world that quite frankly is usually cloaked from public view. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Indeed, the film captures the sometimes dreary, sometimes dramatic ways of so-called intelligence tradecraft: the dogged pursuit of sources, clues, patterns, anything that might lead to the capture or killing of terrorists. 

The controversy has come over its at times graphic depiction of so-called enhanced interrogation and torture, including water-boarding.  Several prominent lawmakers, including Republican Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture in the Vietnam War, criticized the film for suggesting that such methods were helpful in finding bin Laden. 

McCain spoke on CNN. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.:  First of all, the brutality depicted there is very disturbing.  The story is that torture doesn’t work.  It is hateful.  It is harmful, incredibly harmful to the United States of America.  And to somehow make people believe that it was responsible for the elimination of Osama bin Laden, is in my view, unacceptable. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  McCain and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent two letters to the acting CIA director, demanding to know what information the agency had provided the filmmakers. 

At a Washington, D.C., screening at the museum Tuesday night, protesters dressed as detainees to show their objections, while, inside, the filmmakers, who have said they deplore torture, told the “NewsHour” the dramatized account was intended to highlight an extraordinary intelligence effort. 

KATHRYN BIGELOW:  Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.  And there’s certainly a moral complexity to that 10-year hunt.  But what I’m most proud of is that the film sheds light on the individuals, the professionals in the intelligence community that spent — in 10 years, gave their — dedicated their lives, some who sacrificed their lives, to this very successful operation. 

MARK BOAL:  One of the things we look when we look at a movie in my business or when we talk about a work of art is complexity and the ability of something to mean different things to different people. 

JEFFREY BROWN: “Zero Dark Thirty” opens nationwide tomorrow. 

I’m joined now by two journalists who’ve written widely on the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and in recent weeks, on the new film.  Jane Mayer of The New Yorker is author of “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.”  Mark Bowden is author of “Black Hawk Down.”  His latest book is “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.”  He writes for the Atlantic and teaches journalism at the University of Delaware. 

Jane Mayer, you have written that “Zero Dark Thirty” — quote — “distorts a difficult history, seems to turn torture into morally neutral entertainment.”

Give me the essence of the problem that you see. 

JANE MAYER, The New Yorker:  Well, I think the filmmakers say in the very beginning it’s based on real accounts.  So it sets up an expectation that it is going to be accurate history of what happened during those years in the war on terror.

And, instead, what it does is it distorts the history, I felt, by leaving out the complete moral and ethical and political context in which this torture program took place.  There were fights from start to finish about whether torture was something appropriate for the United States to get involved in.  It’s not just whether it worked, but it was whether we could do better and whether it was illegal and wrong. 

And not a whiff of that is in this movie.  And so I felt, by missing it, it missed the real drama of that period. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Mark Bowden, you wrote: “The criticism is unfair.  Torture may be morally wrong and it may not be the best try obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is right to portray that fact.”

Explain. 

MARK BOWDEN, Author, “Black Hawk Down”:  Well, I think that it is a feature film that tries to present the story in broad strokes.  And it shows, I think appropriately, that our early efforts to find bin Laden and the other al-Qaida leaders involved the use of these interrogation methods. 

However, the film itself, I don’t think, is neither pro-torture nor anti-torture.  I think it just presents the story as it happened, and, in fact, in the early, more graphic scene, shows torture to be both repellent and futile. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, Jane, this gets to part of one of the questions.  And we saw the filmmakers talk about complexity of all this.  How much do we even now today know about the early breakthroughs in the hunt for bin Laden and how they came about? 

JANE MAYER:  It depends which “we” you’re talking about. 

There actually is a huge record of this that’s been compiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee 6,000 pages long, which has not yet been released to the public.  So reporters like myself, even though I have spent years covering this, have many gaps.  I spent a couple hours today trying to compile what’s known about how we found bin Laden.

And, basically, there are five detainees that gave shreds of information that got us to the courier that got us to bin Laden, as far as I can tell.  There’s a lot missing, which allows people with different points of view to manipulate the facts. 

So you have got people in the CIA trying to make it look like what they did was great and had to be done. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  So are you saying — so, is it a question of torture not having worked or that in this movie they don’t show that there was a great debate about whether it worked or whether it was moral? 

JANE MAYER:  Well, it’s a combination. 

Of course, you know, first of all, I should say I think the movie — filmmakers have a right to make any movie they want.  I’m all for artistic freedom.  But in the same vein, as someone who really followed this history, I feel like I have the right to comment on what they have done.

And what they have done is, they have compressed a lot of very complicated facts into what’s basically a slick kind of TV show sort of police procedural, where it’s very gripping, and it’s fun to watch, but there’s no moral context.  And, basically, the question of whether torture works, that’s complicated.  Sometimes, it did.  Sometimes, it didn’t. 

Frequently, what happened was people lied.  And what the CIA said in two very important cases is that they found bin Laden’s courier because the lies tipped them off that there was something more going on.  That’s a very shaky kind of basis on which to claim that torture worked, to say, because they lied, it was a success. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Mark Bowden, come in on that.  Respond.  What do you see in this film? 

MARK BOWDEN:  Well, I think — I have written a book on the subject, so I can say with as much certainty as almost anyone at this point that torture didn’t present the key information that led to bin Laden. 

There was never a moment where someone under pressure coughed up a critical piece of information. The true story is a lot more complicated than that.  And I think it’s actually reflected fairly well in the presentation in the film, in that the early very repulsive and, as I said, ultimately futile torture sequences are followed by one where they try different tactics with the detainee.

And he tells them a piece of information that is not directly relevant to what they’re looking for, and then I don’t think they — and it showed this way in the film — neither they or the detainee recognize will become tremendously significant down the road.  But that, nevertheless, is how that name of the courier first surfaces. 

So in my way of looking at it, that’s — it’s not exactly what happened.  Clearly, the detainee portrayed is an amalgam.  The dialogue is made up.  But it reflects what — I think fairly accurately — what those early stages of the hunt…

 (CROSSTALK)

JANE MAYER:  I actually would disagree, in that — in one way, which is, this movie opens with someone being water-boarded. 

Nobody who was water-boarded ever gave information that led to finding bin Laden.  And this detainee is held by the CIA in the beginning of the movie.  Basically, the first shreds of information that came out about the courier came from people down in Guantanamo, which were held by the military, not the CIA. 

So this glorifies the CIA’s worst torture methods, turns it into kind of a straight line that’s like a necessary evil that gets you from water-boarding to finding bin Laden.  I would be surprised if many people in the country don’t conclude torture is a necessary evil and that the ends justify the means. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  That’s where I wanted to go.

And I will come back to you, Mark, on this, because you sort of raised the “it’s a movie” factor.  Right?  It’s a drama.  It’s a dramatization.  And I was thinking in my head today — we saw the nominations for another historical drama, “Lincoln.”

I, like many people, saw it and liked it.  And then we might realize that not everything is factual there.  You’re suggesting that that’s OK in a sense, even though this is about more recent history, that we should see it as a kind of drama? 

MARK BOWDEN:  Yes, and I think that’s how you should see it. 

I think that I have been critical somewhat of the hype around the film, that it’s journalistic.  It isn’t.  It’s, you know, as truthful as any Hollywood movie — more than most — that purports to be based on a true story. 

I do think that when we get into the particulars of who first mentioned the name of Ahmed, the Kuwaiti, and under what circumstances, I don’t think any of us knows precisely what happened.  But I do think it’s fair for the filmmakers to show that in those early years the mistreatment of detainees during interrogation was fairly commonplace.  And I think it’s portrayed as very ugly and in a very, I think, compromising way.  So…

JANE MAYER:  Can I say one thing more? 

 (CROSSTALK)

JANE MAYER:  And I’m a big fan of Mark’s, but I just think that what it doesn’t show is, even in those earliest scenes, when the first detainee was water-boarded, there was — some of the people in that room threw a fit. 

You do not see that in this movie.  There was an FBI agent who walked out and said, I won’t have anything to do with this, it’s illegal, it’s wrong, it’s what our enemies do. 

There’s not a character in this movie who raises the question about whether torture is right or wrong, let alone whether it works. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, let me ask you just very briefly, though, in our last 30 seconds.  Your fear here is that this portrayal will impact public understanding and possibly policy? 

JANE MAYER:  I think pop culture is incredibly powerful. 

I think the TV show “24,” if you look at the numbers, changed public opinion and made people much more comfortable with torture. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And, Mark, a last word from you on the same thing.  You think this will affect public policy and public perception? 

MARK BOWDEN:  I think it will affect the way people remember this story. 

I personally didn’t take away, as Jane has, a strong message on the subject of torture one way or the other.  I did, for instance, from the show “24,” which is clearly pro-torture — not from this, though. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Mark Bowden and Jane Mayer, thank you both very much. 

JANE MAYER:  Thanks for having me.

MARK BOWDEN:  Thank you.