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.