The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty
By Alex Gibney
It’s difficult for one filmmaker to criticize another. That’s a job best left to critics. However, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, an issue that is central to the film — torture — is so important that I feel I must say something. Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible and inaccurate in the way they have treated this issue in their film. I am not alone in that view. Senators Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of misrepresenting the facts and “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective,” and asking for the studio to correct the false impression created by the film. The film conveys the unmistakable conclusion that torture led to the death of bin Laden. That’s wrong and dangerously so, precisely because the film is so well made.
Let me say, as many others have, that the film is a stylistic masterwork, an inspiration in terms of technique from the lighting, camera, acting and viscerally realistic production and costume design. Also, as a screen story, it is admirable for its refusal to funnel the hunt for bin Laden into a series of movie clichés — love interests, David versus Goliath struggles, etc. More than that, the film does an admirable job of showing how complex was the detective work that led to the death of bin Laden: a combination of tips from foreign intelligence, sleuthing through old files, monitoring signals from emails and cell phones (SIGINT) and mining human intelligence on the ground (HUMINT). It’s all the more infuriating therefore, because the film is so attentive to the accuracy of details — including the mechanism of brutal interrogations — that it is so sloppy when it comes to portraying the efficacy of torture. That may seem like a small thing but it is not. Because when we go to war, our politicians will be guided by our popular will. And if we believe that torture “got” bin Laden, then we will be more prone to accept the view that a good “end” can justify brutal “means.”
But torture did not lead us to bin Laden. For other analyses of the way the factual record diverges from Boal/Bigelow version, I recommend pieces by Jane Mayer and Peter Bergen, who are far more experienced journalists than I. In addition, one can also refer to the press release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which concludes that, following the examination of more than six million pages of records from the Intelligence Community, the CIA did not obtain its first clues about the identity of bin Laden’s courier from “CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”