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The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty

Director Alex Gibney on the dangerous myth perpetuated by the film.

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If I am veering a bit far from the plot of the movie, I am doing so to make a point about a missed dramatic opportunity. Shaw once said that an argument between a right and a wrong is melodrama but that an argument between two rights is drama. When it came to the subject of torture in ZD30, there was no argument at all. And so a great dramatic opportunity was missed.

Manhola Dargis of the NY Times defends the accounts of torture in the film because they serve "as a claim -- one made cinematically rather than with speeches -- that these interrogation methods are unreliable when it comes to producing actionable information." Then she says that to "omit [scenes of torture] from ZD30would have been a reprehensible act of moral cowardice." Whoa! I haven't heard anyone argue that the scenes themselves should have been omitted. But despite Dargis' vivid imagination, there is no cinematic evidence in the film that EITs led to false information -- lies that were swallowed whole because of the misplaced confidence in the efficacy of torture. Most students of this subject admit that torture can lead to the truth. But what Boal/Bigelow fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results.

That raises a key question: With so much evidence of so many failures -- practical, legal and moral -- of the CIA's "detainee program," why did Boal and Bigelow fail to include it in the film?

My theory -- and it is just a theory -- is that Boal and Bigelow were seduced by their sources. It's a common problem. When a writer or filmmaker gets extraordinary access, one is inclined to believe the person(s) granting the access. There is a significant constituency at the CIA which would like to defend its use of EITs in the War on Terror. This group is exemplified by Jose Rodriguez, the man who was responsible for destroying the videotapes of the CIA's interrogations -- which included waterboarding -- of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. There are many, including me, who believe that Rodriguez should have been prosecuted for destroying evidence of possible crimes. (The DOJ declined to prosecute him.) Instead, he is now promoting his book in which he claims that waterboarding worked.

Many have been won over by the views of Rodriguez and those like him who suggest that what the CIA did was tough, but necessary and smart. It was none of those things. Yet by immersing us only in the world of the CIA, Boal and Bigelow don't show us the perspective we need as viewers to see the lunacy of the CIA's "detainee program." If you want to reveal how tall a man is, you don't shoot him in limbo; you must show him in relation to others. Likewise, how can viewers of ZD30 judge the CIA's record if they can't see how others were shocked by its cruelty, cowardice and stupidity of EITs. In the film, long after the torture of "Ammar," an agent hands Maya a file folder with the real name of al-Kuwaiti. "If only I had this years ago," says Maya. Because Maya is the glamorous heroine of the film, we identify with her and wonder about the inefficiency of her colleagues. But where is the character who wonders if Maya had spent less time slapping detainees around and more time scanning actual evidence -- as the FBI did -- she might have got to bin Laden's courier much sooner.

I suspect that Boal and Bigelow's sources at the CIA shared some of the views of Rodriguez. Of course, without knowing who those sources are, it's impossible to say. What we do know, from correspondence that has been released, is that the CIA did grant extraordinary access to Boal and Bigelow.

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