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The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty

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

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."

I want to focus my concern on the way in which the film is fundamentally reckless when it comes to the subject of torture. It's skillful, but not profound. The reason for this is threefold.

1) The very style of the film

Beautifully lit, the film often shot with a handheld camera to emphasize the cinematic urgency of a cinema verite documentary, which lends a false sense of "truthiness" to the narrative. This is one of the reasons I bristled when Mark Boal told Dexter Filkins that he shouldn't be held responsible for the content of the film because ZD30 is "a movie not a documentary." Well, if the notion of a documentary is so distasteful, why shoot it like one?

There are other mistakes in that careless remark. It implies that because "movies" (unlike Boal, I would include documentaries, for better and for worse, in that category) have an obligation to entertain, they don't have to be nitpickers for accuracy. Yet, on the other hand, Bigelow says that this film is a "journalistic account." So which one is it? You can't have it both ways. After all, ZD30 is being promoted as a riveting and truthful account of the killing of UBL. Would it be as appealing to viewers if it were "just a movie" about the hunt for fictional terrorist named "Osama bin Bad Guy?"

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