The Hollywood epic, Zero Dark Thirty, which will hit US movie theaters just in time for Christmas is being lambasted by journalists and critics for its attempt to whitewash history by presenting torture techniques used by the CIA during the Bush years as a key feature of the investigation that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the film—which is already causing Oscar buzz, receiving award nominations and critical acclaim—claims to be a methodically-researched exploration of the hunt for bin Laden by US intelligence and military operatives that culminated in his death in early 2011.
While film critics are busy heaping praise on the film, it is human rights advocates, anti-torture campaigners, and historians calling it out for a brazen—and many say repulsive—misrepresentation of facts.
As Mother Jones' Adam Serwer reports, according to those who have seen it, the movie "shows torture as central to the discovery of bin Laden's location, and this departs from what is publicly known about the raid on Abbottabad."
And the movie's second official trailer released for the public features prominently a CIA interrogator making threats to "break" a detainee:
Media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen was more succinct when he put out this rhetorical question via Twitter:
WTF is Kathryn Bigelow doing inserting torture into her film, Zero Dark Thirty, if it wasn't used to get Bin Laden? nyr.kr/VLqoho
— Jay Rosen(@jayrosen_nyu) December 10, 2012
And Serwer, who tweeted this,
Bigelow says Zero Dark Thirty is "history," unless she gets called on her facts, in which case it's just a movie. motherjones.com/mixed-media/20…
— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) December 10, 2012
Goes on to explain at Mother Jones:
Defenders of Bush-era enhanced interrogation waged a fierce public relations campaign to rehabilitate torture in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing, in part to award Bush credit for the raid. But the facts kept getting in the way. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official responsible for the destruction of videos recording the (ineffectual) torture of detainee Abu Zubayda, went on 60 Minutes and was unable to rebut the fact that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed lied when questioned about bin Laden's courier, despite being tortured. The CIA inspector general found that "you could not in good conscience reach a definitive conclusion about whether any specific technique was especially effective, or [whether] the enhanced techniques in the aggregate really worked." Republicans are currently attempting to block a Senate intelligence committee investigation of the efficacy of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
And The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald agrees, writing "What makes all of this so remarkable is that the film's glorifying claims about torture are demonstrably, factually false."
"That waterboarding and other torture techniques were effective in finding bin Laden is a fabrication."
Greenwald argues that Boal and Bigelow "are speaking out of both sides of their mouths" when they try to argue the film is based on factual happenings on the one hand, but take such extreme historical license when it comes to the role played by torture on the other.
As noted, [Bigelow] is going around praising herself for taking "almost a journalistic approach to film". But when confronted by factual falsehoods she propagates on critical questions, her screenwriting partner resorts to the excuse that "it's a movie, not a documentary."
The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency's torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as "Zero Dark Thirty" regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden.
That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA - Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin - to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA's then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.
What this film does, then, is uncritically presents as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.
Shouldn't that rather glaring "flaw" preclude gushing admiration for this film? Is it possible to separate the filmmakers' political propaganda and dissemination of falsehoods from their technical skills in producing a well-crafted entertainment product?
As Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, told the New York Times's Scott Shane and Charlie Savage in 2011, the use of coercive torture techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.”
“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, who also spoke to the Times for that report . “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”
As Serwer remarks:
Someone attempting to make a "journalistic" feature film on the hunt for Osama bin Laden could be expected to be aware of all this. When [the New Yorker's Dexter] Filkins asked Bigelow about her portrayal of torture departing from the known facts, Bigelow replied, "It's a movie, not a documentary." Bigelow wants her film to be seen as a contribution to the historical record, not as mere entertainment. So far she is winning over influential film critics. If you're thinking of giving Bigelow an award, Zero Dark Thirty is "history"; if you're a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it's just a movie.
The critical acclaim Zero Dark Thirty is already receiving suggests that it may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture, despite available evidence to the contrary. Whatever the artistic merits of the film, that will be its moral legacy. That's quite an accomplishment, but not a journalistic one.
With regret, Greenwald concludes that he thinks by-and-large the American audience for which the film was conceived, so complacent about the idea of their own government torturing people, won't care that the torture scenes are fabricated and nonfactual.
"Ultimately," he writes, "I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this."
Greenwald ends by saying: "The normalization of torture - and of all crimes committed by the US government in the name of war - is both a cause and effect of this film's success. That normalization is what enables a film like this to be so widely admired, and it will be bolstered even further as the film gathers more accolades and box office riches."