December 15, 2012

'Zero Dark Thirty' intensifies debate about detainees' torture

The complexity of the hunt for Osama bin Laden could be lost as the film implies that torture yielded some information that helped. And that could shape beliefs as Congress disagrees over that very question.


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Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow
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Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow said it would excessively simplify their film “Zero Dark Thirty” to conclude that it draws a line between torture and the successful targeting of Osama bin Laden.


When Boal and Bigelow were researching the film, Republicans on Capitol Hill raised concerns about how much access the Obama administration was granting the filmmakers. Now, in an odd turn, Democrats and others fear that the movie may give credence to those who say torture was necessary to track down bin Laden.

Those concerns are echoed by Peter Bergen, an intelligence expert who advised Boal and Bigelow on the film. He says the finished picture goes too far.

"It's a great piece of filmmaking," Bergen wrote in an e-mail, but audiences will "walk away from this film with the false impression that torture led to bin Laden."

Asked for comment Thursday, Boal and Bigelow said in a statement that it was too reductive to read the film as drawing a line between the harsh interrogation and the successful targeting of the al Qaida mastermind.

"We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding Bin Laden. 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," they said.

Indeed, there were numerous other breaks in the case -- including those from cell phone tracking, computer file-searching and even the bribing of a Kuwaiti informant -- with a Lamborghini.

Although the filmmakers strove for authenticity, some elements -- such as the CIA's use of dog collars on detainees -- are not true to reality.

Earlier this week, star Jessica Chastain told the Los Angeles Times that she believed the film would be able to stay above the fray. "There's no political statement in this film at all," she said. "Kathryn and Mark wanted to make as accurate depiction of this historical event as possible, and that includes the blemishes in American history."

But in reporting on and dramatizing the hunt for bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" may confuse some moviegoers.

"I think people understand that Hollywood movies, even meticulously researched ones, take a certain amount of liberties with the facts," said Rick Worland, a professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University. "Still, it leaves an impression and becomes part of our collective memory, and that makes it important to get these things right."


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