Now that the movie Zero Dark Thirty has been in theaters for a little over two weeks, many people are wondering how accurate the film’s depiction of the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden and his ultimate capture is.
Prior to its release, the film was surrounded with controversy, which has waned little since its limited release on December 19th, 2012 (its full release was on January 11, 2013).
The controversies include accusations of partisan propaganda, intentional mishandling of classified military information, and accusing the film of taking a pro-torture stance on interrogation methods.
However, if any of these controversies are to be quelled, the government/military will have to release an actual historical account of what happened and not rely on Hollywood, which is known for historically inaccurate movies such as Oliver Stone’s JFK, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. So on the sliding scale of fiction to nonfiction where exactly does Zero Dark Thirty fall?
The movie claims that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. However, when asked point blank in an interview with ABC news, Zero Dark Thirty writer, Mark Boal, replied:
“I believed that we captured the essence of what happens and so do many people who have lived through it.” (1)
This would seem to imply that, from the writer’s point of view, the film is not a minute-by-minute/hour-by-hour historical account of what occurred, but a retelling of an historical event in which the gaps are filled in with the most probable events.
However, there many people, several of which can be found in the U.S. Senate who believe that the film is overall inaccurate in a variety of ways especially in the way torture, or “enhanced interrogation”, is portrayed as a major contributor to the finding of bin Laden.
Government Support of the Film
In a December 19th press release that included a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) stated:
“We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty. We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.” (2)
The letter goes on to call the film “factually inaccurate” and lays out several reasons why. Most of these reasons point back to the fact that information received was not from this so-called “enhanced interrogation”.
However, it is important to note that the letter does not claim that this method was not used. For example, “The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.” (2) Basically, she states that the detainee provided the information, but yet still underwent these interrogation techniques.
Nevertheless, from the movie’s inception, the government seems to have been in full support of the film. This support can be taken one of two ways. One way is that the government used the movie as a vehicle to release information to the public by providing Boal with research support. Some believe that confidential documents were mishandled and provided to Boal.
This scenario seems somewhat unlikely. The other theory is that the government used Boal (or the writer allowed himself to be used) to create a U.S. propaganda piece. Though the torture scenes have created some controversy, it has gotten the country talking about the film. This could have been a calculated move by the government to show that they are hard on terrorism/terrorists, but also gives them plausible deniability by being able to claim that the movie is a historical drama, not a documentary; a fact that Mark Boal is quick to point out in interviews.
So, how true is Zero Dark Thirty? The movie lines up pretty well with documents that are already available to the public. (3) However, it seems that Hollywood may have flexed its artistic license on some of the classified parts. If not, then there was an obvious mishandling of classified information.
Nevertheless, this question won’t be answered until the government makes a full release of the information that chronicles the capture of Osama bin Laden. For now, it is best to take the movie for what it is: a historical drama.