Hollywood's Torture Tactics

Naomi Joseph on Zero Dark Thirty's reckless portrayal of torture.
By: /
January 11, 2013

In an article published by The New York Review of Books today, Steve Coll joins manyothercommentators in lambasting the movie Zero Dark Thirty for its reckless portrayal of torture as a tactic essential to the CIA’s success  in hunting Osama bin Laden. In the movie, an al-Qaeda detainee ultimately divulges the crucial information about Bin Laden’s courier after having been subjected to waterboarding, among other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” 

The problem is, the jury is in on whether torture played an instrumental role in the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden: it didn’t. Last month CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell released a statement to employees in which he made clear that “the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false.” Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein, and John McCain and Carl Levin, top representatives of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have also weighed in to that effect. For informed viewers, the question Zero Dark Thirty raises is not, “Did torture help the CIA to find Bin Laden?” but rather, “Why does the movie misrepresent torture as a crucial CIA tactic?”

Feinstein, McCain, and Levin have posed this question to the CIA in two letters to Morrell. Their outrage at reports that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, received special government access as they developed the film, is clear:

Given the discrepancy between the facts above and what is depicted in the film, previous misstatements by retired CIA officials, as well as what appears to be the CIA’s unprecedented cooperation with the filmmakers, we request that you provide the Committee with all information and documents provided to the filmmakers by CIA officials, former officials, or contractors, including talking points prepared for use in those meetings. Furthermore, we request copies of all relevant records discussing the cooperation between CIA officials, former officials, or contractors and the filmmakers, including records of the meetings that occurred, notes, internal emails, Sametime communications, and other documentation describing CIA interactions with the filmmakers.

Peter Maass views Bigelow’s and Boal’s special access as a particularly unsettling example of “embedded or invitation-only reporting”:

If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history's first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we're getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

The extent to which the CIA authored this myth of history remains to be seen.