An Issue of Credibility

Published: February 22, 2013

By Jim Lichtman
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This Sunday, Hollywood awards its highest honor, the Oscar, to top films and filmmakers of 2012. Zero Dark Thirty – a film depicting the hunt for Osama bin Laden – up for Best Picture, has become a political football due to what many have called gross inaccuracies.

Taking a break from dealing with the budget, sequester, the debt and debt ceiling, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain wrote (Dec. 19, 2012), to Sony Pictures president Michael Lynton to “express our deep disappointment with…[a] film [that] is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”

Journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal defended his work in theWall Street Journal (Feb. 15), saying, “We tried to avoid partisanship—I couldn’t have tried harder to avoid partisan politics.”

The film’s opening says that the film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”

As soon as I read that, I was instantly reminded of Oliver Stone’s JFK, which blatantly took an historical account to ridiculous, fictional extremes. The result: many high school and college students to this day believe the Stone film to be a reasonably accurate version of events. Total Bull$#*!!

In 1963, I read every book about the Kennedy assassination I could get my hands on, and reached the same conclusion most historic and forensic scholars have supported, that the Warren Commission got it right. Oswald acted alone.

At the time, Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti denounced Stone’s film, writing, “In much the same way, young German boys and girls in 1941 were mesmerized by Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, in which Adolf Hitler was depicted as a newborn God. Both JFK and Triumph of the Will are equally a propaganda masterpiece and equally a hoax.” (Remember this part.)

Concerning the torture scenes depicted at the beginning of ZeroDark Thirty, writer Boal says he worked his sources at the CIA to determine the accuracy of events in the film.

“If you left that out [waterboarding], you’d be whitewashing history,” Boal says. “Those things happened. They were done by Americans, some lawfully, some not.” With the support of the Bush White House, the Justice Department wrote the legal memos to justify their actions and Congress was briefed. However, by the middle of the Bush era, waterboarding was stopped. Since then, President Obama has closed the CIA’s interrogation unit.

“I didn’t support them,” Boal says. “I didn’t say I think they were moral, I have no idea if they were effective or not. My job as a storyteller is to be as honest as I can be with the underlying materials.”

Notice, Boal stops short of saying that the information obtained from the torture of the prisoner in the beginning of Thirty led to the location of bin Laden.

So, the question I keep coming back to: Is Zero Dark Thirtytruthful?

I’m ethically fussy about things like this, because today’s audiences generally believe whatever they see on the screen, especially when the first graphic specifically labels what they are about to see as “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” So, I went to see the film for myself.

With a running time of 2 ½ hours, Zero Dark Thirty spends somewhere on the order of 30 minutes establishing that a suspected al Qaeda terrorist is tortured in order to get information on the location of a courier for bin Laden. Two ideas are clearly planted in the minds of the audience: a) if they can find the courier, they can find bin Laden; b) the CIA “black site” operatives are willing to do most anything they can to achieve that goal, legal or not.

However, if you watch carefully, most of the film’s running time is spent following Maya, a CIA analyst, who not only tracks down clues, but spends, literally, years putting those clues together. At a high-level briefing with top analysts who offer CIA head Leon Panetta a 60 percent chance that they’ve found bin Laden, Maya claims it’s 100 percent. In a private conversation, Panetta asks, “What else have you worked on for us?”

“Nothing,” Maya says. “I was recruited out of high school. This is all I have ever worked on.”

While I understood that Maya was based on a real CIA analyst, I came away with the feeling that this is a movie and even writer Boal admits to using “composite” characters to tell his story.

So, what is the truth?

As usual, it all depends on whose “truth” you choose.

It appears that Feinstein, Levin and McCain are accurate when they say that the film is “…misleading… that torture resulted in information that led to… bin Laden.” However, their characterization that the film is “grossly inaccurate,” is too much of a stretch for me.


Last April, journalist Lesley Stahl interviewed Jose Rodriquez, the former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, for 60 Minutes. Rodriguez confirmed that he used waterboarding to get information from al Qaeda terrorists, specifically Abu Zubaydah.

“He gave us a roadmap that allowed us to capture a bunch of al Qaeda senior leaders.”

Yet, when Stahl asks if he got Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whom he called, “the toughest detainee we had,” to give up bin Laden, Rodriguez said, “There is a limit…to what they will tell us.”

While the U.S. program of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” (the cleverest euphemism for torture I’ve everheard), may not have directly led to finding bin Laden, it clearly was a technique used by CIA operatives, and the film got that right.

However, much of the criticism focused on the first 30 minutes has gone far beyond the pale. England’s The Guardian called the film’s director, Katherine Bigelow “an apologist for evil” and compared her to Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite documentarian. (Remember Jack Valenti’s criticism of Oliver Stone?)

Ultimately, Boal concludes, “Saying it’s a movie is a fair and accurate description. Saying it’s a movie based on firsthand accounts is a fair and accurate description. That’s what gives it its power.”

Clearly, Boal believes that having a statement that says “based on” makes something truthful that is not, in fact, entirely truthful.

In the end, both sides suffer from a credibility problem. The letter from Feinstein, Levin and McCain seems disingenuous based on information from one of their own high-ranking CIA operatives. If these folks sit on the Intelligence Committee, they are clearly out-of-touch with the reality of a war that has offered too many insider reports. Torture has been used, some, apparently with results. (That does not mean that I support torture. I don’t.)

Leaving the theater, I liked the film, and, viewed it as a movie, (not a documentary), which offered some slices of real events. For the record, Zero Dark Thirty spends most of its time examining the hard, decade-long detective work that it took to find UBL. While I firmly believe that a movie can be compelling and tell the truth, no one seems to be discussing or congratulating the CIA for their dedicated, determined, hard work. The filmmakers got that right.

What scares me most comes not from the issue of accuracy surrounding the movie. It comes from former vice-presidentDick Cheney’s recent (Feb. 12), terse reflection on “enhanced techniques.”

“To this day, you have no regret about the use of waterboarding—of enhanced interrogation?” CBS journalist Charlie Rose asks.

“Absolutely not,” Cheney says.

“So you think waterboarding today ought to be part of the toolbox of things you use when American national security is at stake?”


That scares me.


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