Zero Dark Thirty: Fact and Fiction


Friday, January 11, 2013

The Osama bin Laden manhunt movie Zero Dark Thirty opens in theaters across the country this weekend. But as director Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller has opened in a few theaters, it has earned rave reviews while generating a fair amount of controversy. Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin have slammed the movie for its alleged inaccuracies — in particular, scenes depicting the CIA’s use of torture as an “enhanced interrogation” technique.

“I find a lot of the anger about the portrayal of torture in the movie to be confusingly misplaced,” says Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the nonfiction book Black Hawk Down. “It represents a willful misreading of the film,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “Torture is shown to be brutal, cruel, and ineffective.”

Bowden believes Washington’s disapproval stems from a political agenda rather than the film’s content. “It complicates their lives,” he tells Kurt, pointing out that John Brennan’s recent nomination for CIA director inflames the issue. Brennan was accused of condoning the use of torture to gain information from suspects following 9/11. “[Politicians] would like for that all to go away,” Bowden says, “and this movie doesn’t serve that end.”

Although the movie condenses a decade’s worth of events into 157 minutes, Bowden calls it “remarkably accurate.” (Bowden is also the author of The Finish, a novel that traces the events leading up to bin Laden’s death.) The mistake was one of marketing, presenting Zero Dark Thirty as a work of journalism: “I don’t think they should be blurring the line between what they do and what journalists do.”

→ How accurate should filmmakers be when portraying historical events? Or is a movie just a movie?
Tell us in a comment below.

Comments [7]

As someone who abhors the use and justification of torture, I find the idea of this protest silly. About as silly as a protest of the historical accuracy in "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" would be. Did U.S. Senators really officially question the plot of a Hollywood film?

There is a strong misconception that the genre of "historical fiction" marries the objectivity of documentary and the narrative form of pure drama. People want to think that historical fictions are fact-based, with plot added to tie the facts together. This is TOTALLY wrong. The truth is that historical fiction is pure fiction. The fact that there is a projection of history into it is incidental.

There is a temptation to think that the role of historical fiction is to document history with a "if cameras were there" perspective. This also not correct. That is a description of "re-enactment" or "dramatization". The point of historical fiction is merely to entertain.

It is still a historical fiction if unknowns are speculated, if dates and orders of events are mangled, if characters are invented or omitted, or even of some facts are wholly wrong. Historical fiction only fails if it is not entertaining, if there is no character development, if there is no climax, or if it is just not a fun movie to see on a Saturday night.

If people take exception to the accuracy of a documentary, say a film like "Fahrenheit 9/11", then that is a meaningful debate. Although that film did try to entertain, it clearly did not hold itself to be fiction of any kind.

Anyone protesting the content of "Zero Dark Thirty" really need to learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Jan. 21 2013 12:00 PM
Mihaly Mezei from New York

In today's (Jan 13) show the question of the degree if necessary authenticity of the movie about the search for and killing of Bin Laden was raised.

In my opinion, if the movie is about looking for Bin Laden who is hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan, then it has to be fully authentic since viewers, who know that the basic story is true, will have the tendency to consider everything else to be true. However, if the movie is about looking for Bill Ladle who is hiding in Abblabada, Prankistan, then then the movie makers are free to mix facts with fiction.

Jan. 13 2013 07:50 PM

I saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday, after reading Naomi Wolf's condemnation of it comparing Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl and Susan Zalkin's rebuttal of Wolf on Truth Dig. I went with an open mind. I came away wondering how anyone who was paying attention during the film could think that the film depicts torture as the link to Usama bin Laden's killing, and Wolf's claim that Bigelow as a modern-day Leni Riefenstahl is preposterous. I agree with Mark Bowden that it depicts torture as "brutal and cruel" but, as the film shows, the route to bin Laden was ambiguous, full of errors and twists and turns.

The film makes no comment on the morality--or the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of torture by the CIA--or the morality of the raid on a house they knew to be inhabited by women and children. But as we all know, the CIA WAS using torture on detainees during the Bush years, and Bigelow reports that fact here. What she also makes clear is that Maya (Chastain's character) and the CIA clearly believed torture would lead to information they needed to get bin Laden. Even though the film does not provide an answer, it raises the question posed by the CIA agent who tortures the detainee: "We all have a breaking point." Do we?

I am dismayed that politicians are now weighing in on the "inaccuracies" of the film. (Don't they have enough to do? Have they even seen it?) Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary, it is a work of art, and an important one. Art should be provocative, should make us think and Zero Dark Thirty does that in a riveting two and a half hours.

Jan. 13 2013 12:09 PM
Dorothea Altman from Woodbury MN

I won't see the movie because I avoid depictions of violence. This is a personal squeamishness and not a condemnation of all use of violence in art. It IS art, after all. Have we called for accuracy in all movies about war? Violence was whitewashed out of many movies about WWII. Theatre does not demand fact. It demands truth. Truth is larger than fact.

Jan. 13 2013 07:32 AM

I'm going to see the film tomorrow, so my comment is based on other film narratives that I've seen that are based on actual events/stories. (One being "Black Hawk Down", a film that was riveting in it's complexity). As a writer and a teacher of writing, I suggest to my students that they stick to the facts of a true story, as best as they know them, because the facts are quite frequently far more interesting or bizarre than anything they could invent.
Also - if a film isn't oriented to the facts as they are documented, and invention is used to fill gaps of what is not known, the creators may slip into a highly subjective area that may be used as propaganda by those who tend to do that.
Perhaps that's what's happening with reactions to "Zero Dark Thirty"...Which is more controversial here - the film? or the protests?

Jan. 12 2013 04:26 PM
Bruce Mellon from Philadelphia

I find Mark Bowden's comments ("willful misreading") both disengenuous and self serving. He may have his ins with the CIA but to say that this film actually portrays torture as “..... shown to be brutal, cruel, and ineffective” is either blindness on his part or simply misleading.

I went into the film expecting a drama and not a documentary but came away rather upset and angry that Boal/Bigelow, in my opinion, creepily implied that torture does work, that the obsessed Chastain would NOT have finally gotten Usama without it.

On this one, I side with the critics, especially Karen Greenburg and Jane Mayer.

Jan. 12 2013 02:24 PM
Elizabeth Stevens from Lawrence, KS

Film uses pictures, motion, sound, music and dramatic story to present its tales, and is a much more powerful medium than art forms that impact fewer senses. A still photo reaches the eyes but not the ears, and is a static image. A radio broadcast conveys sound and music, but cannot project an image to the audience’s brain. But film is not only multi-sensory with its moving pictures, vibrant color, dialogue, sound effects and musical score; it is a dramatic reenactment in real time.

In my opinion, film is so popular because it is the modern-day equivalent of how humans remembered and passed on important information for eons in the past -- through dramatic stories acted out before our eyes.

If film did not do such an excellent job of depicting stories and such an effective job of turning them into lasting memories, it would have less obligation to “get it right” when portraying real events and true stories. Given its impact and power, however, I think that filmmakers ought to be sure that the lasting memories they create about actual events are as accurate as they can be.

Jan. 10 2013 10:05 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.