Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
The filmmakers responsible for Zero Dark Thirty, the journalistic-but-non-journalistic thriller about the CIA's 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, say they are proud of the debate triggered by the film's controversial depiction of torture as crucial to discovering the Al Qaeda leader. But at the film's Washington premiere, they decided not to participate in that discussion.
"Mark and I are truly awed by the remarkable national conversation that this movie has spurred. As filmmakers, nothing is more flattering, humbling, and quite frankly, somewhat intimidating," director Kathryn Bigelow told the audience at the Newseum Tuesday night. Yet she didn't stick around for any of that "remarkable conversation," absconding before the film started and missing the post-screening panel discussion. During that panel, screenwriter Mark Boal boasted that the heated argument over the film and torture are "a compliment to the work that Kathryn did—that she created a film that's so complex, and so dense, and so multifaceted."
But Boal, too, fielded no queries from a well-informed audience of journalists, government officials, policy advocates. At the event, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, now the film industry's top lobbyist, called the film "courageous." Yet after Boal answered a few chummy queries from ABC News' Martha Raddatz, burly men in suits blocked the entrance to the stage and later escorted the courageous screenwriter to a black SUV waiting outside.
The Newseum had rolled out the world's tiniest red carpet for the event, where media types and mid-level government officials swapped Beltway gossip through mouthfuls of crackers and stinky cheese. With some clutching boxes of popcorn, they then they shuffled into the movie theater to watch a guy get beaten, waterboarded, and stuffed in a small box by a CIA fratboy before spilling the name of bin Laden's courier, inadvertently giving up the crucial data point that leads to the discovery of bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. "In the end, bro, everybody breaks," the CIA officer tells the detainee. "It's biology." (That's clown biology, bro.)
At the post-screening panel, Raddatz referred to the criticism that the film has inaccurately depicted events and has consequently justified torture, but assured Boal that he was winning the argument before finishing her question. Those in the know, however, have challenged the movie. "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 Laden," acting CIA Director Mike Morell wrote in a letter to employees in December. "That impression is false." The Senate intelligence committee, which last month completed a 6,000-page report on the CIA interrogation program based on its examination of 6 million pages of CIA records, was more definitive: "The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive techniques." Yet in their film, Bigelow and Boal depict the exact opposite.
Zero Dark Thirty's protagonist, a dogged CIA analyst, does employ other methods besides torture in her research on bin Laden's whereabouts. And Zero Dark Thirty is ambiguous on the overall effectiveness of torture—during his first brutal interrogation, the detainee refuses to disclose details of an imminent attack. But Bigelow and Boal can't spin the fact that in their film the key piece of information that ultimately leads to the Al Qaeda leader comes from a brutalized detainee threatened by the CIA with further torture.
Morell's letter did state that "some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques," and Boal, who reportedly got extensive access to the CIA to do research on the film, pointed to that as vindication. But Boal accused the CIA of buckling to public pressure: "As far as why [Morell] wrote that [the movie creates a false impression], and whatever external pressures he may be under, in terms of the way that he communicates with the workforce, that's a little bit above my paygrade." Lacking pressure from any audience questions, Boal didn't address this apparent contradiction: The CIA was altruistic and accurate when it gave him information to make a film justifying the agency's torture program, but the CIA is now spinning and lying in correcting him.
Bigelow and Boal, a former journalist for Rolling Stone, have marketed Zero Dark Thirty as quasi-journalism—more than just a film. They reported, they researched—and that's clear from minute details in the film, like a Navy Seal stealing the AK-47 that bin Laden kept in his bedroom as a trophy. But when challenged about its accuracy or the liberties they've taken, their reponse is hey, it's just a movie. Even as fiction, though, film is a medium that can have a profound influence on popular understanding of historical events. So their depiction of torture—as journalism or as film—matters. "How many people changed their minds about HIV-AIDS after Philadelphia?" Dodd noted. "For years to come, this film will be a way in which an awful lot of people will recognize the incredible efforts of some remarkable Americans we'll never ever know and will never get to personally thank for what they did."
As for critics of Zero Dark Thirty, Dodd was dismissive. "The fact that we're sitting here bickering a bit about...a scene or two...or an acceptance or an approval of a certain strategy, I think misses the point entirely," Dodd said, reducing torture to a mere disagreement about "strategy" rather than the profound question at hand. Then again, it's not as if anyone ever went to prison for what the CIA did. If Zero Dark Thirty treats torture as just another tactic, much of Washington did that first. (President Obama may have banned torture, but his administration refused to hold any former Bush administration officials involved in the interrogation program accountable.)
At the Newseum, Bigelow declared, "We had no agenda in making the film." But Zero Dark Thirty will influence many people to come to view torture as a brutal but necessary part of tracking down the man who murdered 3,000 Americans on 9/11. That's taking the very moral stance on torture the filmmakers themselves say they're trying to avoid. It's no wonder they're that not eager to talk about it.