'Zero Dark Thirty' has the facts wrong – and that's a problem, not just for the Oscars
The movie 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition – nominated for five Academy Awards. But because it advertises itself as factually grounded, I have to point out: On each of its three major points, the film gets the story wrong.
The movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is unquestionably a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition (nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). If director Kathryn Bigelow’s film presented itself principally as fiction, it could be judged exclusively on its technical or dramatic merits, which are considerable. But because it advertises itself as a factually grounded “journalistic filming” of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it cannot duck a further question about what it owes to truth.Skip to next paragraph
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Of necessity, condensing years into minutes and crafting story lines that engage the viewer require simplification. But it is still fair to ask whether the central lessons viewers will take away from the film are consistent with what really happened.
As a teacher, I am aware that this movie will shape more Americans’ understanding of the war against Al Qaeda than scores of books and major articles. As citizens, we know that cinematic historical fiction has left many Americans believing remarkable falsehoods. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” left a generation of students asking why the CIA conspired to assassinate an American president.
My account of the decisionmaking process that led to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was a lead article in TIME magazine’s May 7, 2012 issue, a year after bin Laden’s death. And from my study of what really happened, I see glaring holes in the story as portrayed by “Zero Dark Thirty.”
In assessing the essential veracity of the film, we could ask ordinary viewers three questions:
- Was information extracted by “enhanced interrogation” the key in finding the terrorist mastermind who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001?
- Would “the system” (CIA as an organization with its counter-terrorism professionals and practices) have failed had it not been for the tenacious risk taking of one young female CIA agent?
- Was the White House, and specifically President Obama, essentially irrelevant or even a drag, delaying what should have been an easy, quick, early action to eliminate bin Laden?
Most viewers I have spoken to believe, based on the film, that the answer to each of these questions is yes. In fact, in each case, the answer is no.
The first question – whether “enhanced interrogation” or torture provided information key to getting bin Laden – has been debated exhaustively. The verdict is that the film exaggerates the pervasiveness and effectiveness of torture.
On the second question, as to whether the CIA would have failed were it not for the grit of a female CIA officer, the truth is thousands of intelligence officers – literally thousands – devoted a decade of extraordinary work collecting information from sources of all kinds, analyzing it for minute clues, connecting dots, and then subjecting conclusions to competing analyses that connected other dots to contrary conclusions. A number of these analysts were outstanding young women. But the film’s hype of a fictional heroine who succeeded by defying “the system” is fundamentally misleading.