Jessica Chastain, center, in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (Photo: Sony Pictures)
A torture scene takes place at the outset of "Zero Dark Thirty" as audiences are first introduced to Maya, a CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain. As the scene plays out in the film -- already nominated for four Golden Globes -- an uncooperative, hungry, beaten-up detainee is eventually forced to withstand water being poured over his face as it is muffled by a thick cloth, causing him to gargle and choke. Maya administers the water as her male colleagues hold the man in place.
The scene depicts a tactic formerly employed by the U.S. to get detainees with suspected links to terrorism to talk -- known as waterboarding. The film, which covers an array of methods used by the CIA to hunt down terrorists, does make several references to the government's use of torture as a tool. The film also covers the changing political climate as President Obama took office and banned waterboarding. At one point Maya indicates the ban seriously thwarted efforts to hunt down the bad guys, including, Osama bin Laden.
The film's seeming endorsement of the practice and its depiction of the widespread torturing of detainees has three senators in Washington expressing their "deep disappointment," calling for Sony to state that the film is a work of fiction. As of now, Sony isn't budging.
The chair of the Senate Intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, along with Senate Armed Service committee leaders Carl Levin and John McCain wrote a letter to Sony, calling "Zero Dark Thirty" a "fictional" film that is "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden." The letter goes on to urge the movie studio to state that the film is, in fact, a work of fiction, then later bullets out where they say the movie got it wrong.
From the senators:
We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.
Here are specific bones the senators have to pick with the film:
- The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which Usama Bin Laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.
- Information to support this operation was obtained from a wide variety of intelligence sources and methods. CIA officers and their colleagues throughout the Intelligence Community sifted through massive amounts of information, identified possible leads, tracked them down, and made considered judgments based on all of the available intelligence.
- The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.
Sony's reply has simply been to refer the senators to a prior statement issued by "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. But the statement fails to address any of the specifics the senators have raised. It reads:
The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes. One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world's most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it.
Bigelow, left, and BoalThe filmmakers also make mention of "a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden," via Sony.
While Maya does express her frustration over the waterboarding ban in the film, at the end of the day, she was ultimately successful in her mission to hunt down bin Laden in spite of it.
The senators are not the only ones criticizing Bigelow and Boal for taking artistic license. CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, essentially agreeing with the senators, says the film "distorts the story" and is a "misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees - such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation - were essential to finding bin Laden." Other journalists have raised similar questions and have predicted the debate will only amplify as the film opens wide in January. It is out now in limited release and came close to breaking box office records -- indicating the torture debate around the film isn't going away any time soon.
Watch a trailer for 'Zero Dark Thirty':