So far, Zero Dark Thirty has received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best film, the National Board of Review Award for best film, the AFI Award for movie of the year, and another 18 awards and 24 nominations from various critics’ groups and organizations.
But there’s one group that probably won’t be lavishing the movie with awards: the U.S. Senate.
Taking the view that the movie endorses torture—a view which screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathyrn Bigelow insist is a misreading—senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein have both given the movie two thumbs down. “I thought it was terrible,” said Feinstein, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It is a combination of fact, fiction and Hollywood in a very dangerous combination.”
Meanwhile, John McCain said that he found the movie “sickening”—an understandable verdict given McCain’s first-hand experience as a victim of torture.
Together with senator Carl Levin, McCain and Feinstein have written a harshly-worded letter to Sony Pictures. It begins: “We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty. We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.”
“We understand that the film is fiction,” they continue, “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 Osama 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 Osama bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect. Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”
After citing a 6,000-page classified report on interrogation tactics by the Senate Intelligence Committee that determined that waterboarding and other techniques regarded as torture by the international community produced no actionable intelligence, the senators conclude:
“We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.”
A few days prior to the release of the letter, Mark Boal and Kathyrn Bigelow addressed these concerns in an interview with The Wrap.
“Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be,” said Boal. “The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there—from a number of detainees who are not being coerced. That is what’s in the film, if you actually look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.”
Zero Dark Thirty won’t be released in Canada till January 11th, so if you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about, you better get used to playing the waiting game.