At first, Zero Dark Thirty was only controversial for one reason—because its initial release date coincided with the Nov 4th presidential election, and some thought that a major Hollywood movie about the Bin Laden raid (one of Obama’s biggest accomplishments) would sway the election in Obama’s favour. Then it was controversial for another reason—because of reports that the Obama administration provided the filmmakers with classified information. Now it’s controversial for at least two more reasons.
Like the TV show 24, Zero Dark Thirty depicts graphic scenes of torture. Also like 24, some viewers can’t decide if the movie endorses torture or not.
At the start of the movie, a charismatic CIA operative (played Jason Clarke) uses a series of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against a prisoner which eventually yield valuable information. The sequence is about 20 minutes long, and it depicts Clarke repeatedly waterboarding the prisoner, putting him in an extremely small box and leaving him there, stripping him naked and making him crawl around on his knees like a dog, and stringing him up by the wrists and forcing him to listen to loud music for days on end.
This has prompted David Edelstein of New York magazine to describe the movie as, “barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture” and “borderline fascistic.” (He also calls it a masterpiece and the best movie of the year). In the New York Times, Frank Bruni concurs: “I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty,” he writes, adding that it “presents the kind of torture that Cheney advocated—but that President Obama ended—as something of an information-extracting necessity, repellent but fruitful.”
A piece in the New Yorker throws the entire opening sequence into question. “According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding,” writes Dexter Filkins.
At the film’s Los Angeles premiere, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathyrn Bigelow addressed this controversy. “It’s a movie, not a documentary [...] We had to compress a very complicated debate and a 10-year period into two hours,” said Boal, acknowledging that waterboarding didn’t lead to the identity of Bin Laden’s courier. “It doesn’t surprise me that people bring political agendas to the film but it doesn’t actually have a political agenda. Its agenda is to tell these people’s stories in the most honest and factual way we know how, based on a ton of interviews and research.”
“There’s definitely a degree to which I wish the torture and interrogation techniques weren’t a part of this narrative, but they were a part of history,” said Bigelow. “This is the hunt for this wanted man and these techniques were used along the way. It was part of the research, and had I not included it I would not be telling the full story of this manhunt.”
The other reason why Zero Dark Thirty is controversial: Its heroine, a ruthlessly determined CIA analyst named Maya (played by Jessica Chastain in an Oscar calibre performance), is depicted as being primarily responsible for finding Bin Laden’s Abbottobad compound.
But according to a Washington Post article, the real life Maya may be more “complicated” than the movie suggests. “The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history,” writes Greg Miller.
“She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said. [...] ‘She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,’ said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency’s ranks.”
Surely there have been movies that have been more controversial than Zero Dark Thirty. But has there ever been a movie that’s been controversial for so many reasons?