It seems that every few years, the moviegoing public is treated to a film that is so thoughtfully written, so artistically crafted, so poignantly acted, and just so timely and relevant that it transcends the silver screen and becomes a social phenomenon, a legitimate “must-see” that sparks debate among people of all classes, races, political stripes, etc. Zero Dark Thirty, the second collaboration between Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, is an artistic triumph that in the fourth week since its release has already achieved this rarefied status. As anyone who does not live in a Tora Bora cave knows by now, the movie’s sprawling narrative (somehow, ZDT clocks in at just over two and a half hours while making every scene feel essential and properly paced) tells the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The paradox of Zero Dark Thirty is that both its greatest successes and its most troubling shortcomings stem from the same fact: the movie is an enthralling blend of entertainment, art, journalism, and history.
The magnitude of the task that Bigelow & Boal took on during the course of making ZDT is worth considering on its own. The hunt for bin Laden spanned nearly a decade, took place across literally dozens of countries, involved an elaborate web of nearly-indistinguishable characters,* and occurred against an insanely complex historical/geopolitical backdrop (two wars in the Middle East, two American presidencies, and a string of attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates). Even many who participated in it would probably have difficulty wrapping their heads around the entire enterprise. To add to the filmmakers’ burden, Zero Dark Thirty falls somewhere between contemporary history and journalism–although accounts of the manhunt and the final Abottabad raid have emerged, they are incomplete and likely remain that way for some time, given the penchant for secrecy on the part of the US government organizations involved. Bigelow & Boal actually got into the weeds and conducted their own interviews with Pentagon officials to round out the story.
Moreover, this astonishing amount of narrative ground had to be covered in an extremely compressed timeframe–when the raid on bin Laden’s compound occurred in May 2011, the two were about to start shooting on a script centered around the failed attempt to capture bin Laden during the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora. They immediately threw out that script and started again from scratch, yet still managed to produce a film by August 2012 (only to have the October release date pushed back after complaints that ZDT would influence the American presidential election). After he made Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick remarked, “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane [. . .] My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” Arguably, Bigelow & Boal’s experience producing ZDT also resembled the war they were chronicling: after conducting hundreds of interviews all over the globe, they had a breakthrough that completely changed their perspective but were temporarily prevented from acting on it by political concerns (not to mention the intense ex post facto Congressional scrutiny over what exactly happened in those “interviews” and who authorized them). But the bottom line is that like the bin Laden raid itself, Zero Dark Thirty accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, albeit with a few mishaps and casualties along the way.
The shameless mission of ZDT is to recreate the bin Laden manhunt and raid for the silver screen. Bigelow & Boal accomplish this magnificently: their movie is shot beautifully; its scenes jump effortlessly from locale to locale while capturing the essence of each new part of the world. Its soundtrack draws you in but does not distract from the drama unfolding onscreen. Their attention to detail shows a genuine appreciation for their subjects–at one point, the main character, a CIA analyst named Maya, taps out a memo to her superiors about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, an al-Qaeda figure she believes is acting as a courier for bin Laden. For a split second, the subject line of the memo is visible: “The Anatomy of a Lead.” The recreation of the Abottabad raid during the final thirty minutes, which occurs pretty much in real-time and through the eery green lens of night vision goggles, is by all accounts exquisitely choreographed and probably one of the most accurate depictions of modern special operations forces to date. Given the challenges inherent in capturing such a diversity of places, people, and events, it is borderline-criminal that Kathryn Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director. As art and entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty exceeds every expectation I had going in, and my expectations were already sky-high.
As a work of journalism and history, however, the film falls short. In this respect, I found it strikingly similar to The Social Network in the way that it sacrifices authenticity for the sake of drama and narrative while covering a deeply controversial and contemporary subject. This raises a familiar question, namely, what kind of responsibilities do the filmmakers have to tell the truth, both to their audience (many of whom are not likely to investigate the nuances of the film and whose understanding of the events shown onscreen pretty much starts and stops with the movie itself) and about the subjects they portray? For example, The Social Network was Hollywood’s version of a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook, whose main characters were nevertheless real people. Jesse Eisenberg played a distinctly unsympathetic character named Mark Zuckerberg, who does things onscreen that make for a great story but that both the writers and the real Mark Zuckerberg agree never happened. Is it acceptable, for the sake of making a great movie, to tell something less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
I would argue that for Zero Dark Thirty, the bar ought to be set higher. For one thing, its subject matter (and the public’s understanding of it) is much more serious than the founding of a social network and has implications for national policy, civil liberties, history, etc. For another, ZDT explicitly aspires to a higher standard. As the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Steve Coll, whose opinions on all things bin Laden are usually highly informed, notes:
It is not unusual for filmmakers to try to inject authenticity into a movie’s first frames by flashing onscreen words such as “based on real events.” Yet the language chosen by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to preface their film about events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden is distinctively journalistic: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” [. . .] Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism. Bigelow has called Zero Dark Thirty a “reported film.” Boal told a New York Times interviewer before the controversy erupted, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”
Yet in trying to compress ten years of history into two and a half hours of film, Boal & Bigelow took a number of shortcuts that substantively alter it. Perhaps they did not play “fast and loose” with the facts, but the net effect is that the film presents a partial, simplified picture of what is actually a very complicated and murky reality. On the whole, this may be a more serious offense because the mistakes of Zero Dark Thirty are more nuanced, and thus more easily glossed over, particularly when the directors claim some mantle of journalistic credibility (by contrast, writer Aaron Sorkin gave multiple interviews saying that The Social Network was intended to be viewed as fiction and art, and repeatedly defended his decision to depart from the facts to make artistic points). Consider the following departures from historical fact:
- Throughout ZDT, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) allegedly practiced at various CIA “black sites” around the world are conflated with torture practiced by rogue, low-level staff at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Most of the practices shown on-screen did not, in fact, occur as they are shown on-screen. This is a fact that both liberal critics and conservative supporters of enhanced interrogation techniques seem to be in agreement on, but again, I defer to Steve Coll:
“The film’s torture scenes depart from the historical record in two respects. Boal and Bigelow have conflated the pseudoscience of the CIA’s clinical, carefully reviewed “enhanced techniques” such as waterboarding with the out-of-control abuse of prisoners by low-level military police in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Dan puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around in an act of ritualized humiliation, but this was never an approved CIA technique… More importantly, Zero Dark Thirty ignores what the record shows about how regulated, lawyerly, and bureaucratized—how banal—torture apparently became at some of the CIA black sites. A partially declassified report prepared by the CIA’s former inspector general, John Helgerson, indicates that physicians from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services attended interrogation sessions and took prisoners’ vital signs to assure they were healthy enough for the abuse to continue. Agency officers typed out numbingly detailed cables and memos about the enhanced interrogation sessions, as the available outline of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s classified investigation makes clear. Videotapes were recorded and logged. This CIA office routine might have been more shocking on screen than the clichéd physical abuse of prisoners that the filmmakers prefer.”
- Two of the major characters in the movie, Maya (the aforementioned CIA analyst) and Ammar, an al-Qaeda operative whom she interrogates, are composites of multiple real-life people. While this obviously makes things simpler for the viewer to understand, it also eliminates nuance. No detainees are shown cooperating without first being subjected to EITs. No one seems to ever be on Maya’s side, except occasionally reluctantly. Both narratives seem unlikely and former D/CIA Michael Hayden suggested as much during a recent event at AEI (“Watching Zero Dark Thirty With the CIA“). “There was not one Maya, but a team of Mayas,” he said of the analysts in the bin Laden cell who would brief him. As for the sources that led the Agency to the courier and eventually bin Laden’s Abottabad compound, Hayden said, “Very often, stuff you have in your possession takes meaning only after the fact. It’s a tapestry, not a thread… It’s like putting together a puzzle with no edge pieces and no picture on the box… You can’t prove that something was effective dot-to-dot. You can’t separate any single source or discipline and say, ‘That’s the golden strand.’” It stands to reason from his comments that sources other than the detainee program played a role in locating Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. However, ZDT shows primarily one source–Ammar, who confesses under duress. Corroborating sources exist, but only in the form of other detainees, shown ominously in interrogation videos that Maya watches repeatedly. Not once does any other source of intelligence, such as signals intercepts, corroborate or otherwise support Maya’s assertion that al-Kuwaiti is bin Laden’s courier, though in real life those sources almost certainly existed (perhaps one reason other sources are not shown in ZDT is because, unlike the detainee program, they may still be in use). It seems clear that Boal and Bigelow set out to show that the detainee program played some role in the killing of Osama bin Laden; however, in compressing events, it appears as if enhanced interrogation techniques were the only tool that enabled Abottabad. That seems misleading at best.
These are far from minor factual quibbles, and I suspect that as more details emerge about the principal players, we will see other instances where dramatic license was taken (for instance, was “Maya” really targeted for assassination in Pakistan by the ISI? Were she and Jennifer Matthews, the CIA base chief who was killed in Khost, really in the Mariott hotel in Islamabad when it was attacked by a truck bomb? For that matter, did Matthews really pronounce the name of bin Laden’s terrorist network “al-Qa-ay-dah” after spending years chasing its operatives?). And in compressing the story to fill two and a half hours of screentime, Boal & Bigelow sometimes give the impression that events onscreen are occuring in a vacuum–we never really get a backstory on, or development of, any of the major characters.
But as I said before, ZDT captures the zeitgeist of the decade-long war against al-Qaeda even if it misses a few facts here and there. Nowhere is this more evident than the ending. Maya walks up the ramp of a C-130 transport plane, where she is greeted by the pilot. “You must be important,” he says to her–the plane is completely empty, save for her, and has clearly been sent for the sole purpose of bringing her back to Washington. “Well,” the pilot asks, “Where do you want to go from here?” An exhausted Maya breaks down crying.
After a decade of war, it is an appropriate question to end on. Consider what has changed since the movie began just after 9/11: rather than capturing and interrogating terrorists, the U.S. wages a drone campaign to kill them by remote control (there was significant debate within the Obama administration over whether to do this with bin Laden). Although this approach avoids the political third rail of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and granting some form of court trial to terrorists, it opens up a whole different philosophical/legal/ethical bag of worms. It also raises a practical problem: we no longer derive any intelligence from captured terrorists, and dead men tell no tales, particularly after a Predator strike. Without good intelligence, it becomes increasingly difficult to target drone strikes; if drone strikes occur without good targeting, local populations become even more radicalized. Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan is decimated, but branches of the now-decentralized movement have sprung up elsewhere, inhabiting lawless spaces in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and Mesopotamia–particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Osama bin Laden rose to power and prominence in precisely these types of areas. Though he is now dead, al-Qaeda is not, and the U.S. has some serious soul-searching to do regarding the lengths to which it will attempt to “surgically” prosecute the war on terror, lest the cure exacerbate the disease.
*I don’t mean this pejoratively–the fact is that with everyone using multiple aliases, disguises, and actively trying to hide themselves, even the expert analysts struggled at times to distinguish between different al-Qaeda operatives. Likewise, many of the more minor characters on the US government side remain nameless and faceless today for reasons of operational security. Even some important movie characters that bore clear resemblances to Obama administration figures (i.e. James Gandolfini as then-CIA Director Leon Panetta) were not formally introduced, apparently out of a desire to keep the narrative simple rather than any legal concerns. The SEAL commander in the tactical operations center during the raid, for example, is never addressed by name but wears a name insignia that clearly reads “McRaven.”