Zero Dark Thirty
|Zero Dark Thirty|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Kathryn Bigelow|
|Written by||Mark Boal|
|Music by||Alexandre Desplat|
|Box office||$138.8 million|
Zero Dark Thirty is a 2012 American action thriller war film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. Billed as "the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man", the film dramatizes the decade-long manhunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. This search eventually leads to the discovery of his compound in Pakistan, and the military raid on it that resulted in his death on May 2, 2011.
The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a fictional CIA intelligence analyst, with Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez and James Gandolfini in supporting roles. It was produced by Boal, Bigelow, and Megan Ellison, and was independently financed by Ellison's Annapurna Pictures. The film had its premiere in Los Angeles, California on December 19, 2012, and had its wide release on January 11, 2013.
Zero Dark Thirty received wide critical acclaim, and appeared on 95 critics' top ten lists of 2012. It was nominated in five categories at the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, and won the award for Best Sound Editing. The film also earned Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.
The film's depiction of enhanced interrogation generated controversy, with some critics describing it as pro-torture propaganda, as the interrogations are shown producing reliably useful and accurate information. Acting C.I.A. director Michael Morell stated, "The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques ... were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false." Other critics described it as an anti-torture exposure of interrogation practices.
Republican Congressman Peter T. King charged that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified materials, which they denied. An unreleased draft IG report published by the Project on Government Oversight in June 2013 stated that former C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta discussed classified information during an awards ceremony for the SEAL team that carried out the raid on the bin Laden compound. Unbeknownst to Panetta, screenwriter Mark Boal was among the 1,300 present during the ceremony.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Marketing
- 5 Release
- 6 Prequel
- 7 Historical accuracy
- 8 Controversy
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
In 2003, Maya, a young U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer, has spent her entire brief career since graduating from college and being recruited for the agency focused solely on gathering intelligence related to Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, following the terrorist organization's attack on the United States in 2001. She is reassigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan to work with a fellow officer, Dan. During the first months of her assignment, Maya often accompanies Dan to a black site for his continuing interrogation of Ammar al-Baluchi, a detainee with suspected links to several of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks. Dan subjects the detainee to torture, including waterboarding, and humiliation. He and Maya eventually trick Ammar into divulging that an old acquaintance, who is using the alias Abu Ahmed, is working as a personal courier for bin Laden. Other detainees corroborate this, with some claiming Abu Ahmed delivers messages between bin Laden and a man referred to as Abu Faraj. In 2005, Abu Faraj is apprehended by the C.I.A. and local police in Pakistan. Maya interrogates Abu Faraj under torture, but he continues to deny knowing a courier with such a name. Maya interprets this as an attempt by Abu Faraj to conceal the importance of Abu Ahmed.
Maya continues to sift through masses of data and information, using a variety of technology, hunches and sharing insights. She concentrates on finding Abu Ahmed, determined to use him to find bin Laden. During a span of five years, she survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing as well as being shot at in her car by armed men. Dan, departing on reassignment, warns Maya about a possible change in politics, suggesting that the new administration may prosecute those officers who had been involved in torture. Maya's fellow officer and friend Jessica is killed in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack. A Jordanian detainee claims the man previously identified from a photograph as Abu Ahmed is a man he personally buried in 2001. Several C.I.A. officers – Maya's seniors – conclude the target who could be Abu Ahmed is long dead, and that they have searched a false trail for nine years.
A fellow analyst researching Moroccan intelligence archives comes to Maya and suggests that Abu Ahmed is Ibrahim Sayeed. Maya agrees and contacts Dan, who is working at the C.I.A. headquarters. Maya has found that Ibrahim Sayeed had a brother, Habib, and theorizes the C.I.A.'s supposed photograph of Abu Ahmed was of Habib, as he was said to bear a striking resemblance to Ibrahim and was killed in Afghanistan. Dan uses C.I.A. funds to purchase a Lamborghini for a Kuwaiti prince in exchange for the telephone number of Sayeed's mother. The C.I.A. traces calls to the mother. One caller's persistent use of tradecraft to avoid detection leads Maya to conclude the caller is Abu Ahmed. At Maya's behest and with the support of her supervisors, numerous C.I.A. operatives are deployed to search for and identify Abu Ahmed. They locate him in his vehicle and eventually track him to a large urban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near the Pakistan Military Academy. As Maya leaves her residence one morning, she is attacked by multiple gunmen, but the bullet-proof glass in her car saves her. Knowing that she has been blacklisted by al-Qaeda and there will be more attempts on her life if she stays, her superiors remove her from the field and send Maya home to Washington, D.C.
The C.I.A. puts the compound under heavy surveillance for several months, using a variety of methods. Although they are confident from circumstantial evidence that bin Laden is there, they cannot prove this photographically. Meanwhile, the President's National Security Advisor tasks the C.I.A. with producing a plan to capture or kill bin Laden if it can be confirmed that he is in the compound. An agency team devises a plan to use two top-secret stealth helicopters (developed at Area 51) flown by the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to secretly enter Pakistan and insert members of the US Navy SEAL Team Six operatives to raid the compound. Before briefing President Barack Obama, the C.I.A. Director holds a meeting of his top officials, who assess only a 60–80% chance that bin Laden rather than another high-value target is living in the compound. Maya, also in attendance, states the chances are 100%.
The raid is approved and is executed on May 2, 2011. Although execution is complicated by one of the helicopters crashing, the SEALs gain entry and kill a number of people within the compound, among them a man on the compound's top floor who is revealed to be bin Laden. They bring bin Laden's body back to a U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where Maya visually confirms the identity of the corpse. Maya is last seen boarding a military transport to return to the U.S. and sitting in its vast interior as its only passenger. The pilot asks her where she wants to go but she does not reply. He leaves for the cockpit and she weeps.
- Jessica Chastain as Maya, CIA intelligence analyst
- Jason Clarke as Dan, a CIA intelligence officer
- Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a senior CIA analyst
- Mark Strong as George, a senior CIA supervisor
- Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, Islamabad CIA Station Chief
- James Gandolfini as CIA Director
- Harold Perrineau as Jack, a CIA analyst
- Mark Duplass as Steve, a CIA analyst
- Fredric Lehne as 'The Wolf', a CIA section chief
- John Barrowman as Jeremy, a CIA executive
- Jessie Collins as Debbie, a CIA analyst
- Édgar Ramírez as Larry, a CIA (SAD/SOG) operative
- Fares Fares as Hakim, a CIA SAD/SOG operative
- Scott Adkins as John, a CIA SAD/SOG operative
- Joel Edgerton as Patrick, DEVGRU (Navy SEALs) team leader
- Chris Pratt as Justin, DEVGRU operator
- Callan Mulvey as Saber, DEVGRU operator
- Taylor Kinney as Jared, DEVGRU operator
- Frank Grillo as DEVGRU Commanding officer
- Christopher Stanley as Vice Admiral Bill McRaven[N 1]
The film's working title was For God and Country. The title Zero Dark Thirty was officially confirmed at the end of the film's teaser trailer. Bigelow has explained that "it's a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission."
Bigelow and Boal had initially worked on and finished a screenplay centered on the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, and the long, unsuccessful efforts to find Osama bin Laden in the region. The two were about to begin filming when news broke that bin Laden had been killed.
They immediately shelved the film they had been working on and redirected their focus, essentially starting from scratch. "But a lot of the homework I'd done for the first script and a lot of the contacts I made, carried over," Boal remarked during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. He added, "The years I had spent talking to military and intelligence operators involved in counter-terrorism was helpful in both projects. Some of the sourcing I had developed long, long ago continued to be helpful for this version."
Along with painstakingly recreating the historic night-vision raid on the Abbottabad compound, the script and the film stress the little-reported role of the tenacious young female C.I.A. officer who tracked down Osama bin Laden. Screenwriter Boal said that while researching for the film, "I heard through the grapevine that women played a big role in the CIA in general and in this team. I heard that a woman was there on the night of the raid as one of the CIA's liaison officers on the ground – and that was the start of it." He then turned up stories about a young case officer who was recruited out of college, who had spent her entire career chasing bin Laden. Maya's tough-minded, monomaniacal persona, Boal said, is "based on a real person, but she also represents the work of a lot of other women."
Parts of the film were shot at PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh, India. Some parts of Chandigarh were designed to look like Lahore and Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed on May 2, 2011. Parts of the film were shot in Mani Majra. Local protesters expressed anti-bin Laden and anti-Pakistan sentiments as they objected to Pakistani locations being portrayed on Indian land. For a lone scene shot in Poland, the city of Gdansk was reportedly offended for depicting it as a location for the C.I.A.'s clandestine and dark operations.
National security expert Peter Bergen, who reviewed an early cut of the film as an unpaid adviser, said at the time that the film's torture scenes "were overwrought". Boal said they were "toned down" in the final cut.
|1.||"Flight to Compound"||5:07|
|2.||"Drive to Embassy"||1:44|
|7.||"Seals Take Off"||2:34|
|9.||"Preparation for Attack"||1:45|
|12.||"Maya on Plane"||3:59|
|18.||"Back to Base"||2:41|
Electronic Arts promoted Zero Dark Thirty in its video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter by offering downloadable maps of locations depicted in the film. Additional maps for the game were made available on December 19, to coincide with the film's initial release. Electronic Arts donates $1 to nonprofit organizations that support veterans for each Zero Dark Thirty map pack sold.
The film has been met with wide acclaim from film critics, and currently holds a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 253 reviews and an average rating of 8.6/10, as well as a score of 95 on Metacritic based on 46 reviews. It was the best-reviewed film of 2012 according to Metacritic. The film appeared on 95 critics' top ten lists of 2012, more than any film in its year, whilst 17 had the film in number-one spot.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who designated the film a New York Times critics' pick, said that the film "shows the dark side of that war. It shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid." Continued Dargis:
There is much else to say about the movie, which ends with the harrowing siege of Bin Laden's hideaway by the Navy SEALs (played by, among others, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt), much of it shot to approximate the queasy, weirdly unreal green of night-vision goggles. Ms. Bigelow's direction here is unexpectedly stunning, at once bold and intimate: she has a genius for infusing even large-scale action set pieces with the human element. One of the most significant images is of a pool of blood on a floor. It's pitiful, really, and as the movie heads toward its emphatically non-triumphant finish, it is impossible not to realize with anguish that all that came before – the pain, the suffering and the compromised ideals – has led to this.
Richard Corliss' review in Time magazine called it "a fine" movie and "a police procedural on the grand scale", saying it "blows Argo out of the water". Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter said, "it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal." Peter Debruge of Variety said: "The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there's no denying its power." Critic Katey Rich of The Guardian said: "Telling a nearly three-hour story with an ending everyone knows, Bigelow and Boal have managed to craft one of the most intense and intellectually challenging films of the year." Calling Zero Dark Thirty "a milestone in post-Sept. 11 cinema", critic A. O. Scott of The New York Times listed the film at number six of the top 10 films of 2012.
The New Yorker film critic David Denby lauded the filmmakers for their approach. "The virtue of Zero Dark Thirty," wrote Denby, "is that it pays close attention to the way life does work; it combines ruthlessness and humanity in a manner that is paradoxical and disconcerting yet satisfying as art." But Denby faulted the filmmakers for getting lodged on the divide between fact and fiction.
Yet, in attempting to show, in a mainstream movie, the reprehensibility of torture, and what was done in our name, the filmmakers seem to have conflated events, and in this they have generated a sore controversy: the chairs of two Senate committees have said that the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding. Do such scenes hurt the movie? Not as art; they are expertly done, without flinching from the horror of the acts and without exploitation. But they damage the movie as an alleged authentic account. Bigelow and Boal – the team behind The Hurt Locker – want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time, and the contradiction mars an ambitious project.
Steve Coll criticized the early claims for "journalism" with the use of composite characters. He took issue with the film's using the names of historical figures and details of their lives for characters, such as using details for "Ammar" to suggest that he was Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, whose nom de guerre was Ammar al-Baluchi. Coll said the facts about him were different from what was portrayed in the film, which suggests the detainee will never leave the black site. Al-Baluchi was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006 for a military tribunal. Coll writes:
He has been an active, defiant participant in Guantánamo court proceedings and his lawyers have sought permission from military judges to introduce evidence in his defense that he was tortured while in CIA custody, and to pursue information about the identities of the agency officers who interrogated him.
The Washington Post's critic Ann Hornaday, who named Zero Dark Thirty as the year's best film, noted the divergent takes on the film: "As Boal and Bigelow gather critics' plaudits and awards, the movie itself has entered a fascinating parallel conversation – part food fight for cable-news channels desperate for post-election fodder, part valuable (if belated) civic debate." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Kenneth Turan singled out actress Chastain for her performance. "Her single-minded ferocity and stubbornness not only prove essential in the hunt, but also make up the emotional through line that engages us in the story of Zero Dark Thirty."
This is the work of a commanding filmmaker who is willing, as well as able, to confront a full spectrum of moral ambiguity. [...] Others will debate the facts, but I can tell you that Zero Dark Thirty does not apologize for torture, any more than it denounces it. What it does in the course of telling a seminal story of our time is what contemporary films so rarely do, serve as brilliant provocation.
The film's opening scenes are not great filmmaking. They're heavy on jargon and impenetrable calculation, murky and heavy on theory. [...] My guess is that much of the fascination with this film is inspired by the unveiling of facts, unclearly seen. There isn't a whole lot of plot – basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is.
David Edelstein said that "[a]s a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic", but "[a]s a piece of cinema, it's phenomenally gripping – an unholy masterwork." The journalist Matt Taibbi wrote:
The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn't who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we've become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.
The film was met with a few negative reviews including the Daily Mail 's Chris Tookey remarking, in a 1/5 star review, that Chastain's character was "a cold, opaque, one-dimensional figure, as involving as a pre-programmed cyborg." while adding that "There was the opportunity here to examine a complex, important subject central to the history of our time. However, complexity, depth and character are not Ms Bigelow’s forte." 
The film was also criticised for its factual inaccuracies and its stereotypical portrayal of Pakistan.
Top ten lists
- 1st – Richard Roeper
- 1st – David Denby, The New Yorker (tied with Lincoln)
- 1st – Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
- 1st – Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
- 1st – Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
- 1st – Scott Foundas, Village Voice
- 1st – Mary Pols, Time
- 1st – David Edelstein, New York
- 1st – Peter Knegt, Indiewire
- 1st – Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
- 1st – Keith Phipps, A.V. Club
- 2nd – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
- 2nd – Eric Kohn, Indiewire
- 2nd – Stephanie Zacharek, Film.com
- 2nd – Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
- 2nd – A.A. Dowd and Ben Kenigsberg, Time Out Chicago
- 2nd – Noel Murray, A.V. Club
- 2nd – James Berardinelli, Reelviews]
- 3rd – Stephen Holden, New York Times
- 3rd – Ty Burr, Boston Globe
- 3rd – Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
- 3rd – Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
- 3rd – Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News
- 3rd – Lou Lumenick, New York Post
- 3rd – Anne Thompson, Indiewire
- 3rd – Tasha Robinson, A.V. Club
- 4th – Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
- 4th – Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies
- 4th – Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast
- 5th – Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
- 5th - Christy Lemire, Associated Press
- 5th – Drew McWeeny, HitFix
- 5th – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
- 5th – Kyle Smith, New York Post
- 6th – Richard Corliss, Time
- 6th – A.O. Scott, New York Times
- 7th – Kevin Jagernauth, Indiewire
- 7th – Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post
- 7th – Alison Willmore, A.V. Club
- 8th – Scott Tobias, A.V. Club
- 9th – Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
- 10th – Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
- 10th – Dana Stevens, Slate
- Top 10 (listed alphabetically) – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
- Top 10 (ranked alphabetically) – Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- Top 10 (listed alphabetically) – Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
- Best of 2014 (listed alphabetically, not ranked) – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Entertainment Weekly wrote, "The controversial Oscar contender easily topped the chart in its first weekend of wide release with $24.4 million." Zero Dark Thirty grossed $95,720,716 in the U.S. and Canada, along with $37,100,000 in other countries, for a worldwide total of $132,820,716. It was the top-grossing film of its wide release premiere weekend.
Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Academy Awards at the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing and Best Film Editing. Paul N. J. Ottosson won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, tying with Skyfall. This was only the sixth tie in Academy Awards history, and the first since 1994. Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards at the 70th Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama.
The Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association's award for Best Director was given to Bigelow, the second time the honor has gone to a woman (the first also being Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). The film swept critics groups' awards for Best Director and Best Picture including the Washington D.C., New York Film Critics Online, Chicago and Boston film critics associations.
Writer Boal has stated his interest in making the original film on the 2001 Tora Bora hunt for bin Laden that he and Bigelow conceived. That finished screenplay had been set aside after bin Laden was killed in 2011 to focus on what became Zero Dark Thirty. "I love reporting, so being on a big story is really exciting to me," said Boal, a former war journalist, of his scramble to write a new script after the event. "But nobody likes to throw out two years of work."
Zero Dark Thirty has received criticism for historical inaccuracy. Former assistant secretary of Defense Graham T. Allison has opined that the film is inaccurate in three important regards: the overstatement of the positive role of enhanced interrogation methods, the understatement of the role of the Obama administration, and the portrayal of the efforts as being driven by one agent battling against the CIA "system".
Allegations of partisanship
Partisan political controversy arose related to the film before shooting began. Opponents of the Obama Administration charged that Zero Dark Thirty was scheduled for an October release just before the November presidential election to support his re-election, as Bin Laden's killing is regarded as a success for President Obama. Sony denied that politics was a factor in release scheduling and said the date was the best available spot for an action-thriller in a crowded lineup. The film's screenwriter added, "the president is not depicted in the movie. He's just not in the movie."
The distributor Columbia Pictures, sensitive to political perceptions, considered rescheduling the film release for as late as early 2013. It set a limited-release date for December 19, 2012, well after the election and rendering moot any alleged political conflict. The nationwide release date was pushed back to January 11, 2013, moving it out of the crowded Christmas period and closer to the Academy Awards. After the film's limited release, given the controversy related to the film's depiction of torture and its role in gaining critical information, The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni concluded that the film is "a far, far cry from the rousing piece of pro-Obama propaganda that some conservatives feared it would be". Two months later, the paper's columnist Roger Cohen wrote that the film was "a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be". Cohen disagreed with Steve Coll's critique of the screenwriter's stated effort not to "play fast and loose with history", writing that "Boal has honored those words". Cohen ended with a note about a Timothy Garton Ash analysis of George Orwell mixing fact and "invented" stories in Down and Out in Paris and London – as further support for Boal's method.
Allegations of improper access to classified information
Several Republican sources charged the Obama Administration of improperly providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. These charges, along with charges of other leaks to the media, became a prevalent election season talking point by conservatives. The Republican national convention party platform even claimed Obama "has tolerated publicizing the details of the operation to kill the leader of Al Qaeda." No release of these details has been proven.
The Republican congressman Peter T. King requested that the C.I.A. and the U.S. Defense Department investigate if classified information was inappropriately released; both departments said they would look into it. The C.I.A. responded to Congressman King writing, "the protection of national security equities – including the preservation of our ability to conduct effective counterterrorism operations – is the decisive factor in determining how the CIA engages with filmmakers and the media as a whole."
The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch publicized C.I.A. and U.S. Defense Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and alleged that "unusual access to agency information" was granted to the filmmakers. But, an examination of the documents showed no evidence that classified information was leaked to the filmmakers. In addition, C.I.A. records did not show any involvement by the White House in relation to the filmmakers. The filmmakers have said they were not given access to classified details about Osama bin Laden's killing.
In January 2013, Reuters reported that the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will review the contacts between the C.I.A. and the filmmakers to find out whether Bigelow and Boal had inappropriate access to classified information. In February, Reuters reported that the inquiry was dropped.
In June 2013, an unreleased U.S. Defense Department Inspector General's office report stated that former C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta, while giving a presentation at a private awards ceremony, disclosed information classified as "Secret" and "Top Secret" regarding personnel involved in the raid on the Bin Laden compound.
Allegations of pro-torture stance
The film has been both criticized and praised for its handling of subject matter, including the portrayal of harsh interrogation techniques, commonly classified as torture. The use of these techniques was long kept secret by the Bush administration. (See Torture Memos.) Glenn Greenwald, in The Guardian, stated that the film takes a pro-torture stance, describing it as "pernicious propaganda" and stating that it "presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America." Critic Frank Bruni concluded that the film appears to suggest "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden". Jesse David Fox writes that the film "doesn't explicitly say that torture caught bin Laden, but in portraying torture as one part of the successful search, it can be read that way." Emily Bazelon said, "The filmmakers didn't set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists", but "they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they're in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them." Journalist Michael Wolff slammed the film as a "nasty piece of pulp and propaganda" and Bigelow as a "fetishist and sadist" for distorting history with a pro-torture viewpoint. Wolff disputed the efficacy of torture and the claim that it contributed to the discovery of bin Laden. In an open letter, social critic and feminist Naomi Wolf criticized Bigelow for claiming the film was "part documentary" and speculated over the reasons for Bigelow's "amoral compromising" of film-making, suggesting that the more pro-military a film, the easier it is to acquire Pentagon support for scenes involving expensive, futuristic military equipment. Wolf likened Bigelow to the acclaimed director and propagandist for the Nazi regime, Leni Riefenstahl, saying: "Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture's handmaiden." Author Karen J. Greenberg wrote that "Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists" and called the film "the perfect piece of propaganda, with all the appeal that naked brutality, fear, and revenge can bring". Peter Maass of The Atlantic said the film "represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking".
milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked.... [By] excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.
Author Greg Mitchell wrote that "the film's depiction of torture helping to get bin Laden is muddled at best – but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably will be: Yes, torture played an important (if not the key) role." Filmmaker Alex Gibney called the film a "stylistic masterwork" but criticized the "irresponsible and inaccurate" depiction of torture, writing:
there is no cinematic evidence in the film that EITs led to false information – lies that were swallowed whole because of the misplaced confidence in the efficacy of torture. Most students of this subject admit that torture can lead to the truth. But what Boal/Bigelow fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in an article for The Guardian, criticized what he perceived a "normalization" of torture in the film, arguing that the mere neutrality on an issue many see as revolting is already a type of endorsement per se. Žižek proposed that if a similar film was made about a brutal rape or the Holocaust, such a movie would "embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators." Žižek further panned Bigelow's stance of coldly presenting the issue in a rational manner, instead of being dogmatically rejected as a repulsive, unethical proposition.
Journalist Steve Coll, who has written on foreign policy, national security and the bin Laden family, criticized the filmmakers for saying the film was "journalistic", which implies that it is based in fact. At the same time, they claimed artistic license, which he described "as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden". Coll wrote that "arguably, the film's degree of emphasis on torture's significance goes beyond what even the most die-hard defenders of the CIA interrogation regime [...] have argued", as he said it was shown as critical at several points.
U.S. Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said that the film left him sick – "because it's wrong". In a speech in the Senate, he said, "Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information." McCain and fellow senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin sent a critical letter to Michael Lynton, chairman of the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment, stating, "[W]ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right."
Michael Morell, the C.I.A.'s acting director, sent a public letter on December 21, 2012 to the agency's employees, which said that Zero Dark Thirty
takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.... [The film] creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. (...) [T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.
The Huffington Post writer, G. Roger Denson, countered this, saying that the filmmakers were being made scapegoats for information openly admitted by government and intelligence officials. Denson said that Leon Panetta, three days after Osama bin Laden's death, seemed to say that waterboarding was a means of extracting reliable and crucial information in the hunt for bin Laden. Denson noted Panetta speaking as the C.I.A. chief in May 2011, saying that "enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission's success". Panetta said waterboarding was among the techniques used. In a Huffington Post article written a week later, Denson cited other statements from Bush government officials saying that torture had yielded information to locate bin Laden.
National security reporter Spencer Ackerman said the film "does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet". Critic Glenn Kenny said that he "saw a movie that subverted a lot of expectations concerning viewer identification and empathy" and that "rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it", which is "[a] whole other can of worms". Writer Andrew Sullivan said, "the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years". Filmmaker Michael Moore similarly said, "I left the movie thinking it made an incredible statement against torture", and noted that the film showed the abject brutality of torture. Critic Andrew O'Hehir said that the filmmaker's position on torture in the film is ambiguous, and creative choices were made and the film poses "excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get".
Screenwriter Boal described the pro-torture accusations as "preposterous", stating that "it's just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden", while director Bigelow added: "Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was." In February 2013 in the Wall Street Journal, Boal responded to the Senate critics, being quoted as saying "[D]oes that mean they can use the movie as a political platform to talk about what they've been wanting to talk about for years and years and years? Do I think that Feinstein used the movie as a publicity tool to get a conversation going about her report? I believe it, ..." referring to the intelligence committee's report on enhanced interrogations. He also said the senators' letter showed they were still concerned about public opinion supporting the effectiveness of torture and didn't want the movie reinforcing that. Boal said, though, "I don't think that [effectiveness] issue has really been resolved" if there is a suspect with possible knowledge of imminent attack who will not talk.
Writer Mark Bowden argued that the film is neither pro- nor anti-torture: "[P]ure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth." In an interview with Time magazine, Bigelow said: "I'm proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it's a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden." In a 2013 interview on The Colbert Report, Bigelow said the film showed many techniques of intelligence gathering used to find bin Laden, such as electronic surveillance, troops at the ground level, and "good, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground sleuthing".
Objections over the unattributed use of recordings of 9/11 victims
According to the relatives of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on a hijacked American Airlines plane, a clip from her call to headquarters was used in the beginning of the film without attribution. They demanded that, if the film won any awards, the filmmakers apologize at the Academy Awards ceremony for using the clip without getting her heirs' consent. Her family also asked that the film's U.S. distributors make a charitable donation in Ong's name, and should go on record that the Ong family does not endorse the use of torture. The end of the film already includes a statement paying tribute to the victims and the families of the 9/11 attacks, and the film producers have already contributed to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Mary and Frank Fetchet, parents of Brad Fetchet, who worked on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower, criticized the filmmakers for using a recording of their son's voicemail without permission. The recording has previously been heard in broadcast TV news reports and in testimony for the 9/11 Commission.
- No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden
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The Ong family is also asking that the filmmakers donate to a charitable foundation that was set up in Ms. Ong's name. Further, they want Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is distributing Zero Dark Thirty in the United States, to include a credit for Ms. Ong and a statement on both its Web site and on home entertainment versions of the film making clear that the Ong family does not endorse torture, which is depicted in the film, an account of the search for Osama bin Laden.
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