UPDATE: There were a few Amnesty International protestors outside, but Kathryn Bigelow got a warm greeting at the Newseum in D.C. for the premiere of Zero Dark Thirty. After she was introduced by MPAA head and former Senator Chris Dodd, Bigelow (named a Best Director finalist by the DGA today) touched on the torture controversy only peripherally in her opening remarks. Said Bigelow: “We had no agenda in making this film and were not trying to generate controversy,” she said. “Quite the contrary. Mark and I wanted to present the story as we understood it, based on the extraordinary research that Mark did. All of us were affected by September 11th, 2001 and the events that followed. Among other things, it catalyzed the greatest manhunt in history. Many of us know how it ended. Perhaps nobody knows every detail of how it happened. We tried to bring this story to the screen in a faithful way. As a director, I make a film, and then it is up to the audience to interpret. Each person will have their own experience with the film. This was a momentous part of our nation’s history and we wanted to illustrate the ambiguities, the contradictions, and complexities of this 10-year search. There is a tremendous debate going on about various aspects of the hunt, some of which are depicted in this film. One thing is clear, at the end of the day it took a selfless team of individuals, many of whom we will never know or meet, to carry out this mission. As filmmakers, we hope that this film honors their work and sacrifice.”
EARLIER, 5:22 PM: After keeping quiet for a week as three U.S. senators called Zero Dark Thirty “grossly inaccurate” and pro-torture, Oscar-winning filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal spoke out last night in the friendly confines of the New York Film Critics Circle that had voted their film the best of 2012. Tonight, the pair heads into more hostile territory for a premiere in Washington D.C., where their film has been sharply criticized for depicting a terror suspect who, after being waterboarded, gives up information that eventually leads the CIA to Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
While she and Boal would not comment for this article, Bigelow last night disputed the charges that the movie in any way shape or form advocated torture. “Depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices, no author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time,” she said.
All of this begs the question of how much truth is required in a fact-based film that isn’t a documentary. It has fueled a raging debate that could follow Zero Dark Thirty through its opening and likely to the Oscars and beyond.
The scrutiny began when Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein and Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin blasted the movie and requested that U.S. distributor Sony Pictures furnish a disclaimer. They’ve since demanded hearings to see if the CIA (which gave the filmmakers cooperation) deliberately misled Boal and Bigelow. None of that factors in the possibility that Boal, himself a former foreign correspondent, dug up key information on his own, independent of access given him by the CIA.
Sony refused to add the coda. The MPAA, which so far has been silent on the matter, gets involved tonight, as MPAA head and former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd will introduce the film and its makers. Nobody is holding seats for the three senators.
I’ve watched the film several times, and while the torture scene is difficult to watch, what the senators say isn’t really true. For instance, the Zero Dark Thirty terror suspect who gives up a name that eventually leads the CIA to tail bin Laden’s personal courier, doesn’t so when he’s being waterboarded, degraded and crammed into a small wooden box. That happens earlier and he resists the painful and degrading torture. He gives up a name later, after the film’s dogged CIA heroine Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) dupes him into thinking he has been rewarded by helping thwart a bombing that actually took place in Saudi Arabia (in the rival film Seal Team Six, the terrorist gives up a name when threatened with being turned over to the Saudis). Maya then takes that string and ties it to other intelligence, which eventually leads to the courier. The torture scenes hardly glorifies a practice that was widespread in the aftermath of 9/11. The whole subject of whether anything useful came out of it is Rashomon: some say key intel was given before enhanced interrogation was applied, and many said that torture elicited so many lies that it undermined the truth. While the senators claim reliable intel didn’t come from torture, past CIA director Leon Panetta and acting head Michael Morell have said that some useful information was derived from enhanced interrogations that proved useful in tracking bin Laden.
Did Boal and Bigelow do their job as filmmakers purporting to tell a true story? Mark Bowden, the journalist whose books informed films including Black Hawk Down, wrote in TheAtlantic.com that they indeed fulfilled that mission. Documentarian Alex Gibney, whose Oscar-winning film Taxi To The Darkside chronicled post-9/11 torture, was aghast at the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty.
From Bowden’s perspective, “It was a mistake for those involved in the film to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is ‘journalistic,’ and to have touted their access to SEAL team members and CIA field officers,” he wrote. “No matter how remarkable their research and access, the film spills no state secrets. No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc. Boal’s script is just 102 pages…Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label ‘based on a true story,’ which works as both a boast and a disclaimer.”
Bowden stopped short of calling the film journalism, as does Peter Landesman, the former New York Times Magazine correspondent-turned-screenwriter about to make his directing debut on Parkland, which chronicles the day of the JFK assassination from the Texas hospital where the president was brought after being shot. Landesman recently adapted the real story of “Deep Throat,” former FBI No. 2 Mark Felt for Universal Pictures and Playtone’s Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Landesman told me that he has worked with CIA sources both when he was a journalist and more recently as a screenwriter of Kill the Messenger. That’s the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who killed himself after the agency smeared him following his 1996 three-part series linking the CIA to a scheme to arm Contra rebels in Nicaragua and import cocaine into California. The CIA looks good in Zero Dark Thirty, but there is no way to cast the agency in a positive light for what it did to Webb. Still, the agency played ball.
“I wanted to get the script as right as possible, and I did work with the CIA on it,” Landesman told me. “It’s fashionable to portray the CIA as the Evil Empire, but journalists who’ve been in the field, in war zones like Boal was and I was, come to appreciate and respect those people who put their lives on the line.” That is not to say that the CIA doesn’t manipulate the facts for its own gain.
“In the case of Bigelow and Boal, people lose sight of their obligation, which is to the narrative and the movie,” Landesman said. “They have no hope of being able to capture 100% of the truth, because the CIA will hold or manipulate according to their agenda. They see this movie as a way for them to partially control how they are portrayed, by what they gave and didn’t give Boal when he was researching. The CIA will never admit, confirm or deny what really happened if it’s not in their interests. They’ll try to move the agenda and their portrayal in a way that will serve them.”
Landesman said that dealing with the CIA amounts to the horse trading that goes into all journalist-source relationships. Filmmakers show some of their cards, and won’t play certain ones if it will compromise assets or agents. And the CIA then will fork over some info the filmmaker doesn’t have. “Who knows what Mark left out to serve those quid pro quo relationships, but there’s no question he conflated characters and changed chronology and information to protect agents and agency secrets,” he said.
Given the controversy and the senators’ demands to get operatives and bureaucrats to divulge what they told Boal and Bigelow, I asked Landesman if getting CIA cooperation was worth the trouble.
“It was, because there’s no question they had access to Jessica Chastain’s character, something that would never have happened without CIA cooperation,” he said. “It was known that a female operative was in the center of things, that character was also in John Stockwell’s SEAL Team Six. But nobody had that access, and there were things I learned that I didn’t know. The relationship between Maya and the female operative killed in Afghanistan, a bombing that seemed an isolated incident. That connection was really powerful.”
Landesman believes the objection by the senators to Zero Dark Thirty could be a ploy to tarnish a film that could otherwise be accepted as an official version of the bin Laden hunt, one that unfolds with a depiction of torture.
“I think they are grandstanding and making political points,” he said. “Nobody wants the government to be seen advocating torture, even though that’s exactly what took place for many years. It would not be beyond the relationship between these senators and the White House to agree that someone has to be the bulldog in the vanguard who takes this movie down a notch. This whole thing might be orchestrated in a way to buffer the United States and the White House.”
Perhaps partly due to heightened awareness over this controversy, the film has performed remarkably well in limited release, and tracking is strong for Friday’s wide opening, even though the heroism of the CIA operatives and Navy SEALs has hardly been mentioned because of the torture controversy. As for Oscar voters, they’ve dealt with veracity issues in fact-based films before, and the results have been mixed. For a Best Picture winner that survives like A Beautiful Mind, there is The Hurricane, the film about boxer Rubin Carter that was undone by controversy.
Landesman, like Bowden, stopped short of calling Zero Dark Thirty journalism.
“We just don’t know enough about the truth yet,” he said. “Journalists go through a very rigorous fact-checking process and when my article ran in The New York Times Magazine, the audience has the sense of security that rigorous fact checking was applied. You just don’t know that with movies.” Indeed, I’m told that because the film was backed by Annapurna’s Megan Ellison and Sony signed on for domestic distribution and Universal for foreign, those studios didn’t fact check the film as would have been done if it was a homegrown project.
As for how Zero Dark Thirty it will stand up down the road, Landesman said that will be based as much on storytelling and craftsmanship as the long term veracity of its revelations. He’s observed the latter close up in researching and scripting Felt’s Deep Throat story. Landesman said the new facts cast the All The President’s Men journalists in a less flattering light.
“Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were seen as these guys who dug up everything and merely used Deep Throat to confirm some things,” he said. “The truth is, they only knew what they knew when Mark Felt wanted them to know it. He completely controlled them, like a puppeteer. But that doesn’t mean All The President’s Men doesn’t hold up as a great movie that withstands the test of time despite revelations that have come out since then about the Nixon White House. From a storytelling standpoint, what that film and others like Zodiac and The French Connection share with Zero Dark Thirty is a narrow focus and a trust in the narrative tick tock of a good procedural about what it took to hunt this guy down. Homeland constantly draws a web of connections to 9/11, which feels like the filmmaker is telling you, pay attention, this is important. Kathryn and Mark showed restraint and, just like in those other procedural films, it is fascinating to just watch smart capable people doing their jobs really well.”