While Zero Dark Thirty is about the manhunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden, the film has not aged particularly well on its 10th anniversary.
In early 2013, I would have said that this film was one of the best films of 2012. But now, I’m not so sure especially with what The Report had to say about it. It is through the lens of having watched The Report in which I watched Zero Dark Thirty for its anniversary. If you didn’t see The Report in theaters or on Prime Video, the Scott Z. Burns-directed film has a scene where Zero Dark Thirty is on the screen. What the scene featuring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) and then-staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) in The Report is trying to say is that torture is not an effective means of getting information from detainees. Feinstein joined Senators Carl Levin and John McCain in sending a letter to Sony Pictures. In short, the following paragraph disputes key scenes taking place in Zero Dark Thirty:
We understand that the film is fiction, 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 the Usama 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 Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.
In fact, the torture report said that using enhanced interrogation techniques led to false information. The CIA had a better time getting accurate intelligence when they did not resort to such methods. Feel free to check out the report for yourself! Then-acting CIA director Michael Morell sent a public letter in December 2012 to dispute the film’s accuracy.
What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.
Morell then goes onto break down a few aspects of the film in his letter, specifically attributing the work of the intelligence community as a whole to just a few people, the enhanced interrogation techniques, and the film taking dramatic liberties in their depictions of CIA personnel.
The massive manhunt and elimination of Osama bin Laden is a story worth telling on the big screen. In the past decade, this film is proving to be less and less accurate. Maya Harris (Jessica Chastain) is a leading CIA analyst and will not stop in her efforts to track down OBL. When we first meet her, she’s working alongside Dan Fuller (Jason Clarke) in trying to get information from Ammar (Reda Kateb). There’s a few time jumps but a large bulk of the film’s plot is based on using torture to get information from detainees. The film mixes it up between the interrogations, a follow up that leads to the Camp Chapman attack, CIA red tape, and then the headlining event of finding and bringing in the Navy SEALs to kill OBL.
But for all of the script’s issues, there’s no denying that Jessica Chastain delivers a strong performance in the film. Maya Harris is a composite of multiple women who were working on finding OBL at the time. It might be one person in particular based on articles that have come out since the report’s 2014 release. But again, how much of what happens on screen is what happened in real life is the question. On the technical side, there’s a lot of care that goes into the set and cinematography. The filmmakers go through great detail in its closing scenes to recreate the midnight raid that led to the execution of OBL–screenwriter Mark Boal was in attendance for a classified speech. In 2013, I put this scene right up there with the opening of Saving Private Ryan!
After watching The Hurt Locker, there’s no denying that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal make a great filmmaking team together. You certainly could not blame them for wanting to tell this story. But in watching the film again, one has to ask themselves, is this film pro- or anti-torture? Going even further, what can we say about Mark Boal’s screenplay? His script won numerous awards and received even more nominations. Would these voters still honor the film with what we now know? The film opens with “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and gets rightfully chewed out by both Senators and the intelligence community. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal may have meant well but make no mistake that Zero Dark Thirty cannot be viewed in the same light after the torture report’s release in 2014.
DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow
SCREENWRITER: Mark Boal
CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, and James Gandolfini
Columbia released Zero Dark Thirty in theaters on December 19, 2012. Grade: 3.5/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.