Art and politics, two worlds that generally don’t know all that much about each other, have come to an angry head-on collision in the continuing debate over the portrayal of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Most recently, three senior U.S. senators have called the film “grossly inaccurate and misleading” in a letter to Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton. In the missive, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is joined by her colleagues John McCain and Carl Levin in condemning the film’s depiction of the CIA’s “coercive interrogation techniques” as contributive to the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, which they contend is “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.” (The full text of the letter can be read here.)
The senators aren’t the first to accuse the critically lauded film of misrepresenting reality. Screenwriter Mark Boal has previously defended his choice to change certain elements of the manhunt as creative license, saying the film is “not a documentary,” a defense that the letter acknowledges but dismisses as the filmmakers talking out of both sides of their mouth: “We understand 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.”
Of course, whether or not Zero Dark Thirty’s fictionalized aspects can actually be interpreted as being pro-torture (or anti-torture, for that matter) is a nuanced debate probably best left out of the hands of members of Congress, but the senators focus primarily on the question of accuracy, charging Lynton and Sony with “a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.”
Bigelow and Boal responded last week to similar accusations with a statement disputing the idea that their film contends that torture was most vital in the capture of Bin Laden.
“This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes. One thing is clear: The single greatest factor in finding the world’s most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it.”