Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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The acclaimed thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking.

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Sony

One of the most dramatic scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, takes place in a conference room where the CIA team hunting Osama bin Laden is lambasted by its boss, played by Mark Strong. "There's no working group coming to the rescue," he says. "There's nobody else, hidden away on some other floor. There is just us. And we are failing." Voice filling with rage, he recounts the death toll from 9/11 and other al Qaeda attacks, shouting at his team, "I want targets! Do your fucking jobs, bring me people to kill!"

Much of the pre-release debate about the movie has focused on whether it portrays torture as effective, in the sense of prying information out of al Qaeda suspects. Yes, the movie conveys that view, and I think it's inaccurate. Many experts, including key senators who oversaw an extensive congressional investigation, have concluded that torture did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden, and that torture in general is a counter-productive way to get information from prisoners. But the heated debate on torture misses what's far more important and troubling about a film that seems destined for blockbuster and Academy Award status. Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism.

Unlike Lincoln, about a man who was killed a century and a half ago, Zero Dark Thirty portrays recent events. We know pretty much everything there is to know about Lincoln—all that's left is to interpret the historical record—but precious little about the hunt for bin Laden. That's why I was not only riveted by the "Bring me people to kill" line, but curious. Did it really happen? Did the film's heroine, who is called Maya, really tell the CIA director, during a meeting about bin Laden's compound, "I am the motherfucker that found that place"?

If journalists had received the same access as Boal and Bigelow, I would be a bit less troubled. But as it stands, we're getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

I had fact-or-fiction questions about nearly every scene in the movie. Because the historical record is so slim, there was really only one person who could answer all my questions. A few days ago I talked with Boal, a former journalist who wrote the screenplay, basing it on exclusive interviews he conducted with, among others, people at the CIA.

"It's a movie," Boal reminded me. "It's not a documentary." He continued, "I'm not going to go scene by scene or line by line, because first of all I think I've got to have some authorial privilege ... My standard is not a journalistic standard of 'Is this a word-for-word quote?' I'm not asking to be held to that standard and I'm certainly not representing my film as that. The standard is more, 'Is this more or less in the ballpark?'" I pressed for detail and he replied, "It gets very dicey for me if I start confirming specific lines from specific people, so I'm not going to do that."

I am a journalist of the quotes-are-sacred sort, which means this is the point in the story where I should begin tearing into Boal and Bigelow. But I don't think the problem rests with them. They set out to create a feature film based on real events, and they have done so, making very clear that the film's heroine and other characters, while based on real people, are composites or complete inventions. I was hardly the only person who received the it's-a-movie-not-a-documentary line; the web is filled with instances of that quote from Boal and Bigelow. They are quite literally telling us to not believe every word we hear.

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Peter Maass has written about Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.

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