Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office's speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That's the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell.

Don't get me wrong—some good journalism has emerged from embedded or invitation-only reporting. I was embedded on two occasions in Iraq, and I would like to think my stories were critical and worthwhile. But the new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history's first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we're getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

Is this the fault of Boal and Bigelow? Not really. I can't imagine any filmmaker or journalist saying "no" to the sort of access they apparently received (I say "apparently" because they haven't provided details; much of the information about their access comes from news stories). And I can't imagine many filmmakers or journalists, having gotten that access, writing a story or making a movie that would be less favorable to the CIA than Zero Dark Thirty. That is the nature of embedding: It primes its targets (I mean, journalists and filmmakers) to create stories that are skewed in the government's favor. That is one reason, I think, the film presents torture as effective—the CIA is ground zero of that unholy belief. If Boal and Bigelow had embedded at the FBI, whose agents have been critical of torture, their film would probably have a different message about waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and cramming a prisoner into a sealed box that's no bigger than an oven.

Yet I wonder about the ire the film arouses in its critics. I agree that the movie's depiction of the CIA is regrettably uncritical; let's remember, the CIA provided false evidence for going to war against Iraq, it tortured prisoners in secret jails and sent others to third countries where they would be tortured (and covered up as much of this as possible), and it is now engaged in a covert program using aerial drones to kill people who have not been convicted of any crime—and in these attacks women and children are often killed. The film fails to consider the notion that the CIA and the intelligence industry as a whole, rather than being solutions to what threatens us, might be part of the problem. These are big omissions, but let's be honest—similar omissions are committed every day by journalists, pundits, politicians and filmmakers, and we don't get terribly upset. At most, we change the channel.

Zero Dark Thirty will likely find a bigger, more captivated audience than any cable-news blatherer would. It's a dazzling film. But what's more dazzling—and frustrating—is the government's skill, time and time again, in getting its story told so uncritically.

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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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