The question of whether "enhanced interrogations" work is separate from whether they're moral—a distinction Kathryn Bigelow's film, but not all of its critics, understands.
There are two ugly interrogation scenes in the opening minutes of Zero Dark Thirty that haunt the rest of the experience, and that have come to haunt critical reception of the film itself.
After we hear the terrified voices of Americans trapped on the upper floors of the burning towers on 9/11 against a black screen, the movie opens on a character named Ammar, suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to both wrists. It is two years later. Ammar is bloody, filthy, and exhausted. We learn quickly that he is an al-Qaeda middleman, and a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks. Ammar is believed to know details of a pending attack in Saudi Arabia, and he is uncooperative.
His brutal questioning by CIA officer Daniel is uncomfortable to watch. It is cruel and ultimately futile. As his tormenters fold him into a small punishment box, demanding the day of the attack, Ammar murmurs "Saturday," then, "Sunday," then, "Monday," then, "Thursday," then, "Friday."
In the script, referring to the frustrated Daniel, the scene closes with the words, "Once again, he's learned nothing."
The subsequent Saudi attacks occur. Daniel accepts responsibility for the failure, along with his new associate, the film's heroine Maya. This is all in the first minutes of the movie. Torture has been tried, and it has failed. It is Maya then who then proposes something different. Why not trick him?
"He doesn't know we failed," Maya says. "We can tell him anything."
And it is cleverness, coated with kindness, that produces something useful. It is too late to stop the Saudi attack, but Ammar offers them a name. More correctly, a pseudonym, what in Arabic is called a "kunya," a nom de guerre: Abu Ahmad al-Kuwait, the father of Ahmed from Kuwait. Maya doesn't know it yet—indeed, she won't find out for years—but this is the first small clue on the long trail to Abbottabad.
Zero Dark Thirty, by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, is an extraordinarily impressive dramatization of the 10-year-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, one that I wrote about in far more detail in my book The Finish. Warmly praised by many film critics (The Atlantic's Chris Orr named it the best film of 2012) and so far a box office hit (it goes into wide release on January 11), it is sure to be in the running for major recognition during the coming awards season. But it has also been attacked by some viewers as a false version of the story that effectively advocates for the use of torture. Those viewers argue that the film, while brilliant, shows torture to have played an important role in finding bin Laden, which they say is not true. It is reminiscent of the late movie critic Pauline Kael's memorable putdown of director Sam Peckinpah as a virtuoso of "fascist" art.
This no doubt comes as a shock to Bigelow, whom I have never met, but who has been described to me as the kind of gentle soul who "would stoop to lift a snail off the sidewalk."
The criticism is unfair, and its reading of both the film and the actual story seems willfully mistaken. Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America's messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.
A screenplay is more like a sonnet than a novel. Action on screen unfolds with visceral immediacy, but any story with sweep—this one takes place over nearly a decade—can only be told with broad impressionistic strokes. The challenge is greater when trying to tell a true story. The interrogation scenes in the beginning color the entire tale, but they are necessary. They are part of the story. Without them, I suspect some of the same critics now accusing it of being pro-torture would instead be calling Zero Dark Thirty a whitewash.
The charge that the film is pro-torture is easy to debunk. I have already noted the dramatic failure depicted in the opening scenes with Ammar. The futility of the approach is part of the more general organizational failure depicted in the movie's first half, culminating in a dramatization of the tragic 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, where an al-Qaeda infiltrator wiped out an entire CIA field office. The agency is shown to be not only failing to find bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda, but on the losing end of the fight. In case the point hasn't been made clearly enough, a visit from an angry CIA chief to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in the next scene underlines it:
"There's nobody else, hidden away on some other floor," he says. "This is just us. And we are failing. We're spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We're still no closer to defeating our enemy."
The work that leads to Abbottabad in the second half of the film unfolds as dramatic detective work in the office and the field, and ends with a faithful and detailed reenactment of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. Through it all, Maya is playing a long game, in dogged pursuit of a lead, battling those in command more preoccupied with short-term goals—finding and killing al-Qaeda operational figures. Torture is presented as part of this story, something Maya accepts. But it's also shown to be at best only marginally useful, and both politically and morally toxic.
So, how true is it? 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. 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: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.
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. There apparently was a female CIA field officer who performed heroic service in the 10-year hunt for bin Laden, and whose fixation on "Ahmed from Kuwait" helped steer the effort to success. In the film she is seen butting heads with an intelligence bureaucracy that regards her fixation on Ahmed as wishful thinking. This makes for some dramatic scenes, and gives Jessica Chastain a great many chances to brood with ethereal intensity. The real life "Maya" may have been even more lovely and tenacious, but she was just one of many officers and analysts focused on "Ahmed," in an agency that never stopped regarding him as an important lead.* The raid itself involved four helicopters, two Chinooks and two Black Hawks, not the three Black Hawks shown. Key planning sessions that happened in the White House Situation Room, chaired by President Obama, are depicted as having happened at Langley with CIA director Leon Panetta. Indeed, those who have accused the current administration of rolling out the red carpet for Bigelow and Boal in the hopes of hyping its role may be surprised to find that the president, whose participation was central throughout, has been almost completed edited out. The list could go on, but so could the list of fudged details for any film "based on a true story," whether it's the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley Scott version of my book Black Hawk Down or Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln.