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