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: