Shortly after the raid on Osama bin Laden’s complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011, director Greg Barker decided to make a film about the decade-long search for the al-Qaeda leader. “I wanted to tell a reflective story about what this past decade, from 9/11 to Abottabad, meant to us as a country — told through the people who were involved in it,” Barker said. “My mission as a filmmaker is to put a human face on how foreign policy and national security decisions are actually made, on a human level, with all the moral complexities, moral ambiguities involved.”
After his film Manhunt premiered at Sundance, three of the former CIA employees interviewed in the documentary joined Barker to talk about it — and about the things Zero Dark Thirty got wrong.
Ex-CIA Operatives Marty Martin, Nada Bakos, director Greg Barker, and ex-CIA Operative Cynthia Storer at Sundance.
1. There is no “Maya”
“The Maya character — I’m sure she exists in one form or fashion, but she’s also representative of a lot of personalities and efforts made by our targeters in the war on terrorism,” said Marty Martin, one of the three (who, incidentally, is a man).
According to Manhunt, there was a team of female analysts known within the CIA as “The Sisterhood,” who issued report after report warning about the threat bin Laden posed to America — and whose warnings were repeatedly ignored. Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya is something of a composite of these women.
2. …But There Were Several “Mayas”
Nada Bakos, who was one of several mid-level analysts at the agency at the time, is the closest of the three to the character Jessica Chastain portrays. Bakos was part of a crop of female analysts who were each assigned a single high-value target.
She was tasked with tracking Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq. She spent so much time studying him, she says in the film, that her colleagues began to refer to Zarqawi as her boyfriend.
“There was a push, led by Marty,” Bakos explained, “for targeting officers like myself, like ‘Maya,’ so that we would have advancement, somewhere to go. The Agency was actually valuing that.”
Jessica Chastain, as Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty.
3. They Got Jennifer Matthews All Wrong
While there may not have been one “Maya,” the Zero Dark Thirty’s other main female character, Jessica, is based on a real person: Jennifer Matthews.
Matthews was the chief of the Camp Chapman Base in Afghanistan’s Khost Province when she was killed by a suicide bombing at the base.
Martin says he winced at the depiction of Matthews, calling it the film’s “most egregious” error. “That character, as portrayed in the movie, was not her,” he said. “She was much more serious, and that was a misrepresentation of just her personality and her demeanor and the way she operated.”
Jennifer Ehle, as Jessica, a character in Zero Dark Thirty based on Jennifer Matthews.
4. That’s Not Really How Interrogations Work
The other thing Zero Dark Thirty got seriously wrong, Martin said, was the controversial interrogation scenes. “Look, I’ll be honest — I was pretty worried,” Martin says. “Obviously, I’m aware of how it was done, and when I saw that I was like, W.T.F.”
The scenes, Martin says, are inaccurate in characterizing interrogations as “very uncontrolled and unemotional.”
Former agent Nada Bakos agrees with Martin. To her knowledge — and she admits she was not intimately familiar with interrogations — things occurred differently than the way they are depicted on screen.
“I thought it was horrible,” she said of the interrogation scenes. “I thought the characters themselves [the CIA officers] didn’t show any humanity — I felt the only people who showed any kind of humanity, that you really had any empathy for, were the victims of this torture.”
Storer adds, “Here’s the thing — we’re all really smart people who worked in Washington, we know: It’s all spin. We know that.”
5. You Would Get Fired for Saying, “I’m the Motherfucker Who Found This Place”
“For the record, I have said that,” Martin said, laughing. “But if I ever had said that in that setting…” Storer finished for him: “Oh, your ass would be out the door.”
“You can have animated and good discussions,” Martin said, “but no one’s going to look at the director, especially at that junior level, and go “I’m the m[otherfucker]…”