During President Obama’s 100 or so campaign trail speeches this past year, he usually received the biggest applause for mentioning the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The lines were real crowd pleasers. Zero Dark Thirty picks up where the cheers from the Obama rallies died off. Rather than casting Obama and the White House as heroes, though, the film lets the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency play the protagonists with the true claim to Bin Laden’s scalp.
This is not a coincidence. The CIA played a key role in shaping the film’s narrative, corresponding with the filmmakers to negotiate favorable access to a movie that one CIA official described as “get[ting] behind the winning horse” of the “first and biggest” movie about the Bin Laden raid, according to internal CIA emails obtained by Judicial Watch. The White House gave its blessing as well, calling it the most “high profile” project to date, and suggesting it get more “visibility,” as one White House official wrote. When the screenwriter, Mark Boal, met with the CIA at their headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for a meeting scheduled on Friday, 9:30 AM on May 20th, only 19 days after the assassination, he was accompanied by Michael Feldman of the Glover Park Group, a Washington consulting firm specializing in “strategic communications,” according to the CIA emails. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, also visited Langley to “meet the people Mark had been talking too,” another CIA official noted.
The result of this collaboration between the filmmakers, public relations experts, and the intelligence world has been unevenly received by viewers who are familiar with the actual historical record. Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who made Taxi To The Dark Side, said that Boal and Bigelow were “seduced by their sources” at CIA. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has spent the last few years examining the underbelly of the War On Terror, wrote the film “milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked.” And author Brett Easton Ellis famously trashed ZDT as “the most morally dubious, obtuse, overrated” movie of 2012.
How to package the Bin Laden story has been a preoccupation with the Obama White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA. The White House, administration officials have told me, immediately recognized, and seized upon, the demand to get the Bin Laden narrative out to the public, immediately declassifying large chunks of the operation. The White House's first draft put President Obama at the center of the action; then, the Navy Seals claimed their turf with a piece in The New Yorker, followed by No Easy Day a year later. ZDT is the CIA's turn. Administration officials I've spoken to bristle at the suggestion that these efforts are meant to "exploit" the killing of Bin Laden. "This was one of the biggest stories, or historic events of American history," one administration official told me. "Of course we're going to be talking about it, and working with the media to get it out there."
Historically, it’s been the U.S. military that has maintained a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the entertainment industry, from The Longest Day to Green Berets to Iron Man to Acts of Valor. There’s a special division set up at the Pentagon to handle film requests, the Film Liaison Office. Favored projects are granted access; films with a more critical take, like Apocalypse Now, are not. The movies that get assistance are those that, in the end, make military violence and action look really cool. The CIA beat the Pentagon to the punch on this one, moving quickly and using their direct influence on the filmmakers to glorify torture and the agency’s own actions.
In reality, the CIA officials engaged in torture were so ashamed and fearful that their real-life behavior could not stand up under scrutiny, they destroyed the actual tapes documenting the torture sessions. Now, though, ZDT has done the agency a huge public service: providing the CIA with its own Top Gun, a film that military officials consider one of the most successful recruitment vehicles of all time.
Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain, among others, are calling for an investigation into whether the filmmakers were “misled” by CIA officials. At the same time, the acting CIA director issued a press release saying the film "departs from reality." In the best twist yet, one of the architects of the torture program, former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, offered his critique of the movie—the CIA was never that brutal, he claimed in the Washington Post. (For instance, Rodriguez corrects them on waterboarding technique: “Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men, who were on medical gurneys.” He also says they never used “dog collars.”)
Zero Dark Thirty bills itself as a modern history lesson (“based on actual first hand accounts.”) The film does accurately chart how we learned to accept more and more extreme behavior from the national security state during the past decade of war. As the former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo — who was involved in both enhanced interrogation and the early drone program — has pointed out: “A lot of attention, a lot of criticism was given about the number of waterboarding sessions they [Abu Zubaida and Mohammed] had…but I don't believe there would have been nearly as much similar discussion about the number of bullets that would have been pumped into them if they had been killed rather than captured.” Rizzo said that “hit squads,” as he calls them, turned out to be much less controversial.
Unfortunately, in the end, the film makes a mockery of all those who protested America’s regime of secret prisons and abuse. Zero Dark Thirty premieres nationwide on Jan. 11 — and it just picked up a New York Film Critics award last night. During the acceptance speech, Boal suggested that his situation was similar to John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who spoke out publicly against torture in 2007, and was recently given a 30-month jail sentence. Kiriakou was accused of leaking one piece of classified information to a journalist, but his true crime was that he spoke out against the enhanced interrogation program. Ironically, the information Kiriakou leaked is probably as sensitive as what the CIA gave the filmmakers for Zero Dark Thirty. At this stage, contrary to the filmmakers fears, it appears unlikely that they, or anyone at Sony, will get prison time for producing a movie that endorses the worst human rights abuses of the War On Terror. As the film showed us, those who tortured, and supported torture, got away with it. (Sony declined to comment for this story.)