That outrage was based on seemingly selective leaks coming from the government of favorable actions by the Obama White House. King and others thought that Zero Dark Thirty was going to be an expensive commercial trumpeting Obama just before last November's election, and called for hearings on the issue.
Sony Pictures later opted to release the film after the election, and Zero Dark Thirty is now out across the country (opening nationwide this past weekend after a month of limited release in select U.S. cities). The film's critics are mostly (but not exclusively) comprised of liberals in Congress angered by what they see as the film's implication that torture yielded information that helped us find Bin Laden.
Unlike in some other American cities, there were no protests outside the Hyde Park CineBistro where this reporter caught the 2:40 p.m. screening on Saturday afternoon.
Protests you say, for a fictional Hollywood movie? Zero Dark Thirty's power comes from its close attention to the details as we know them, but one detail that has provoked controversy is the intense depictions of torture in the first half-hour of the film, depictions that Jane Mayer of the New Yorker called "devoid of moral context."
Cl movie critic Joe Bardi has written that the film, "adds little to the conversation about America's 'War on Terrorism, or the tactics and strategies employed by the CIA and the military — including torture, assassination and illegal incursions into sovereign nations." But that's not director Katheryn Bigelow's intention in the first place. If you saw her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, you know Bigelow's forte is intense action, not moralizing.
But that neglect to convey the intense discussion that occurred in this country about torture has ignited a fury of criticism among some journalists.
This debate was recently the focus of an hour-long discussion on KQED-FM (the NPR affiliate in San Francisco), between The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald (former longtime contributor with Salon.com) and journalist Mark Bowden.
The problem (if there is one): Unlike the action depicted in the film, torture apparently did not lead to the ultimate location of Osama bin Laden.
Greg Sargent in the Washington Post posted a letter sent by former CIA Director Leon Panetta to Arizona Senator John McCain in 2011 regarding McCain's question about whether torture let to the capture and killing of Bin Laden.
Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that Bin Ladin was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. there was no one “essential and indispensible” key piece of information that led us to this conclusion. Rather, the intelligence picture was developed via painstaking collection and analysis. Multiple streams of intelligence — including from detainees, but also from multiple other sources — led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was at this compound. Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the “only timely and effective way” to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that that information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Ladin.
That seems pretty definitive, no?
Not according to the Washington Post's George Will, who writes that former CIA Director Michael Hayden says such information obtained from "enhanced interrogation" helped lead to bin Laden.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the intelligence committee, and two colleagues have denounced the movie as “grossly inaccurate and misleading” for its “suggestion” that torture produced information that led to locating bin Laden. But former CIA director Michael Hayden, while saying “there is no way to confirm” that information obtained by “enhanced interrogation” was the “decisive” intelligence in locating bin Laden, insists that such information “helped” lead to bin Laden.
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey goes further: Khalid Sheik Mohammed “broke like a dam” under harsh techniques, including waterboarding, and his “torrent of information” included “the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden,” perhaps the one central to the movie’s narrative.
The film has certainly offended the sensibilities of some liberals in Hollywood, leading to the contention by some that the Academy subbed Bigelow in the Best Director category, despite nominating Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture.
That led Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, to issue a statement on Friday, in particular after a member of the Academy — the actor who played Miles Dentrell on the '80s hit show Thirtysomething — said recently that he thought the film promoted torture.
"Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture. To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda. This film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an Artist's right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is. While we fully respect everyone's right to express their opinion, this activity is really an affront to the Academy and artistic creative freedom. This attempt to censure one of the great films of our time should be opposed. As Kathryn Bigelow so appropriately said earlier this week, 'depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.' We believe members of the Academy will judge the film on its true merits and will tune out the wrongful and misdirected rhetoric."
The bottom line? Zero Dark Thirty is an intense thriller about the chase for the man at the head of Al-Qaeda. It's long, but worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
But is it also devoid of moral context, as the New Yorker's Mayer wrote? Probably.