Zero Dark Thirty: the dangers of blurring the lines between truth and fiction

Ten years compressed into 150 minutes...

aka, the Hunt for Usama Bin Laden, compressed into 150 minutes…

Most Americans probably recognise Zero Dark Thirty as a highly acclaimed film that was nominated for a bevy of awards, including Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. It also averages a score of 93% at Rotten Tomatoes, which is a good indication of what the film critics think. Admittedly, it is a good film; beautifully shot and capped with tense actions scenes. The raw frustration of Maya, the main character representing all the analysts who must remain nameless to us, was palpable and added well to the drama. But what stays in one’s mind the most are the torture scenes – which lasted for about thirty minutes – and what the film seems to say about them.

I remember walking out of Zero Dark Thirty pondering the efficacy of torture. To put it bluntly, I felt that the film had argued that it was justified, because the presentation suggested that it had produced a crucial breakthrough in the quest for the man ultimately behind the 9/11 WTC attacks.

The truth, according to several people more closely involved in the film-making process, is a lot more critical of that CIA detainee program. They point out that torture techniques did not produce the most important pieces of information in the hunt: the detainee who gave up the existence of Usama’s right hand gave no further useful information, despite being subsequently tortured. Rather, the journey to capture Usama involved all the techniques that the CIA could bring to bear.

These techniques – including combing through piles of documents and tapes at the CIA, and on-the-ground surveillance to track a man who was incredibly wary of leaving any traces – are depicted in the film, but it’s the thirty minutes of cruel torture that will stay in most people’s mind. And, that’s dangerous because it encourages people to think that the end justifies the means. Viewer, beware.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

6 Responses to Zero Dark Thirty: the dangers of blurring the lines between truth and fiction

  1. HoshiKira says:

    I agree. I don’t think we are ever going to get accurate movies on politics though, not even in 50 years time. It’s still very “odd” that the Bush administration couldn’t accomplish what the Obama did, and they had 7 years and 2 wars. The closest I came to believe what a movie had to say about politics these days was Game Change, but Sarah Palin is a rather simple character/person to analyze… Julianne Moore did a great job portraying her.

    I’d defend some of the critics at least, in that what they look for in a movie is not the truth, but how the film works overall. Sometimes they miss, but a lot of the times they are right on what is at least good, in terms of film making and what isn’t. I like indie movies, and if they have famous actors in them, fans are likely to defend these films and even call them great works of art, that is the area where critics are most needed. I just watched Charlie Countryman and I felt even the critics were downplaying how bad the movie truly was (Evan Rachel Wood’s acting was terrible for example).

    Sadly, movies are not the only influence people have on subjects like torture, they already have the media and tons of exploitation books. A lot of my old friends enjoyed conspiracy theories and would go on end about “the truth” regarding different historical events where others, myself included, knew that was not how it happened…

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    • karice says:

      True, we probably will never get accurate movies or shows on politics. There’ll always be some sort of spin on them to make them more dramatic and arresting. One thing I forgot to note in the post itself, however, was that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty were touting it as a ‘documentary film’, giving it a veneer of authenticity that it really should not have. It’s a movie, not a documentary.

      That said, maybe it could serve as a good reminder that even documentaries present stories that their producers want to show. E.g. Michael Moore’s stuff (Supersize Me, and the one about guns). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary that looks at all sides of an issue – I doubt it’s even possible to produce such a piece in the first place!

      Sadly, movies are not the only influence people have on subjects like torture, they already have the media and tons of exploitation books. A lot of my old friends enjoyed conspiracy theories and would go on end about “the truth” regarding different historical events where others, myself included, knew that was not how it happened…

      What is the truth, though? Or more pertinently, is it knowable? Personally, I think that there are incidents/events that happen and for certain reasons, and that would be the ‘truth’ people seek. But I don’t think that the ‘truth’ can ever fully be known (except perhaps by a higher being), because we simply do not have the capacity to find out everything about any incident.

      Though, of course, that doesn’t mean that anything could have happened – there are limits to our fantasies!

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      • HoshiKira says:

        Oh, well that changes the case of course. It’s kind of like a horror movie claiming to be based on facts, except worse…

        I like John E. Douglas, former head of the BAU at the FBI and the documentaries he is in. There was one about the Lindberg baby where he investigated and looked at all likely sides of the story without giving us an answer, but rather a summary. I like him, because he always notes the victims and the reason he worked hard as a criminal profiler was to give them justice. West of Memphis is biased of course, but he and a few other experts do give their all to break down just the facts. He is biased, but in this case I can’t blame him. I still respect that he took the job not for the 3 now grown men in prison, but for the boys who were killed.

        There is another one, Jones Town: Paradise Lost. The reason I like this over the others is that one of Jim Jones’ sons speaks. The people making the movie might be biased, but he was an insider and makes very, very good points not to judge the people for what happened, he did loose friends and family that day, his mother included.

        And there is Jack the Ripper The Definitive Story. Using all the information we have to date, they recreate the streets of London at the time, summing up the events and showing us how people would have seen it. It also doesn’t give an answer at the end, or hinting at the most likely suspect. The best ripper docs will always end with the mostly likely killer being someone unkown, if it was a single person at all, some nameless, faceless local, who blended in.

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      • karice says:

        I hadn’t heard of any of those documentaries you mentioned (I simply haven’t really followed documentaries for a good few years), so thanks for that – I’ll try to check them out one day. I did read up on what happened in Jones Town, and I think one of the difficulties about getting to all sides about incidents like that is that most of us will never truly be able to understand how those people thought. That said, I do know someone who did get drawn into a cult for some time…

        Jack the Ripper is one of those mysteries/cases that will draw sleuths for years to come, don’t you think? I’d love to know who really did it, but I guess it’s something that can never be known now…

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  2. Yes, the biggest problem with torture is that there is great incentive to say anything just to make the torture stop. Interestingly enough, the people conducting torture recognize this to be true also and may not believe statements that may be true as well.

    I remember back in high school (a good 12 years ago) watching a Frontline episode where it was revealed that prior to 9/11 Philippine interrogators received information about plans to crash planes into buildings. However, the idea seemed so ridiculous at the time, that information wasn’t acted upon.

    Frankly, it seems that the main purpose of torture isn’t to collect information, but to exact punishment on captured targets. When you take a step back, it’s not a reliable method for information at all because you’ve got four possibilities for error: 1) person my not actually have the information 2) person might give fake information to make torture stop 3) interrogator might come into session with a mistaken belief on the information and steer the torturee into agreeing with interrogator to make torture stop 4) accurate information might be given, but not believed.

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    • karice says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hadn’t thought about it to that extent, but what you’ve written definitely makes sense to me, especially “it seems that the main purpose of torture isn’t to collect information, but to exact punishment on captured targets.” What really sickened me about Abu Ghraib was how much glee some of the torturers showed in what they were doing…it was like they’d decided that the people they were torturing weren’t human.

      That said, I do think that people working in intelligence agencies often have a thankless job, in that most people will keep questioning their necessity as well as the way they do things…

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