Director Kathryn Bigelow’s cinematic valentine to dogged CIA sisters doin’ it and taking out Osama Bin Laden for themselves, Zero Dark Thirty, was controversial long before it was released last December. Initially there were rumors the film would be released two months before the 2012 election, ideally placed to give Obama a Bin Laden-killing bump. The movie ended up being released a month after Obama won his second term, but neither that nor half a dozen Oscar nominations, nor a collection of plum reviews could make everyone forget that the CIA had a hand in the movie. Newly released memos obtained by Gawker’s Adrian Chen confirm that, and further detail the level of the agency’s involvement in the production.
As Sean A. McElwee noted last month at Antiwar, U.S. Army involvement in Hollywood is nothing new. CIA is newer, but that still happened previous to Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s production. Additionally, the difference between Army involvement in, say Pearl Harbor as opposed to Zero Dark Thirty is that the story of the former is much more widely known — there were thousands of witnesses to the Japanese attack — and has had sixty years to simmer. Plus, the incentive for filmmakers to work with military “minders’ is usually access to shiny Pentagon goods. Access in this case means access to the truth that rest of us are not permitted to know in its entirety.
We’re just a few days past the second anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden. And you don’t have to be Alex Jones to wonder if there aren’t a few things we just don’t know about the events that transpired that day. We certainly aren’t to be trusted with photographic proof that Bin Laden was killed just as they said.
As Chen reports, these memos — obtained through Freedom of Information requests — describe how CIA public officials “corrected” Bigelow and Boal on certain portrayals, after the latter “verbally shared” what was to take place in their film. Scenes changed after CIA input resulted in the main character (played by Jessica Chastain) shown not participating in the torture of a detainee, and the removal of a scene where a prisoner is threatened by a dog. As Chen points out:
The CIA might not have done it, but threatening detainees with dogs was a well-known feature of the War on Terror, even allowed in certain circumstances by U.S. Army interrogation manuals. The technique was pioneered in Guantanamo Bay and cruelly elaborated upon at Abu Ghraib. Some of the most disturbing photos from the Abu Ghraib scandal featured military dogs menacing naked prisoners.
Another scene changed had originally portrayed CIA officials getting drunk and being reckless with firearms, obviously something the CIA wouldn’t want on screen. And, most crucially, left unchanged — to Bigelow and Boal’s credit — were scenes of Chastain’s character putting together crucial intelligence by watching taped interrogations. The CIA PR person claimed that such things are not recorded, though supposedly didn’t ask for the scene’s removal. Chen reminds us:
(This is itself a lie of course—the CIA did record 92 tapes, totaling hundreds of hours, of the interrogation and torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. It subsequently destroyed them.)
Any of the changes that did take place could be true. Perhaps the still-covert agent “Maya” upon whom Chastain’s character was based never participated in torture. Not everyone in Intelligence is going to get their hands dirty in that way. And maybe the CIA didn’t use dogs. (Though why is that accusation worse than anything we know the CIA did?) The actual lie the CIA told was ignored by Boal and Bigelow.
What’s so wrong here? Just that the CIA has every reason in the world to guide the filmmakers into the best possible portrayal of their agency. Neither their suggestions — or “fact checks” if you prefer — nor the filmmakers’ end result can be trusted as a portrayal of reality. The CIA wanted to look better, and the filmmakers wanted access the rest of us lacked.
The killing of Bin Laden is much too new, and the circumstances around it are much too hazy. Bigelow and Boal’s talents were wasted on a movie that looks good, and feels gritty and “real,” but is impossible to watch without a feeling of being misled.