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I've worked for a big multi-national, lived abroad for several years, travelled a lot, now in politics. Married once but separated; no kids. Generally utilitarian except for minority rights.


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JANUARY 22, 2013 8:31AM

Zero Dark Thirty – How Important Is Accuracy?

Rate: 22 Flag

          I saw it recently and while it was quite engrossing, I found that the scene-to-scene continuity was at times choppy and the inclusion of some episodes seemed arbitrary and tangential to the main story line.  For example, there’s a bit about the London transit bombings but nothing about the Bali nightclub ones that killed many more.

          But my point was not so much to write a review.  It was to raise the issue of the extent to which it was an accurate portrayal of events and how this affects one’s aesthetic judgment of this or any film.

          I’ve little doubt that the torture as depicted was very close to the truth.  If anything what was on the screen wasn’t as horrific as what actually happened.  I certainly drew the conclusions that:
A - Prisoners were tortured
B – Some information was obtained that led to another lead that led to bin Laden.

          Leaving aside the morality of torture, whether or not it was the most effective way of obtaining the information is another question.  I’ve heard persuasive cases to the contrary.  Yet another question is whether the torture depicted in 0D30 actually produced information leading to bin Laden.  I’m in no position to know but apparently Senators Feinstein and Levin disagree.  Wherever that truth lays, it’s plausible in the movie setting.  You can find a fuller discussion of the torture issue in Steven Rockford's blog here.

          It was a smaller scene that got me thinking about accurate portrayals.  When the protagonist, Maya, has what appears to be her first meeting with a few CIA higher-ups, she isn’t called on to speak until the meeting wraps up.  Then the senior guy asks “And who are you?”
“I’m the motherfucker who found bin Laden.” is her reply.

          Now, the men in the meeting didn’t talk anything like that, nor was there any indication that they customarily did so when Maya wasn’t around.  So her outburst was devoid of context and seemed improbable.  But, if it actually happened then I felt I could excuse the director for including it.

          Something seems wrong here.  Ought the aesthetic integrity of a movie (somewhat fictionalized or not) to depend upon whether or not the events portrayed actually happened?  Intellectually I’m inclined to say no.  If it adds something to the story, if it entertains or enlightens, then why should anyone care whether in real life it took place precisely as shown?  Unfortunately, I sometimes react as though it matters.

          Let me cite a couple of different examples.  The Hurricane covers the life of Ruben Carter with his wrongful murder conviction being the central story.  In that movie there’s a police chief in Patterson, NJ who is Carter’s nemesis and persecutor over a couple of decades.  In reality there were several police chiefs.  Some had no dealings with Carter and some were neutral in their treatment.  I could excuse telescoping them into one for narrative simplicity and the plausibility of some chiefs hounding him.  OK, so historical accuracy carries no weight here.

          Carter is also shown losing his one title fight by decision.  In the film it’s portrayed as a travesty with the announcer saying something like “In my 20 years of boxing I’ve never seen such a robbery.”

          In fact, the decision was uncontroversial and prompted by the film, some boxing experts watched and scored it again and came to the same conclusion as the judges.  This irritated me no end.  Embellishing the discrimination Carter must have faced prior to the murder seemed like cheating.  It was as though a more nuanced portrayal of his background would have somehow spoiled the drama of his wrongful conviction and eventual acquittal.  Plus it’s unfair to Joey Giardello, the champ who defeated Carter.  So historical accuracy counts a great deal here.

          Another movie I greatly enjoy is They Died With Their Boots On.  It’s the life and times of General Custer.  Because he is played by the dashing Errol Flynn, Custer is depicted as a noble friend of the Indians who is betrayed and manipulated into fighting with them when he only wanted to protect their land claims.  None of this historical balderdash bothers me though I’m unsure why not.  Maybe because I’ve learned that Hollywood movies, especially those from the 30s and 40s, were seldom historically accurate and maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of Errol Flynn.

          If anyone knows how to sort through this confusion, please don’t keep it to yourself.

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We liked the film very much and we noted all that you raise here. I think one reason I like it is precisely bc it was a little choppy, mirroring Maya's ups and downs throughout the hunt.

I enjoyed the film too JW but felt the editing was at times sloppy. And I think it's fair criticism to note that the torture is presented matter-of-factly. Chastain would be a worthy pick for Best Actress.
There always seems to be inconsistencies with films. Canadians were so upset about the box of wrong in Argo they protested as Tony Mendez was actually in Iran one single day. Not only that the Iranians are pissed off about it they are going to do their own film which I am sure is not going to be right and maybe they will says they found bin Laden.:)
In the end it is all about selling a ticket and I doubt we will ever find an accurate movie.
Hi Linda. I guess if it's very accurate it becomes more of a dramatic re-enactment. I'm just not very sure how to explain when accuracy is relevant to the picture, though I suspect it's a rather complicated formula.
Personally, I find a lack of accuracy annoying, though not always morally objectionable, just sometimes.

The movie Amadeus: I had to explain to a friend that Mozart's late work isn't in Salieri's hand.

Here's a sillier one because it's based on fiction: The Prince of Tides leaves out the title character.
Zero Dark Thirty is, in my opinion, a spectacular film…and I think it should be a strong contender for both the Best Picture and Best Director awards at this year’s Academy Awards.

Does the film justify or glorify torture? I disagreed with Steven on that point…and we have left it as a disagreement. I think Katherine Bigalow decided to make a picture depicting the lead-up to the finding and killing of USB…and decided further to allow the viewers to make up their own minds about whether the decision to use torture was something with which they agree or disagree from a moral standpoint. She also left up to the viewer the decision of whether or not torture was effective or necessary…which are questions apart from the moral question. I think there was more than enough ambiguity on those questions in the movie to allow for individual interpretation.

I despise the fact that we stooped to torture, Abrawang. I think it is a blight on our history. Despite that, here is my last comment in Steven’s blog on the issue:

Thanks for responding to me, Steven. I don’t wanna argue with you on this, because I read every post you write and always come away with something to reflect on…often slightly altering my perspective on that “something.”

We just have two different opinions on what the movie did.

I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking there was anything good or effective about torture; in fact, I see just the opposite as the most likely take-away. I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking the interrogators using “enhances techniques” were anything but brutal animals—and I am perplexed that any reasonable person seeing that movie can come away thinking that we are a better nation now that we have adopted barbaric practices that we have previously scorned.

In any case, Harriett Beecher Stowe never mentioned Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, nor any other abolitionist in Uncle Tom’s Cabin…never once quoted anything that any of them said about abolishing slavery in the book. In fact, she didn’t really talk about abolition…she just showed the stench and inhumanity of slavery and the plight of the institution on the humans enslaved…and allowed that stark view to work its magic.

Would you consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin it to be a paean to the institution of slavery because Stowe did not mention those things…or do you see it as a book dedicated to eliminating the practice by showing it in all its true ugliness?

Can you see the efficacy of the tactic?

If this is, as you see it, a propaganda film justifying the Bush/Cheney atrocities…it would be like Goebbels making a film justifying Hitler’s atrocities by constantly aiming his cameras on the people living in the death camps.
I saw that Maya MF line as highly probable, although it did come out of left field. She had been ignored by a room full of men for the entire meeting. I think she was letting them know she was not to be trifled with.

The quote was: “I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir.”

I was less bothered by the probability or non-probability of that…than the fact that Maya was asked to sit to the side rather than join the others at the table. But the being asked to sit at the side rather than at the table actually served to set up the “ I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir” remark.
All art is fiction, even documentaries. We are each limited by our own vision. One can include only facts and still tell a lie. Conversely, one can tell a story apart from the facts and tell the truth.

For example, by only showing a productive result from torture in a movie, you have therefore glorified it. By leaving out pertinent facts you betray the viewer. In this case it would be examples of innocent people we tortured and turned into enemies, time wasted on false leads, where does it end, etc., i.e. what is the total cost of torture? The reason even documentaries are fiction is because facts are always left out.

As Picasso said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." We know the truth when we see it but most of the time we lie to ourselves and many a dollar has been made profiting off those lies and wishful thinking. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a perfect example of that.
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I was thinking the same way Lezlie and Frank expressed in their comments that the Maya character likely was righteously pissed or maybe amused and decided to show the men that the "little woman" they had ignored was the very person they should have deferred to initially. Maybe that's the way she ordinarily talked or maybe she just wanted them to know she knows that's how they talk in the locker room.

I enjoyed this discussion.
Abra, I didn't see the film so I can't really respond directly to your qualms about the "truth" of the events. I can say, that emotional truth is more important to me, as an audience member, unless it's a documentary. Sometimes the precise truth can be boring. Not sure if this helps at all.
[r] I shared more about this on steve r's blog. i was prejudiced about the movie going in, but to me artistically it is not such a hot movie re clunky (you are right) and lazy script development, willfully confusing camera and lighting work and no character development. I think honest "context" is more important than accuracy on specifics. writing about history holds a responsibility but there is some artistic license necessary for drama. Bigelow jumped the shark. in this case to me it is an amoral propaganda film using torture-porn titillation where real drama should be. manipulating actual tapes in a pathetic attempt to heavy handedly link the dots between 9/11 and bin Laden's capture (that isn't even done effectively imho) as well as justify and normalize torture and assassination which are against international law as well as US law without showing the larger context of the CIA community and its covert illegal activities as well as the HORRORS perpetrated by the US and the thousands of innocent people dying or damaged by the violent military viciousness of the US as well as the dooming setups to our own trusting troops too often on their hamburger hills dying, maimed psychologically and physically for a gratuitous corporate-agenda war and the fat cat celebrity generals dooming them showing up on Meet the Press. This is not communicated to the viewer. So it is a propaganda film. The problem is not depicting torture -- torture was a reality though it is not effective but even if it were it is immoral and illegal -- it is the framing of it and the context. The torturers tell the victims if they tell them the truth the torture will end. Bullshit. We know from the Gitmo nightmare that many innocents were tortured and often the torture didn't end until the victims gave disinformation the craven government and military wanted to cause more chaos, mayhem, destruction of human lives. Some were tortured to death. Some died in captivity. So much gratuitous evil. And our torturing has inspired and radicalized so many more enemies. There was not a moment of encouragement in the movie to empathize with a torturee. Poor Dan is tired of looking at naked bodies and gives up his torture job, poor Maya is getting exhausted from viewing torture and torture videos. Wow. Imagine that. Imagine what it is like for the victims? Not supposed to go there. American exceptionalism on steroids once again. White hats vs. black hats. No intimation of the amoral horrifying sloppiness of the rendition and torture program.

Bigelow cashed in with the corrupt cronies and getting seen by viewers from both sides of the controversy. Big bucks to sell your soul. Hollywood is a big propaganda factory and she betrayed consciously or unconsciously. As for the critics gaga for this poor and amoral pic, it depresses.

The motherfucker line is discordant for sure. First of all, we have seen no or little real emotion or self-disclosure from Maya throughout the entire movie except for the tears at the end which I found ridiculous and manipulative and lazy on part of the filmmaker. I hate how Bigelow book-ended the movie. Then there is the fact that a woman using the phrase motherfucker is jarring. Not a real feminist usage. Maya is a false-feminist hero. she is in a hyper-macho world and she is the worst kind of faux female role model trying to adopt macho characteristics which the filmmaker apparently sees as noble and good, she takes on the stoic, shut down emotions world the patriarchy demands from its soldiers that does not value empathy and connectedness and critical thinking. I think it was on the other hand very real -- her coming out with that word to try to get the men to listen to her even though it seemed pathetic or would to them in the real context but maybe not on screen -- in that it was surreal in a surreal community that was posing in the movie as the "norm". And she was trying to use the language of hyper-masculinity and was desperate at that moment to continue her "mission". It was the structure of her life all those years.

This country needs a paradigm shift to humanism. Too bad sell out females are taking us the other way, and setting up damaged characters as heroic ones. You can be damaged and heroic. Maya is damaged but not heroic imho. Being a cog in an evil matrix is not heroic, it is tragic and pathetic. In the larger context. Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai sent a tremendous message in going beyond the immediate task as a soldier/character to the broader context. Kathryn B. should rent it.

best, libby
kosh – Sometimes inaccuracy annoys me but sometimes it feel more like moral affrontery. Maybe when there’s a seeming injustice done to an important truth, which is why some folks feel that 0D30 implicitly condones torture.

Frank – No doubt it’s a very good film but from what I’ve seen this year, I’d vote for Lincoln.
You make an interesting case as to it not justifying torture. Maybe it’s left to the viewers but don’t you think most will come away with the impression that it was effective and therefore necessary? I agree she couldn’t very well ignore it.
And thanks for the correction on the quote. After being ihnored and marginalized that was one way of making sure she’d be remembered.

Lezlie – That’s a plausible explanation but at a meeting with bosses two or three orh chart boxes up on her? I’m still wrestling with this one.

cheshyre – You make good points about art and fiction but surely there are degrees, and significant ones at that. I think that Bigelow can be criticized by leaving something out re the torture, but that isn’t the same kind of inaccuracy as portraying Hurricane Carter as being robbed on a decision, or a movie a few years back showing American troops capturing the first Enigma machine when it really was the Poles.

Matt – You make a similar point as lezlie and Frank. Maya was marginalized, that’s clear enough. But she didn’t customarily talk like that elsewhere in the film. As I wrote in the blog, to me it makes a difference as to whether it happened like that, but I’m not wholly convinced it’s the right point of view.

Erica – What you call emotional truth is, I think, what I’d refer to as aesthetic coherence or integrity. No doubt there are other terms too. The Hurricane example of the several police chiefs being portrayed as one is perhaps an example.

libby – I’ll reply to you but need a bit more time to digest your remarks.

Thanks for an interesting discussion all.
Lots of material libby. We’re fairly close on the aesthetic merits of the film but whatever its artistic weaknesses, I felt engrossed throughout.

Your point about honest context trumping accuracy on specifics sounds right but I don’t always react like that – the Giardello-Carter decision being a small example.

I wouldn’t fault the film on omitting the linkage between 9/11 and bin Laden. It was already plenty long and the linkage was taken as a given.

Agreed that the effect of the film will be to justify torture to a good part of the audience, though I’ll take Bigelow at her word that that wasn’t her intent.

In general I don’t think it’s fair to criticize a movie for something it doesn’t try to do. It’s basically a quest or sojourn story arc. It doesn’t criticize much of the lies and posturing around, say, the Iraq misadventure of the overly harsh post 9/11 surveillance measures because those points were beyond the scope of this story. There was much about Vietnam that Apocalypse Now and Platoon didn’t cover but I wouldn’t hold that against them. Both, imo, succeeded artistically in telling the stories they set out to tell.

However, I realize that any “in general” statement necessarily admits of exceptions. In this case one could be that in telling a fairly central story of the post 9/11 events, too many of its negative aspects were overlooked and in consequence too many viewers will see everything in terms of a simple good guys-bad guys contest. I’m not sure that this is quite your argument, nor am I sure that I quite buy it, but it’s a point I’d like to consider more.

re the motherfucker line, a few others have tried to explain why it works, or makes sense in the context. I didn’t get that on first impression but you can’t always trust them.

Good point re Alec Guinness in Kwai, a fine film. But even in that one didn’t David Lean omit many decades of British colonialism? I don’t hold that against the movie but based on your line of argument, shouldn’t you?

Finally, a friendly if gratuitous suggestion. Could you please use shorter paragraphs and sentences? You load your writing with plenty of points and more breaks would make it easier to absorb.
Maybe I've seen too many action movies and I've come to expect real life to play out like one. Maybe I've watched my son play Call of Duty one too many times. And I'm definitely no movie critic. But - I found Zero Dark Thirty to be tedious and the climactic ending wasn't. I don't know how closely it stuck to the facts or how well the main players were represented by the actors who portrayed them, but it didn't work for me.

I think it would have been more effective as a documentary; I wasn't interested in all the behind the scenes machinations, not on the big screen. The main character, Maya - she seemed too young, too unbelievable, and I never got a sense that she was so utterly invested in finding bin Laden (again, this may be Hollywood's influence on me) . That's why to me the m.f. line was so jarring. It was like a little kid saying something naughty in front of a bunch of adults to get their attention. And through the entire movie I couldn't help but think, they should have gotten bin Laden a long time ago when it mattered, so that colored my feelings.

Seeing two planes full of all that military might descend on a primitive house full of children where no one put up a fight (and one of the planes malfunctions and goes down!) almost turned it into a comedy for me. I don't know if I'm making sense. I feel almost unpatriotic saying this, maybe even ignorant - my 14-year-old son loved every minute of it and wants to see it again - but I felt nothing after seeing it, not good, not bad, not disgusted, not amazed, not even incensed about the torture which I was bracing myself for (I have the feeling it's much uglier and more violent in real life - or as in the movie Unthinkable).
Maybe I missed something.
Thank you, Abrawang, with this solid article you have saved me some grief; this is exactly what I wanted to know. Excellent piece. R
thanks, abrawang. didn't intend to give you so much homework. i got carried away re running on since I have been intending to pull together a blog on DZT and you stimulated some prelim brainstorming. thank you.

Will try to remember shorter paragraphs.

I agree with Margaret's take on the movie not being as engaging as one would expect for all the raves. I also appreciate what she wrote about the strike on the compound at the end. Assassination strike to kill ... not capture ... and the horror and chaos of that -- having gone illegally into a sovereign country without permission, busting in and killing people who MAY be AQ enemy.

I remember John Brennan lied about the compound strike, too, tot he media saying there was a fire fight and bin Laden pulled a wife in front of him as a human shield. That was all bullshit, but the MO of the administration and military is lie if you can get away with it. And Obama even more than Bush administration uses secrecy and covert violence they try to keep from public awareness.

I myself believe bin Laden died long ago of natural causes probably. Why was the supposed bin Laden killed not captured and why was the body tossed into the ocean without deeper identification? Duh.

I am watching Dem Now about Dirty Wars and appreciate how that documentary sounds. Jeremy Scahill. Really digging into the CIA and JSOC covert and internationally illegal violence.

Re Bridge on River Kwai, I should have been more specific. The Alec Guinness character gets so obsessed with his mission to raise morale by building a bridge with the POWs that he almost sabotages the US soldiers blowing up the bridge to thwart the enemy because he has lost sight of the big picture, the full context.

Maya was super-focused on her mission and could not see that proverbial bigger "context". Having her as a human being deal with that, except for maybe 30 seconds at the end, I would have preferred and would have made her character more relate-able and heroic.

best, libby
This is NOT directed at you, Abrawang...

...but for some people, there will be a "grassy knoll" in every story.
The basic question has been around as long as "poetic license." I agree with you in that my tolerance for the amount of license taken is some complex formula depending on the story being told and what was changed for the sake of the story. To use your Hurricane Carter example, I can accept a composite sheriff, but saying that Carter won the fight is trying for gratuitous sympathy. Carter's legal problems are sympathetic enough.

In the accuracy vs. aesthetics debate, what's your take on "Triumph of the Will," Leni Riefenstahl's masterpiece? Personally I like the movie as a spectacular piece of filmmaking even while I'm trying not to choke on the fact that it's glorifying Hitler and Nazism.
Margaret – Your reaction to 0D30 was much like mine to The Hurt Locker. Your reactions to the depiction of Maya touch on the conundrum I’ve been wrestling with. Were the movie wholly fictional I might have reacted to her character much as I did to that Bond movie where Denise Richards plays a “nucular” scientist. But since I’d read that the Maya character was closely based on a real life CIA agent, I didn’t question the characterization.

I’m sure you’re right that as hard as it was to watch the torture scenes, some incidents were much worse in real life.

Thoth – Always glad to be of service sir.

libby – I think it’s unlikely bin laden died earlier. If memory serves, his surviving family members criticized the U.S. for murdering him. No one in the Pakistan government or military denied it was bin laden, though surely it would have saved them some embarrassment had it been someone else. And even the Republicans, who were desperate to make a major issue out of Fast and Furious and Benghazi, offered not a peep of skepticism.

Frank – fair enough, though sometimes there are grassy knolls.

stim – tough question. It’s artfully made and quite striking for its era. At the time it was made there was no war and no Holocaust so glorifying the Nazis wouldn’t have been quite as odious then as it seems now. But I agree with your main point. It’s hard to watch without becoming squeamish.
Sometimes when you know too much, it really warps your perspective. Take for example, anyone who lives in Los Angeles. To someone from Topeka, it's a glamour filled industry. To an Angeleno, it's close to selling aluminum siding. The Company Town.

Same thing holds true when you have the unusual hobby that I do of being a 40 year student looking of the CIA, looking from the outside in. ARGO was a classic case for me. There were times when I knew that Affleck had gotten it spot on. And there were other episodes that were totally bogus Hollywood for me.

I'm sure I'd have the same reaction with ZD30. The only thing that really matters is what the people in Topeka think about the movie.
The real qstn is: how awesome was 24?
onl – I’d like to hear more of your take on Argo. I understand that the Canadians’ role was underplayed, including one official who housed a few of the hostages and was written out completely.

Agreed that how much one knows affects one’s judgment. Many Harvard contemporaries of Zuckerberg were put off by minor (in my view) errors at the beginning of The Social Network. On that matte I was more like the folks from Topeka.

icythighs – 24’s formula had a good two or three run. After that it felt formulistic and increasingly ludicrous. For me it jumped the shark in that episode where Bauer “died”, was brought back to life and within a couple of hours was bouncing around as good as new.
This hits a nerve with me. While I am not usually bothered with telescoping characters into a single entity or some smaller smudges in non-essential accuracy that help the movie along, blatant disregard of facts in a historical film or book purporting to retell a non-fiction story really grate on me. Why bother making a film based on real life events if you’re just going to make stuff up? Why not just create a whole new story that’s “inspired” by the original story, as is sometimes done.

In terms of older historical movies, I can give plenty of passes simply because there were some things that couldn’t be brought into the picture at that time, be it owing to the Hays Code or general societal mores, but I am far more critical of this sort of thing in more modern movies
While I've heard some good things about this film, the premise - a CIA agent dedicating her entire life to killing one man - sounds downright disgusting. Regarding OBL himself, maybe I'm crazy, but I felt no satisfaction about assassinating the guy without any sort of trial - i.e. without any sort of thorough investigation into what really happened and how/why - nor has his death brought about any sort of closure to the so-called Global War on Terror. Au contraire, if you look at our current and future drone wars and other interventions. Pure opportunistic, populist, vote-driven revenge. So for the moment, I'll be giving this flick a miss.

Various – It’s a good thing that Alan commented as I had completely missed yours. And good to see you tilling these fields again. I’m with you on giving more of a pass to older movies. In some cases I wish they’d stuck closer to the truth as a lots of folks form historical impressions courtesy of Hollywood. The more I’ve considered it, the more I’ve reckoned that truth in historical movies is important insofar that no injustuice is done. I think that’s why smaller matters like the Giardello bout bothered me.

Alan – I imagine the agent had other projects along the way, that the bin Laden file was her main one, and that is what the movie focused on. It’s just as legit a subject matter as any other though I appreciate that just because something is historically accurate, or close enough to it, that in itself doesn’t mean it will be of interest to all audiences.

I doubt they would have learned much had there been a trial of bin laden. And it’s not completely clear that he could have been taken alive. I do agree with you on how subsequent events have played out.
Alan - I wasn't quite satisfied with my response to you. If I can paraphrase, one main objection to the movie is that it exalts a mission that doesn't deserve such exaltation. That is a fair point and I agree that assassinating bin Laden was more symbolic that practical to any ongoing purpose.
Yes, that was my point. While I certainly believe OBL needed to be brought to justice in some way, in my view a targeted killing is nothing to celebrate but instead undermines the notion of the rule of law, which we ought to be promoting. Otherwise, our "global war on terror" makes no sense whatsoever.