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Zero Dark Thirty: Controversy Over Truth and Fiction

How Much Truth is Too Much Truth in a Narrative Feature?

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Zero Dark Thirty: Controversy Over Truth and Fiction

Zero Dark Thirty - Jessica Chastain as Maya

Sony Pictures
Assorted influencers in the real world, including journalists, filmmakers and public officials, are giving unusual scrutiny to a narrative feature, Zero Dark Thirty, asking the question "How much truth is too much truth in a fiction film -- especially when the film purports to be truth-based?"

That question and several others are at the heart of ongoing controversy surrounding filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow's critically acclaimed narrative feature about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

This is the sort of controversy that usually flows around documentaries, especially those in which filmmakers take strong stands on current social and political issues or reveal shocking new information about an event or issue that everyone assumed had already been covered, digested, understood.

In Zero Dark Thrity, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seem to remain entirely neutral in their fictionalized depiction of historic events leading up to and following the death of Bin Laden.

The film presents brutally realistic and utterly convincing terrorist attacks, covert raids and torture sequences, but filmmakers Bigelow and Boal refrain from interpreting or commenting on events. They neither condone nor condemn the efficacy or impropriety of the way things are going or what their characters are doing.

The controversy about the film really has to do with the behavior of the fictionalized CIA agents, and how their behavior might be interpreted by audiences, influencing their opinions about counter-terrorist policies and practices -- especially about the 'enhanced interrogation' of prisoners.

The controversy seems to call for a bit of deconstruction, a look at what's true and what's not true in this truth-based fiction that will probably be taken to be factual and assumed to be 'of record' by countless numbers of people who see the film and derive a good part of their knowledge about the world from whatever they witness on the screen.

What they see in Zero Dark Thirty is the condensation of ten years of the CIA's efforts to track and terminate Osama Bin Laden into 157 minutes of tightly woven action thriller that concludes with what everyone knows to have happened: the world's Public Enemy #1 was assassinated by a team of U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.s -- Team 6, to be specific -- in a covert raid conducted in May of 2011.

Along with a sense of relief, the long awaited news of Bin Laden's demise brought to the public an overload of factual reports and editorial commentaries, covering all the angles of the who, what, where, when, and why of events leading up to the terrotist's death and of the aftermath.

Still, Zero Dark Thirty puts a new spin on the story, one that has caused the concerns that have spurred the controversy over the film.

As scripted by journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, the film frames historic events as a sort of character arc for one CIA agent, Maya, who seizes the search for Bin Laden as her personal crusade, and considers his death to be her this-is-why-I-was-put-on-Earth mission.

Who is Maya, and is she a real protagonist in actual historic events? Was there really a singularly determined woman who brought down the kingpin terrorist who had eluded everyone else in the world -- save for a few of his most trusted terrorist conspirators -- for a decade?

According to the film's press collateral, Maya is based on an actual CIA agent, a woman whose real identity will remain classified because of the covert nature of her work. (As an interesting aside, Maya is the Hindu word for 'illusion. Get it?)

Actually, Boal's tightly woven script is all about the Bin Laden mission, about Maya doing whatever is necessary to get the job done. The storyline is driven primarily by her motivation and actions.

But, the script reveals few of her personal details, and whatever specifics are given, are presented incidentally: she comments that she was recruited right out of high school; others refer to her as 'a real killer.'

We see through Maya's actions that the latter characterization -- intended to be complimentary -- is accurate. Her determination is absolute. There is nothing she will not say or do to accomplish her mission -- including mouthing off to her bosses and participating in the 'enhanced interrogation' of men suspected of having ties to Osama Bin Laden.

Played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, Maya shows the kind of passion, smarts, courage, determination and grit that really grab audiences in their gut. We like her. We think she's righteous. We want her to succeed. We need for her to succeed.

Chastain's performance is so believable that it seems to hardly matter whether Maya's actions and dialogue match those of the real life heroine -- let's call her Agent X -- upon whom Maya is modeled.

We won't know much about Agent X until the distant future when classified CIA documents pertaining to the death of UBL are declassified and made public -- and another movie on the subject, perhaps a documentary with archival footage and reenactments, may be produced.

Until such time, many moviegoers will probably think of Jessica Chastain's Maya and her actions in Zero Dark Thirty as an accurate representation of the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Wait a minute.

Can the public in general and, to be more specific, moviegoers really be so naïve, gullible and/or dumbed down that they don't differentiate fiction from fact? That they blur the borders between reality and make believe in the movies? Yes.

Audiences absorb much of the information they receive from narrative features as factual, especially when the films are marketed as truth-based. Even more so when the subject is profoundly important, something related to their sense of personal wellbeing and social welfare. Something like 9/11 terrorist attacks and debilitating fear that legions of suicide bombers are coming to inflict further desecration.

With terror about terrorism looming in their psyches, moviegoers are eager to absorb the Zero Dark Thirty narrative as the conclusion of a difficult and painful period, the successful finish of a frustrating mission, a well-deserved win for us, the good guys.

What's wrong with that? Isn't Zero Dark Thirty just an appealing and harmlessly reassuring pat on the back? A palliative spoonful of sugar that maes the world seem to be a sweeter and safer place?

Not so, according to several prominent social and political commentators, activists, and public officials who've articulated concerns that certain aspects of the story of Bin Laden's demise, as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, are dangerously misleading.

Particularly at issue is the film's depiction of the CIA's use of 'enhanced interrogation' -- aka torture -- to extract useful information from suspected terrorists held incognito at 'black sites' such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, places where 'enhanced interrogation' has been investigated in documentary films, including Errol Morris'a href="http://documentaries.about.com/od/revie2/gr/standardoperat.htm"Standard Operating Procedure and Alex Gibney's Taxi To The Dark Side.

In fact, Gibney is among those who've taken exception to the way in which 'enhanced interrogation' is shown in Zero Dark Thirty, as what seems to be an acceptable and most effective way to get prisoners to divulge their secrets. In his commentary on the Huffington Post, Gibney presents a compelling argument that the torture shown in Zero Dark Thirty not only fails to produce results, it sets moviegoers up to lower their standards about the morality and ethics of 'enhanced interrogation.'

In opposition, journalist Mark Bowden, author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, affirms in The Atlantic that 'enhanced interrogation' was essential tp extract information that lead agents to Bin Laden's hiding place, and praises Bigelow and Boal for including realistic, hard-to-watch torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty.

The most brutal torture scenes occur early in the film, when CIA interrogators -- including Maya -- water-board a prisoner, depriving him of sleep, stuffing him into a wooden box half the size of his body, strip him naked except for a dog collar and make him crawl on the floor like a mongrel.

But, in the movie, these painful and humiliating punishments do not cause the prisoner to give the agents any coherent information. It is after the torture has stopped and the prisoner is being treated gently that he divulges something of value, the identity of an important Bin Laden associate.

So, whose interpretation of the film's accuracy and efficacy is correct?

I'd guess that only Agent X knows for sure. And, since we don't know who she is, we can't get answers from her, not by any means.

We can wonder, however, whether it was she or someone in her inner circle who disclosed details about 'enhanced interrogation' to Bigelow and Boal, or whether the torture, as shown, is an example of enhanced narrative.

Government officials are apparently curious about that, too.

While researching Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow and Boal had extensive access to secret service sources, and the Senate Intellingence Committee is now investigating the filmmakers' contacts with their government sources to determine whether they were given inappropriate access to classified documents.

Perhaps the ongoing controversy about Zero Dark Thirty is exacerbated by the film's documentary patina. Not only has Zero Dark Thirty been heavily marketed as truth based, the film looks like the ultimate reenactment, and reenactment is a device used frequently by documentary filmmakers, one to which documentary viewers have become quite accustomed, and seem to accept as though they were watching the real event.

So, we're back to considering how audiences process the information they receive from movies and how ready, willing and able they are to accept fictionalized accounts of historic events as truthful representations, and how their opinions and outlook are influenced by what they've seen at the cinema.

Is there danger that moviegoers who live in terror of the threat of terrorism will think after seeing Zero Dark Thirty that we were able to wipe out Osama Bin Laden because an Al Qaeda suspect was tortured until he told us exactly what we needed to know? Or, if torture works effectively on terrorists, wouldn't it work well in other situations , too?

Those questions may seem silly, but if there were no concerns about the answers to them being yes, there would be no controversy about Zero Dark Thirty.

The controversy is, in effect, verification of the fundamental notion that movie audiences absorb information, get ideas and form opinions based on their movie experiences, and that cinema plays an important role in shaping our ideology and forming our social norms.

The controversy is an acknowledgement that spoonfuls of sugar served up to sooth moviegoers' personal anxieties can inadvertently feed viewers some bad ideas that can become bitter pills for society.

Fortunately that unfortunate conversion doesn't seem to be on Zero Dark Thirty's agenda, thanks in large measure to the vital public debate the film is stimulating about all of the issues mentioned above, including the representation of truth in cinema.

There's little or no debate, however, about whether Zero Dark Thirty is a well crafted film. In fact, the highly acclaimed production is likely to receive multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Bigelow, Best Original Screenplay for Boal, and Best Actress for Chastain, among other nods.

The 2013 Oscar nominations will be announced on January 10, the day before Zero Dark Thirty's release expands to theaters nationwide.

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Film Details

  • Title: Zero Dark Thirty
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • U.S. Theatrical Release Date: January 11, 2013
  • Running Time: 157 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Locations: Manimajra Fort, Chandigarh, Punjab, India (Abottabad, Pakistan); Patiala, Punjab, India; Amman, Jordan (Islamabad, Pakistan); Chandigarh, Punjab, India
  • Language: English
  • Production Country: USA
  • Distribution Company: Columbia Pictures
  • Trailer

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