How true is "ZD30"?

Beyond its discussion of torture, Bigelow and Boal's new film challenges the importance of historical accuracy

Published December 14, 2012 4:06PM (EST)

Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow    (AP/Chris Pizzello/Invision)
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow (AP/Chris Pizzello/Invision)

A number of film critics have already described "Zero Dark Thirty" as opening to a black screen and the haunting soundtrack of recorded phone calls from the World Trade Center towers as they collapsed on 9/11. It doesn't. The movie opens to white text against a black background: "Based on first hand accounts of actual events," it reads.

Debate over what the film does — the politics and ethics it might expound — are already fraught, not least because the project's pitch is steeped in truth claims about "actual events." "Zero Dark Thirty" (ZDT) director Kathryn Bigelow told the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.’’ The text that opens the movie is carefully worded in line with this idea of a journalistic attempt. It doesn't present itself as "a true story" or a totalizing narrative. And in this much we can endeavor to hold "Zero Dark Thirty" to account; we can ask, at least, do the events it depicts have such a basis?

Of course, the big question driving much criticism of the movie is whether it justifies torture. The argument is rooted in the premise that ZDT presents information gleaned from "enhanced interrogation" as crucial in leading the CIA to Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Supporters of the film claim there is some ambiguity even within the film's universe about how torture "worked" in the bin Laden hunt. But certainly, there is the suggestion that a crucial lead — the name "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti," the pseudonym used by bin Laden's courier — is discovered through the brutal torture of a character named Ammar. We see Ammar repeatedly waterboarded, beaten, dragged around on a dog's leash, naked from the waist down, left to fester in his own feces. In a key plot development, CIA agents trick Ammar into giving up a list of names by convincing him he had already revealed information in a tortured haze; Abu Ahmed is on the list.

Does this correlate with existing accounts of how Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti came to be on the CIA's radar? Filkins notes that the film seems to have "strayed" here: "According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding." A joint statement from Feinstein, D-Calif., and committee member Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., released last April, counteracts the narrative (propounded by the CIA's former Deputy Director of Operations Jose Rodriguez) that information from detainees led to the courier. Levin and Feinstein stated as "the facts":

CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the agency discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.

But words appear to be carefully chosen here too and don't necessarily undermine ZDT's account of things. Indeed, in the film, none of the detainees gives al Kuwaiti's real name (Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed) or location. Feinstein and Levin's statement does not preclude that a code name was given up. And -- albeit in the vastly compressed time frame of a two and a half hour movie -- ZDT shows that endless file-sifting and phone-tracking provided the courier's real name and location, in line with Feinstein and Levin's statement that "CIA officers and their colleagues throughout the Intelligence Community sifted through massive amounts of information, identified possible leads, tracked them down."

CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, who has authored the forthcoming "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, From 9/11 to Abbottabad," offered useful insight into this particular issue in a Tuesday article on He points out that "in real life, the character known as Ammar in the film is quite similar to Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi whom al Qaida was grooming to be the 20th hijacker in the months before the 9/11 attacks." According to Bergen, "It was al-Qahtani who supplied the CIA with what may have been the first clue that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti had some importance inside al Qaida." However, Bergen stresses important nuances absent from and in conflict with the film's hurried linear plot progression:

From the secret summaries of al-Qahtani's Guantanamo interrogations made public by WikiLeaks, at some point, it's not exactly clear when, he told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was part of the inner circle of al Qaida's leaders. Another al Qaida member named Hassan Ghul who was also subjected to coercive interrogation techniques in a CIA secret prison told his interrogators at some point — when, it is also not clear — that the mysterious Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was one of bin Laden's couriers.

Balanced against this, harsh techniques including waterboarding were also used by the CIA on two of the most significant leaders of al Qaida: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, as well as his successor as No. 3 in al Qaida, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both these al Qaida leaders gave up disinformation about the Kuwaiti to their interrogators. ("Zero Dark Thirty" shows al-Libi lying to his interrogators about the Kuwaiti.)"

Bergen notes that "it still took another eight years after the interrogation of the 20th hijacker, al-Qahtani, to find bin Laden," highlighting a misleading aspect of ZDT related to its form more than its content: A major movie, which unsurprisingly gives more screen time to shocking torture scenes than to those of CIA flacks sifting through files, elevates the relevance of information gathered through enhanced interrogation. As Bergen wrote, "These visceral scenes are, of course, far more dramatic than the scene where a CIA analyst says she has dug up some information in an old file that will prove to be a key to finding bin Laden" -- a scene that can't be verified but that makes the highly plausible point that a file on Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed was already tucked away in the unwieldy backlog of CIA files.

The question of truth, or at least accuracy, in ZDT is further complicated by the narrative focus on one female CIA agent's unrelenting, all-consuming drive to find bin Laden. Protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) consistently says that "detainee reports" (the fruits of torture) led her to the Abbottabad compound, a contested claim even within the film (after all, we see a younger, eager agent — deus ex machina — hand Maya the all-important file, dug up through interrogation-free research, revealing al Kuwaiti to be Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed).

The Washington Post reported this week that Maya appears to be based on a real-life CIA analyst whose identity is classified but who reportedly did consult film executives and was indeed considered a central figure in the CIA's hunt. As the woman cannot speak out publicly, there's no way to verify whether she held Maya's belief that detainee reports were all important. The Post did note, however, that there may be inaccuracies in the film's depiction of Maya as a celebrated hero within the agency.

The real-life CIA agent's career, the Post reported, has been more complicated: "Over the past year, she was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay." However, the film's depiction of Maya as a lone voice pushing for the bin Laden hunt to advance, in the face of increasing obstruction from colleagues, correlates with an email cited by the Post in which the real-life agent railed against the agency when she was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and others were also given awards. "You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award,” she wrote, according to a former official who spoke to the Post.

Like a good journalistic report, ZDT wields many verifiable details and statistics to lend itself legitimacy. Numerous accounts of events, for example, have borne out the fact that teams of CIA analysts expressed significant uncertainty as to whether bin Laden was hiding in the Abbottabad compound. In the film, James Gandolfini, playing the defense secretary who is not explicitly named as Leon Panetta, hears from agents including Ammar's main interrogator that they were only 60 percent certain that bin Laden was there (only Maya expresses 100 percent certainty). This doubt was very much part of the real-life narrative, as "Showdown" author David Corn wrote in the Daily Beast last April (offering details on President Obama's deliberations absent in the film):

Panetta reported that the intelligence community had conducted a red team test exercise, in which analysts who had not previously worked on the bin Laden case evaluated the intelligence that had been collected. The CIA had earlier told Obama that its analysts had concluded there was a 60 to 80 percent certainty that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound. The red team ended up with lower odds: 40 to 60 percent.

Several of Obama’s national security advisers were worried by the red team results and wondered why the confidence level was lower. Michael Leiter, the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, believed the CIA had inflated the case. But the president showed little interest in calibrating the difference between the two conclusions.

“My impression was that he viewed this as a 50-50 case,” Rhodes later said. “He knew there would always be a significant chance that the intelligence was not correct and he would have to live with the downside risk.”

The film is full of other accurate details that can be pinpointed and fact-checked. Bigelow has said, for example, that the replica of bin Laden's compound built for the film was "entirely real — the lights went on, the doors locked and every room was arranged exactly according to the research."

But it's not enough to ask whether the details and events in ZDT accurately respond to real happenings. Satisfaction over that sort of accuracy would miss the crucial question of how the film presents its facts and the issues that arise from this. ZDT offers up a dramatic narrative structured around an end point, which is already known to the viewer: We know before the film starts how the bin Laden hunt story ends. Linear historical narratives based around end points always risk making the events leading up to that designated end point appear necessary -- like things couldn't have played out any other way. ZDT not only offers a linear narrative structured around a known end point, but it does it with unrelenting tension and overwhelming aesthetic force. Everything we see on the screen, every piece of information we see the CIA gather, even every mistake we see the characters make, is part of a plot inexorably driving toward its own conclusion — bin Laden in a body bag. Every event in the film up until bin Laden's death appears as a necessary link in the causal chain that gets us to that infamous bloodied corpse.

Herein, I think, lies the real problem with the depiction of torture in ZDT. You can't ethically tell the story of the hunt for bin Laden without mentioning the CIA's profligate use of enhanced interrogation. But nor can you make a major film with a basic linear narrative and a universally known ending without every part of that narrative seeming to be a necessary link in a chain that leads to the conclusion. Whether you agree that it glorifies torture or not, a movie so structured around one inevitable end point, torture — even the torture that throws up no leads — unavoidably appears to be a necessary aspect of the bin Laden hunt simply by virtue of being included in the narrative. But, again, it's not as if you can exclude CIA torture from the bin Laden hunt narrative. And so the truth or accuracy of the movie is inextricably tangled with claims of necessity.

Bigelow told the New Yorker's Filkins that the project aimed to be "almost" journalistic and screenwriter Mark Boal added, "it’s a movie, not a documentary." ZDT is by no means the first movie to inject a certain inexorability into the representation of actual events. And in some way, the historical determinism in Bigelow and Boal's film makes ZDT an even more truthful reflection of the bin Laden hunt, which, in real life, had a deterministic narrative of its own — the capture of Bin Laden, even when it seemed a distant possibility, was always already an end point by which all actions leading up to it would be framed.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

MORE FROM Natasha Lennard