McCain, Dems slam "misleading" torture depiction in "Zero Dark Thirty"

The implication that torture helped lead to bin Laden's death is “factually inaccurate,” three Senators say

By Prachi Gupta - Jillian Rayfield
December 20, 2012 6:55PM (UTC)
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Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film that depicts the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, has been under fire for its torture scenes; many critics have gone so far as to say that the film “glorifies” torture by suggesting that information gained in the waterboarding scene led to the capture of bin Laden. Now, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., have written a letter  to Michael Lynton, the chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, calling the depiction of torture "misleading" and "factually inaccurate."

"We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" the Senators wrote. "We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden."


They continued:

As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

"'Zero Dark Thirty' is factually inaccurate," the letter adds, "and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative."

The New York Times reports:


Ms. Feinstein leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose Democratic staff members just completed a highly critical 6,000-page study of the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program, which began after the 9/11 attacks and was ended by President Obama in 2009. The report remains classified, but Ms. Feinstein has said it showed that information derived from waterboarding and other brutal techniques did not play a significant role in locating Bin Laden, who was killed in a raid by Navy SEALs in May 2011.

In an interview with TheWrap last week, Boal and Bigelow maintained that the movie was a journalistic endeavor, and that calling it “pro-torture” was “preposterous”:

We’re trying to present a long, 10-year intelligence hunt, of which the harsh interrogation program is the most controversial aspect. And it’s just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden. If you actually watch the movie, the detainee doesn’t say anything when he’s waterboarded. He gives them some information that’s new to them over the civilized setting of a lunch — and they go back to the research room and all that information is already there.

Added Bigelow, “Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was.”

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at

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Carl Levin Dianne Feinstein John Mccain Osama Bin Laden Senate Torture Zero Dark Thirty