Kathryn Bigelow: The Art of Darkness

To understand the controversy around Kathryn Bigelow's hit film Zero Dark Thirty, it helps to understand Kathryn Bigelow's kind of movie

  • Paola Kudacki for TIME

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    "Where there's clarity in the world, there's clarity in the film," Bigelow says. "Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. That's clarity. And where there's ambiguity in the world, there's ambiguity in the film." Bigelow is unambiguous in stating that she thinks torture is "reprehensible," but critics of Zero Dark Thirty object to what they see as a causal relationship between torture and the uncovering of bin Laden's lair. They've also cried foul that Bigelow — who calls Zero Dark Thirty "a reported film" — and Boal make claims to both its journalistic bona fides and its right to artistic license.

    "First, the interrogation scenes are inaccurate and overwrought and just plain wrong," says former CIA director Michael Hayden, who argues that the film conflates the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay with the more strictly controlled and clinical interrogation techniques he says were employed at CIA black sites. "Second, though I can't imagine Abbottabad happening without making use of information that we got from detainees, the linear, straight-line connection from that information to Abbottabad that the movie suggests is also overdone. And finally, it was far more of a team effort than Maya against the world." (Maya is based on a real-life CIA operative who tracked the courier over years; she is reportedly still active in the field and cannot be identified.)

    "It's a good and eminently watchable movie," says Robert McFadden, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent in charge and a senior vice president at the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy. "It's also disturbing and misleading." McFadden challenges Bigelow's decision to follow recordings of 9/11 victims just before their deaths with a fictionalized torture sequence. "To go from 'based on firsthand accounts' to the recordings — which are so visceral, which provoke such an emotional response — to the torture, I think most people would come away thinking, Yeah, we needed to do that."

    Also, McFadden says, "The average viewer would have to be left with the idea that torture — or enhanced interrogation techniques, depending on your perspective — were critical in putting together the mosaic that led to Osama bin Laden. From open-source reporting and from people with access to the information, we know that, no, that information did not come from torture."

    As high-ranking an official as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the picture is somewhat less clear. After Abbottabad, the then CIA director wrote to John McCain in a letter, "Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier's role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the 'only timely and effective way' to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively."

    Virtually everything about Zero Dark Thirty is debatable, according to Boal. "Even simple factual questions are being debated and litigated at the highest levels of government, between, for example, the Senate and the CIA," he says. "It's being debated among historians, among journalists, among politicians, even among those agencies. I've spoken to two people in the CIA who worked with the same prisoner, who had two totally different views of what got him to talk and of the value of a particular piece of intelligence in the overall puzzle. "

    That said, Boal adds, "If the general impression you get from this movie is that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that's because that's true. That's a fact. It doesn't mean they had to torture people or that torture is necessary or torture is morally right."

    Zero Dark Thirty is not alone in an awards season rich with movies that re-create, reinterpret and even subtly rewrite history, from Steven Spielberg's Lincoln to Affleck's Argo to, most audaciously, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained . Bigelow's movie has come in for the harshest scrutiny because the history in question is so fresh and undigested — and, to a great extent, not yet declassified — and because the filmmakers made the most vocal claims to reportorial accuracy. Boal speculates that Zero Dark Thirty has also attracted negative commentary because it dredges up ugly, even shameful chapters in a saga that received a triumphant, Hollywood-perfect finale from SEAL Team 6 on a moonless May night. "Kathryn gives us a graphic depiction of the detainee program when a lot of us would just want to forget about it and move on," he says.

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