As Oscar buzz builds around "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's fictionalized film about the search for Osama bin Laden, a handful of senators in Washington are castigating Sony for even distributing the movie, which they decry as "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that" methods of torture were used to locate bin Laden.
The film, which in the opening sequences depicts brutal and violent interrogation scenes, has been lauded by critics as "brilliantly directed," and ""the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11."
But in a letter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton yesterday, Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed "deep disappointment" with the film's suggestion that torture played a role in the capture of the long-sought al Qaeda leader, who had been in hiding since the attacks on September 11, 2001. They called on the studio to state clearly that the torture portrayed in the film is grounded in fiction, not reality, and argued that the studio has a "social and moral obligation" to get the facts right.
"We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner," the senators wrote. "'Zero Dark Thirty' is factually inaccurate, 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."
Even though the movie is fictionalized, the senators argue, it purports to be "based on first-hand accounts of actual events." That, coupled with the fact that "there has been significant media coverage of the CIA's cooperation with the screenwriters," suggests incorrectly that the story is based on reality.
"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 the Usama Bin Laden," the senators wrote. "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."
The letter goes on to refute the notion that the CIA learned about the existence of a crucial courier to Osama bin Laden through enhanced interrogation techniques. That courier, according to the letter, was not subjected to those techniques either. "The CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program," according to the letter.
Feinstein, McCain, and Levin went on to argue that the use of torture in America "remains a stain on our national conscience" and Bigelow's new film is "perpetuating the myth that torture is effective."
"You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right," they wrote.
In a response obtained by New York Magazine, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal stood by the film and made no indication they would be making any revisions to it based on the senators' letter.
"This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes," they wrote. "One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world's most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it."
Controversy surrounding the film is not limited to the filmmakers' storytelling methods: Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers is also under investigation for allegations that he leaked restricted information to Bigelow and Boal in conjunction with the film. Among the information he is accused of having revealed is the name of a U.S. Special Operations Command officer who helped plan the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
In a statement, the Defense Department acknowledged the "pending Inspector General investigation," but said recent press reports surrounding the affair had been "unwarranted, unfounded, and unfair," and Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the department was "obliged to correct the record."
According to Little, Vickers agreed to a routine meeting to provide background information to the filmmakers in July of 2011. He said the interview was "a coordinated response to questions" and that the Office of Public Affairs "was present for the unclassified interview and transcribed it."
"The Department's Office of Security Review reviewed the transcript and concluded that it is unclassified in its entirety. It was then released publicly by the Department of Defense in May 2012," according to Little. "Senior special operations officers approved in advance the offer Mr. Vickers made to arrange a potential discussion with a special operations planner -- someone who was not part of the Bin Laden raid team -- but such a meeting never occurred. Where there are redactions in the transcript, it is for privacy reasons only, not because the redacted material is classified."