Movie-makers' consciences put on the racks

By Tim Walker

It was considered one of the key achievements of President Obama's first term.

Now the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden is the basis for one of the most fancied movies of the 2013 awards season. The relationship between Washington and Hollywood is closer and more controversial than ever. And Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is proving difficult to divide from the political weather system brewing around it.

The movie follows the 10-year trail of intelligence work that led from 9/11 to bin Laden's death.

The film-makers claim it is all based on fact, down to the details of the Pakistani art that graced the walls of the al-Qaeda leader's compound.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were granted access to sources within the CIA, the Pentagon, the Navy Seals and the White House. Among them was the dogged CIA agent who appears in the film as Maya, played by Jessica Chastain.

As the extent of this co-operation became apparent, Republicans feared a propaganda coup for the Democrat President who'd ordered the 12.30am raid from which the film takes its title.

The Republican chairman of the House homeland security committee demanded an investigation into whether Bigelow and Boal had been privy to classified information.

Documents released this year reveal they never had such access. However, the film-makers were granted a number of meetings with high-level officials, including CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

The film has already picked up several awards for best picture from critics' groups, not to mention four Golden Globe nominations. But in among the good reviews are the gory details: Zero Dark Thirty begins with graphic scenes of a detainee being waterboarded and otherwise inhumanely treated. A morsel of information that he provides to his US interrogator is depicted as a potentially significant part of the intelligence picture that led to bin Laden.

So does the film somehow endorse torture, or does it just demonstrate the moral cost of the mission? Does the minuteness of that morsel gleaned from the victim suggest such tactics were worthwhile?

Or is Zero Dark Thirty simply, as Bigelow and Boal suggest, journalistically detached? The film doesn't have an agenda, the director told The New Yorker, and it doesn't judge.

That's not what the reviewers think. David Edelstein, film critic of New York magazine, has named Zero Dark Thirty his film of the year, yet also claims it borders on the politically and morally reprehensible.

"I'm betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie," wrote Frank Bruni, in a column for the New York Times, recalling the former vice-president who helped to coin the phrase "enhanced interrogation".

Boal rejected their suggestions, saying, "The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes. Before we even wrote it, it was [branded] an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous."

But Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety, argues: Zero Dark Thirty is honest about the usage of these tactics. But it's neutral. And there are people who will say, 'We can't be neutral about torturing people; it doesn't work, and an artist should take a stance against it'."

At least the charge that the film is an Obama campaign commercial is demonstrably unsubstantiated.

Obama himself barely features and, writes Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed bin Laden, "the one time the President does appear is in a clip from a 60 Minutes interview in which he criticises the use of torture".

By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al-Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.

Elsewhere in Zero Dark Thirty, the President's caution is implicitly criticised, as he demands confirmation and further intelligence to prove that the Abbottabad compound's occupant is really the al-Qaeda mastermind. It took Obama nine months to order the raid from the moment bin Laden's location was first identified, much to the frustration of Maya, who is told by a White House adviser, by way of explanation: "The President is a thoughtful, analytical guy."

The film was delayed until after the election after howls of dismay from Republican Party lawmakers, who presumed it would be a campaign boost for their opponent. Its release has been called off indefinitely in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon and Qatar, for fear of inflaming local tensions.

Hollywood, it appears, remains convinced of its ability to alter the political landscape.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, another Oscar contender, was also said to have been postponed so as not to affect the election. Its depiction of the 16th President's fight to pass the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, was compared by some to Obama's battle on behalf of universal healthcare.

Zero Dark Thirty might have been a different movie altogether: when bin Laden was killed, Bigelow and Boal had already spent three years developing a script about the failure to find him. They scrapped the project, and started over.


- Independent


*Zero Dark Thirty opens in cinemas here on January 31.

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