Senators: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ film a ‘dangerous’ mix of fact, fiction

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says the film “Zero Dark Thirty” is a combination of “fact, fiction and Hollywood” that dangerously links the use of torture with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Feinstein and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are sending a letter to Sony Pictures, the film studio distributing the Oscar contender, to make their complaints known.

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“I thought it was terrible," said Feinstein, one of a handful of lawmakers to see the film ahead of its limited release this week. “It is a combination of fact, fiction and Hollywood in a very dangerous combination.”

McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Tuesday that he was “sickened” by the film when he saw it, according to The Associated Press, saying the filmmakers fell hook, line and sinker for the torture storyline.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” which has already been named the film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, opens with an extended waterboarding scene.

It suggests controversial interrogation techniques viewed as forms of torture by many eventually helped interrogators gain information about bin Laden’s courier, which helped intelligence agencies track down the terrorist’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Feinstein told The Hill the positing of a correlation between the use of waterboarding and the discovery of bin Laden’s compound was “dangerous.”

Feinstein, Levin and McCain all say that the use of enhanced interrogation did not contribute to the CIA tracking down bin Laden.

But some Republicans, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, argue the techniques — including waterboarding, depriving prisoners of sleep and putting them in stressful positions for extended periods of time — did play an important role in the gathering of intelligence.

In the letter, which was first reported by The Hill, the senators request that the filmmakers state that the role of torture, as it’s depicted in the movie, is “not based on the facts.”

“We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden,” the senators write. 

“We believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” 

The lawmakers pointed to a recent report on enhanced interrogation tactics by the Senate Intelligence Committee that they said proved the ineffectiveness of waterboarding and other measures in gaining actionable intelligence.

Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee completed the 6,000-page report last week on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program under the George W. Bush administration. The vote on the torture report, which took three years to complete, was split 9-6, with Republicans voting against adopting the report.

The report itself remains classified as administration officials review it and consider what parts might be declassified. Feinstein and McCain have said they hope to make it public once the review is completed.


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Feinstein and Levin also issued a statement earlier this year rebutting claims from former CIA officials that torture played a role in the hunt for bin Laden, calling it “inconsistent” with CIA records.

Complaints about the torture scenes aren’t the only issue lawmakers have raised about the film by Oscar winners Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the creative forces behind the 2010 Academy Award winner “The Hurt Locker.”

The Obama administration has been criticized for the access Bigelow and Boal were given to CIA and special-operations officials in making the new film. The Pentagon said this week that Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers is the subject of a Department of Defense Inspector General investigation regarding the filmmakers’ access.

Republicans initially complained that the film was going to essentially be a reelection ad for President Obama, as it was first slated for release in October. After the criticism, the release date was moved back until December.

But that concern did not play out in the film itself, which focuses little on U.S. politics. Instead, the debate over torture has gained the most public attention as the reviews of the movie have come in.

The film doesn’t explicitly endorse torture, but critics like McCain and Feinstein argue that including those scenes in the narrative of how U.S. officials tracked down bin Laden suggests that torture was a necessary step.

Bigelow contends that the film does not try to weigh in on the policy debate over torture. She told “The Wrap” this week that it was “preposterous” to say her film represented an endorsement of torture.

“The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy,” Bigelow said. “Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”

Most lawmakers have not yet seen the movie, although many said they planned to at some point. Several lawmakers raised concerns about the potential for Hollywood to inaccurately shape a debate on a controversial topic like torture.

“I think whenever you take a situation and you take it to Hollywood, they’re going to do what it takes to sell the movie,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“The thing about movies like this — that are in fact incorrect on something so important or sensitive — it can give us a bad reputation throughout the world,” he said, adding that he wanted to reserve judgment on “Zero Dark Thirty” until he saw the movie.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said he is concerned that films like “Act of Valor” or “Zero Dark Thirty” can unintentionally reveal operational secrets.

“We are still engaged with a very determined enemy,” said West, who added that he wanted to see “Skyfall” — the latest installment in the James Bond saga — and not the bin Laden film.

“We have to stop making movies that show a lot of our tactics, techniques and procedures. People can pay attention to a lot of the nuances and they can kind of build a model and understanding of the type of things you can do.”

This story was updated at 7:08 p.m.