Column

Hollywood's idealized view of CIA officers is no substitute for reality

CIA operatives aren't movie dream girls, but real people whose judgment can be clouded

Among the many compelling aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the 2013 film about the capture of Osama bin Laden, was the notion (much touted by the film's creators) that its characters were based on real people. This included the heroine, a brilliant and tenacious red-haired CIA analyst named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain.

As Maya, the duly redheaded Chastain hits all the notes we've come to expect from the proverbial strong female character. She's tough yet fair, steely yet delicate. Though she's almost superhuman in her courage of conviction (she tells the president she is “100% sure” of Bin Laden's whereabouts), she's also vulnerable and relatable in that way filmmakers like to call fundamentally human.

Observing the torture of a detainee at a CIA black site, Maya comes close to throwing up. In the final scene, she is shown traveling on an empty transport plane after tracking down Bin Laden, vindicated and victorious but with nowhere to go. She may be a sad case, but she's also a woman you want on your team. You feel a little better knowing she's out there.

At least you did until recently. The Senate Intelligence Committee “torture report,” released last month, revealed a host of disturbing facts about the CIA's “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It contains numerous mentions of a female officer who is referred to as a crucial player in the agency's Detention and Interrogation Program. That officer has long been rumored to be an inspiration for “Zero Dark Thirty's” Maya.

The officer's story was pieced together by NBC News after the report came out. It did not reveal her name (which the Senate committee redacted), but the Intercept website claims to know it and has had no qualms about outing her. (She hasn't responded and probably can't; she still works for the CIA.)

According to the report, this officer went out of her way to observe interrogation sessions and in at least one case took part in waterboarding. She also had a habit of misinterpreting intelligence and misrepresenting facts. She factored heavily in the torture of a prisoner whose detention turned out to be the result of mistaken identity. She told members of Congress that the interrogation program was eliciting useful information, which the report (and many others) takes issue with. There's even evidence that she failed to convey information that might have helped prevent the attacks of Sept. 11.

If a young female CIA analyst who failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks sounds oddly familiar, it may be because before there was Maya, there was another brilliant red-haired analyst named Carrie Mathison. On the Showtime series “Homeland,” Claire Danes' Carrie is haunted by, in her words, having “missed something” that day. Reminded that “everyone missed something that day,” she says: “Everyone's not me.”

Obviously, the Senate report is not the Hollywood Reporter. It may make for a fun parlor game to connect the dots between spies and their fictionalized counterparts, but the revelation that the real life Maya isn't actually the ginger-haired movie dream girl is hardly a big takeaway.

Still, in digesting the report's findings, I can't help but wonder if some of the mythos surrounding the dream-girl version of this officer went deeper than Chastain's ethereal beauty or Danes' portrayal of an erratic but uncompromising intelligence agent. I wonder if that mythos was less a product of Hollywood than of certain proclivities of the American imagination—specifically our need to believe that it's not mere mortals who are keeping us safe from terrorists but, rather, superhumans who never exercise poor judgment or lose their moral compass in the fog of war.

Before last month's report, it was remotely possible to pretend that if the CIA was engaging in heinous acts, it was doing so with very good reason and certainly not enjoying itself in the process. As long as we could hold on to the image of Maya nearly vomiting in the face of torture — and then catching the bad guys as a result of that torture — we could continue to believe that America held itself to a higher standard.

But now we know better. And with that comes the reminder “fundamentally human” sometimes means tragically flawed. How right Carrie was when she said “everyone's not me.” In fact, no one is.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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