The Osama bin Laden manhunt film “Zero Dark Thirty” came under fire Wednesday from a bipartisan group of senators who complained to Sony Pictures that the drama is “grossly inaccurate and misleading” because it suggests that torture helped extract key information from a terrorism suspect.
In a letter to studio chief Michael Lynton, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote that the movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, improperly establishes a connection between “enhanced interrogations” and key intelligence.
“We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ 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,” wrote the senators, all of whom are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein heads.
Though they stopped short of specifying what action they’d like from Sony, the senators suggested that they were hoping for a disclaimer of some sort. “Please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against [Osama] bin Laden,” they wrote. A spokesman for one of the senators confirmed that they were hoping the studio would respond but that the lawmakers were leaving it to the studio to determine what action to take.
The senators’ letter comes on the heels of other complaints in Washington that the filmmakers may have had improper access to government sources or information while researching the movie.
Financed by Silicon Valley scion Megan Ellison, the $45-million picture has given fuel to a long-running debate in Washington over the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogations” of terrorism suspects that were authorized during the administration of George W. Bush. Congressional Democrats have strongly condemned the practice as unethical and ineffective, and President Obama halted the use of such methods after taking office.
Feinstein and Levin recently oversaw the compilation of an extensive report, endorsed by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, that condemned the use of harsh interrogations during the Bush administration and found that such methods did not lead to useful intelligence in the Bin Laden hunt or in other overseas missions. But they had not taken a position on “Zero Dark Thirty” until Wednesday.
They were joined in the letter by McCain, an ex-officio member of the Intelligence Committee whose status precludes him from voting. Unlike other Republicans on the panel who voted against the report last week, the former POW has said that he supports its conclusions about the ineffectiveness of enhanced interrogations.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” which has already received numerous accolades from critics and film industry groups, opened Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York to strong reviews. It depicts the successful search for Bin Laden that began with a tip in Pakistan in 2003 and culminated in a nighttime raid in May 2011. The film begins with scenes of torture at a CIA “black site” — a secret overseas detention location —that yields a key piece of intelligence.
Screenwriter Mark Boal and a Sony spokesman did not have a comment on the new developments but referred a reporter to a statement given to The Times by Boal and Bigelow last week when the Intelligence Committee report was passed.
That statement read, in part: “This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a [2 1/2-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.”
Complicating matters is that the movie is a hybrid of sorts. Though the film does not purport to be a documentary, Boal and Bigelow sought to craft a story based heavily on research with primary sources. Boal, a former reporter, told The Times recently that he conducted research alongside journalists covering the CIA for major media outlets.
The senators’ letter said that “we understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words ‘based on first-hand accounts of actual events’ and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters…. ‘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 [Osama] bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”
The lawmakers added that they were concerned about what impressions filmgoers would take away. “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,” they said. “The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
As “Zero Dark Thirty” faces criticism over its portrayal of torture, it also is taking heat for other reasons. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and the conservative group Judicial Watch continued to allege Wednesday that government officials granted the filmmakers improper access.
On Tuesday, several news reports said that the Defense Department’s inspector general was investigating what information Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers had disclosed to filmmakers and whether laws had been violated. A Defense Department spokesman denied that Vickers had acted improperly and issued a vigorous defense of him.