Senate leaders Feinstein and McCain condemn ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Mark Boal, left, screenwriter and co-producer of the film "Zero Dark Thirty, " and the film's director and co-producer Kathryn Bigelow.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A trio of Senate leaders have condemned the Kathryn Bigelow movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” calling elements of its dramatization of the Osama bin Laden manhunt “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

In a letter to Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton signed by the senators — Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the three stated:

“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 Usama bin Laden,” wrote the senators, all of whom are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

DOCUMENT: Feinstein, McCain, Levin Statement on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The film depicts the search for Bin Laden and begins with scenes of torture at a CIA “black site” that results in a key piece of intelligence in the quest to find Bin Laden.

The letter went on to say, “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 Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”


Feinstein and Levin had overseen a report, adopted by Democrats last week, that condemned the use of harsh interrogation during the Bush administration and found that such methods did not lead to useful intelligence in the Bin Laden hunt. Until now, however, they had not offered an explicit condemnation of the film.

VIDEO: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ review

They were joined in the letter by McCain, a Republican ex-officio member of the Intelligence Committee whose status precludes him from voting. The Republicans who voted on the committee had all previously voted against the report.

Screenwriter Mark Boal, a Sony spokesman and a representative working on behalf of the film did not have an immediate comment; a Sony spokesman referred a reporter to a statement given to The Times by Boal and Bigelow last week.

That statement read, in part: “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.”

Still, leaders on Capitol Hill say that the movie’s aspirations to truthfulness coupled with those early scenes left a dangerous impression.

DOCUMENT: Feinstein, McCain, Levin Statement on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

“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,” the letter said. “We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.”

The film has entered a hot debate in Washington over the use of so-called enhanced interrogations, which Democrats have strongly conveyed as being unethical and ineffective. President Obama has stopped such practices since taking office.

Complicating matters is that Boal and Bigelow sought to craft a story based on journalism, with the writer conducting research “alongside” journalists covering the CIA, as he told The Times recently.

Appearing to address those ambitions, the letter said, “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 letter comes out on the day the film is being released in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in Washington, D.C., after the new year.

As “Zero Dark Thirty” faces criticism over its portrayal of torture, it also is taking heat from the right, as Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and conservative group Judicial Watch continued to allege the filmmakers had improper access. On Tuesday, several news reports said that undersecretary of Defense Michael Vickers would be subject to a criminal referral by the Defense Department’s inspector general; a Defense Department spokesman denied the claim and issued a vigorous defense of Vickers.


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