BY RICH LOWRY
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” CIA characters warn of congressmen coming after them for running the agency’s interrogation program. As it happens, they could have said the same thing about making a movie about the agency’s interrogation program.
Washington is aghast at Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastically compelling new film. “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t really about interrogation, although you could be forgiven for thinking so given all the debate over its scenes devoted to the agency’s harsh questioning of detainees after Sept. 11.
Sens. John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have panned the movie as inaccurate for suggesting that enhanced interrogation, or what its critics call “torture,” helped find Osama bin Laden. Fine. They can slam it all they want. They can give it zero stars on their websites. They can write harsh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. They can urge friends to go see “Silver Linings Playbook” instead.
Where they have shamefully — and pathetically — overstepped their bounds is in using their positions to badger the CIA over its cooperation with the filmmakers. In December, the trio wrote the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, two heavy-breathing letters about the movie, demanding in one of them to learn everything the agency told Bigelow and her team. It’s as if Bigelow were an agent of a foreign power.
The casual viewer of “Zero Dark Thirty” will find it hard to see what Langley could have possibly revealed that is worth investigating. It is, at the end of the day, another Hollywood movie, even if an exceptionally good one. Did the agency’s hierarchy tell Bigelow that the hunt for bin Laden was led almost exclusively by a willowy, gorgeous redhead (the protagonist Maya, played by Jessica Chastain)? That the events leading to bin Laden were easily compressed into a straight-line narrative, punctuated by conveniently cinematic dialogue?
The writer of the screenplay, Mark Boal, compares the letters to the investigations of the 1940s. That is overwrought, but if any other Hollywood production were under bipartisan attack, charges of McCarthyism would be flying thick and fast. If Bigelow were targeted by high elected officials for anything other than making a movie supposedly sympathetic to torture, the Academy would be honoring her as a martyr to the First Amendment.
Bigelow upset the senators and other purveyors of polite opinion by trampling on Washington pieties about interrogation. “Zero Dark Thirty” depicts detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation as providing information — sometimes through their deceptions — that helped the CIA zero in on the man acting as bin Laden’s courier.
Boal told Time magazine: “If the general impression you get from this movie is that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that’s because that’s true. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean they had to torture people or that torture is necessary or torture is morally right.”
As his comment suggests, the movie is hardly an advertisement for harsh interrogation. It depicts the CIA program as more frankly violent and uncontrolled than it was, confusing it with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Detainees weren’t beaten up. Interrogators didn’t waterboard them on the spot for unsatisfactory answers. Even if in reality the CIA program was more antiseptic and bureaucratic than depicted, the movie leaves no doubt that breaking a man is a brutal business.
That’s not enough for the amateur film critics of the world’s greatest deliberative body, though. They want to believe that we could have waged a shadowy war against terrorist operatives in the deadly urgent circumstances immediately after Sept. 11 without ever making difficult moral choices. For whatever reason, they are fine with flying trained killers to a compound in Pakistan in the dead of night to shoot the place up and bring bin Laden back in a sack. But they can’t bear the thought that any of bin Laden’s associates suffered coercive interrogations.
In this case — in perhaps a first — it is Hollywood that has the greater appreciation for complexity and moral realism.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.