“Nothing is so contagious as opinion, especially on questions which beget in the mind a distrust of itself.” — James Madison
Last night my wife, daughter and I ventured out to see the movie Zero Dark Thirty. For those of you who live in a forest somewhere Zero Dark Thirty is the controversial movie about the hunt and rake down of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2011.
I had heard and read a myriad of opinions on this film — everything from it being a homage to Barack Obama to a glorification of torture. It was neither. It was a well-crafted film by the Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal. The film chronicles the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (Referred to as Usama bin Laden in the film, which is correct) after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.
Critics on the left and right have lambasted this film due to their political agendas. First and foremost it is a theatrical movie not a documentary. If you want a documentary watch the numerous accounts of the hunt and take down of bin Laden on the History, Military, or National Geographic channels. I have seen most of those documentaries and even though crafted with care and with no obvious agenda they don’t always tell the entire story. In fact the entire story will not be known for years just as the full story of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy are still evolving. So with that in mind here is my humble take on the film.
After seeing the movie, it becomes obvious that Americans might now understand what was needed to make sure the homeland remained safe. The crowds in the theatre are subdued during the movie and afterward. There is no hissing, no yelling, and no cheering. But at the end of the film there was a round of applause for the film. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I saw the film in a more conservative neighborhood in Riverside County. I doubt if there was any such applause in Westwood. As the audience exits, there is an eerie quiet, maybe because the movie brought home the fact to Americans that these were very dangerous times.
Jose Rodriguez, Jr., who headed the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and then became director of the National Clandestine Service, believes that the reaction of the audience was due to people realizing that what CIA officials have been saying for years is a reality: "it was necessary and needed to be done to keep Americans safe."
The film opens with scenes of “enhanced interrogation” of a captured al Qaeda terrorist at an undisclosed CIA black site in 2002. Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on the 11th September 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained through such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent to kill or capture Bin Laden. But only Maya is confident Bin Laden is where she says he is. You can read a full synopsis of the plot by clicking here.
As I stated above the film opens with scenes of enhanced interrogation of a captured al-Qaeda terrorist. The scenes of waterboarding and physical beatings are quite graphic. If you have a weak stomach come in about 15 minutes late to the 157—minute long film. This is no doubt the most controversial part of the film and where I take some umbrage with Bigelow and Boal.
As the author of Hard Measures: How the CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, Rodriguez details in the book the actual tactics of the Enhanced Interrogation Program. He does not agree with the movie depiction of the interrogation scenes since. Rodriguez stated in an easy published in the Washington Post about the film:
“The CIA did not torture anybody under the enhanced interrogation program. I know, because I actually supervised it myself from 2002 until 2007. The torture scenes in the movie did not happen. My biggest beef with this film is that millions of people around the world after seeing this movie will conclude that the CIA tortures, which is very unfair and not true."
Rodriguez went on to say:
“Indeed, as I watched the story unfold on the screen, I found myself alternating between repulsion and delight.
First, my reasons for repulsion. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which will open for Washington audiences Friday, inaccurately links torture with intelligence success and mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism. Many others object to the film, however, because they think that the depiction of torture by the CIA is accurate but that the movie is wrong to imply that our interrogation techniques worked.
“They are wrong on both counts. I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.
One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways. In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that “Zero Dark Thirty” was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: “This is not a documentary.”
What I haven’t heard anyone acknowledge is that the interrogation scenes torture the truth. Despite popular fiction — and the fiction that often masquerades as unbiased reporting — the enhanced interrogation program was carefully monitored and conducted. It bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen.
The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.
The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington. No one was hung from ceilings. The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA “black sites.”
The CIA did waterboard three of the worst terrorists on the planet — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — in an effort to get them to cooperate. Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men, who were on medical gurneys. The procedure was totally unlike the one seen in the movie but was consistent with the same tactic used, without physical or psychological damage, on tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel as part of their training.”
Bill Harlow, the former CIA director of public affairs, believes that the movie confuses incidents such as Abu Ghraib with the CIA program. For example, there is a scene where a CIA officer puts a dog collar on a terrorist detainee and walks him like a dog. Harlow was offended by this untruth because it happened at Abu Ghraib, completely contrary to the situation shown in the movie. "So many people seem to accept this as a given. It is annoying to me that they don't ask. Did this really happen that way? The beating scenes did not happen and were put in the movie for dramatic content. We never beat the crap out of people. Had anyone done those things shown in the movie, they would have been prosecuted."
Harlow goes on to state:
“It would have been more accurate and still intense if the movie put in the actual enhanced interrogation techniques. Unlike in the movie's description, Zubaida was put in a box only once — but one large enough to allow him to sit up. As for waterboarding, it was done to only three terrorist detainees, and to none after 2003. Anyone waterboarded had his vital signs monitored, which was not portrayed in the movie. The technique in the film of asking a question, pouring large buckets of water, and then asking another question is not how it was done. In reality, small plastic water bottles were used, with only drops of water being poured over the subject. Once someone agreed to cooperate, the enhanced interrogation techniques stopped as was demonstrated in the film.”
Yet the movie implies, by using the clip of President Obama saying Americans do not torture, that enhanced interrogation is torture. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, for his part, feels that Jose Rodriguez's op-ed is the definitive piece on this issue. Rodriguez made it clear that those senators who are yelling and are threatening an investigation about the film's sources are trying to rewrite history because "they are denying that enhanced interrogation worked and call it torture." Hayden also was struck with the fact that these "senators wanted to investigate the Agency — not for the classification of what they told the filmmakers, but because they disagreed with the conclusions suggested by the film. The senators appear to be fixated on this issue."
The film correctly portrays that the hunt for bin Laden was a ten-year marathon, not a sprint. For a while people believed it was all Obama. It was the CIA's focus and hard work that eventually allowed us to find bin Laden. Many women deserve a chunk of the credit for their focus, tenacity, intensity, and being detailed-oriented, including Jennifer Matthews, chief of the Khost Afghanistan base at Camp Chapman. I have written a detailed account of how Ms. Matthews (called Jessica and played by Jennifer Ehle in the film) was killed by a Jordanian suicide bomber. For more information on this attack that killed 7 CIA agents, including Ms. Matthews and wounded 7 others click here. I think it will give you better understanding of the culture within the CIA at the time.)
According to Robert Baer, an ex CIA operative, writing in GQ Magazine Michael Scheuer, “her first boss in Alec Station, the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden, told me she had attended the operative's basic training course at the Farm, the agency's training facility, and that he considered her a good, smart officer. Another officer who knew her told me that despite her training at the Farm, she was always slotted to be a reports officer, someone who edits reports coming in from the field. She was never intended to meet and debrief informants.”
“Matthews knew that there was a time when only seasoned field operatives were put in charge of places like Khost. Not only would an operative need to have distinguished himself at the Farm; he or she would've run informants in the field for five years or more before earning such a post. He probably would have done at least one previous tour in a war zone, too. And he would have known the local language, in this case Pashto. Matthews skipped all of this”.
According to all of the reports I have read on this incident Ms. Matthews was portrayed correctly in the film as was the entire incident at Khost. It is quite a shocker in the film.
Now to the main character in the film known as Maya and played by Jessica Chastain. Maya is not her real name and the CIA will not release her real name as there is a price on her head from al-Queda. The Navy SEAL who wrote the controversial book detailing the assassination of Osama bin Laden credits a 'feisty' female CIA analyst for leading them to their target, after spending five years hunting him.
Author Matt Bissonnette – whose identity was revealed even though he wrote the tell-all book No Easy Day under the pen name of Mark Owen – only refers to the woman using the pseudonym ‘Jen’ in his book. According to Bissonnette, as reported in The Guardian, Jen", was convinced Bin Laden was hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was found.
She travelled with the Seals to Afghanistan ahead of the raid and briefed them on what they were likely to find. "I can't give her enough credit. In my opinion she kind of teed up this whole thing," Owen told CBS's 60 Minutes in an interview to be broadcast Sunday.
Owen described Jen as "wicked smart, kind of feisty". She was 100% sure that bin Laden was hiding in the Abbottabad compound, according to Owen. President Barack Obama, CIA Director Leon Panetta and others had said they were only 70% sure Bin Laden would be found at the compound. Owen told 60 Minutes that all of her predictions proved to be exactly right. This is portrayed in the film where Maya is part of a group seated around a conference table and Director Panetta polls the operatives and analysts on their confidence that bin Laden is at the Abbottabad compound. The men’s responses range from 50 to 70 percent and when Maya is asked she responds with 100% positive, but downgrades to 95% saying nothing in the intelligence world is 100%.
In his book, Bissonnette writes that he sat next to the woman during one of the long-haul flights as they headed to Pakistan for the mission, and his brief description paints a picture of a young and extremely dedicated analyst.
'Recruited by the agency out of college, she'd been working on the Bin Laden task force for the last five years. Analysts rotated in and out of the task force, but she stayed and kept after it.
'After the al-Kuwaiti phone call, she'd worked to put all the pieces together. she had been our go-to analyst on all intelligence questions regarding the target,' he writes.
Jen is the real-life heroine of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, a headstrong young operative whose work tracking the al-Qaida leader serves as the dramatic core of Zero Dark Thirty. It should also be pointed out that according to the Mail Online Jen is the person the character Carrie Mathison (played by Clare Danes) in the Golden Globe and Emmy award winning Showtime series Homeland is modeled after. Danes said that while researching her role as Mathison she met one of the men who led the raid on bin Laden.
Danes hinted at a connection during an interview about the research she did to prepare for her role as Carrie Mathison.
“There’s a woman Carrie is loosely modeled on and she’s a CIA officer and so I met with her and she took me to Langley and introduced me to some of her colleagues,” Danes told The Wall Street Journal.
The Homeland protagonist is described as being stubborn, headstrong, and outspoken. The same appears true for the female agent Jen.
“Jen wasn't afraid to share her opinion with even the highest officers,” Bissonnette wrote in the book. “This was her baby. Jen and her team spent five years tracking him to get us where we were now.”
Her CIA career has followed a more problematic script, however, since bin Laden was killed.
The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history.
The real life Jen stirred up a bit of a firestorm when she blasted some of her fellow CIA compatriots with an e-mail. According to the Washington Post:
“The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history.
She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.
The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader internal inquiry into the agency’s cooperation on the new movie and other projects, former officials said.
Her defenders say the operative has been treated unfairly, and even her critics acknowledge that her contributions to the bin Laden hunt were crucial. But the developments have cast a cloud over a career that is about to be bathed in the sort of cinematic glow ordinarily reserved for fictional Hollywood spies.”
Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman’s dedication and combative temperament.
“She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,” said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency’s ranks.
“The agency is a funny place, very insular,” the former official said. “It’s like middle-schoolers with clearances.”
This spring, she was among a handful of employees given the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest honor except for those recognizing people who have come under direct fire. But when dozens of others were given lesser awards, the female officer lashed out.
“She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”
Over the past year, she was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.
Officials said the woman was given a cash bonus for her work on the bin Laden mission and has since moved on to a new counterterrorism assignment. They declined to say why the promotion was blocked.
The move stunned the woman’s former associates, despite her reputation for clashing with colleagues.
This is just another example of how the CIA has mutated from its origins of the OSS and the Cold War into a massive bureaucratic government organization as has the Department of Defense. As a person who held a security clearance and worked with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency I can attest that there are many bureaucrats in the intelligence business who are more concerned with budgets and achieving their next GS ratings so they can retire with a larger pension. Decisions are had to come by from these bureaucrats. They don’t like to make waves or rock the boat. To them doing nothing is playing it safe and looking for someone else to point a finger at is standard operating procedure. That’s why 9/11 happened.
Overall, both Harlow and Rodriguez encourage Americans to see the film. They are hoping that what people will realize is that instead of supporting rights for terrorists, as some senators seem to be encouraging, those at the CIA chose to do what was right and legal to make sure terrorist plots were foiled. Although they wish the filmmakers consulted with them about the interrogation scenes, the movie realistically showed that here are those at the Agency who are patriotic, very disciplined, and smart, and that they are risk-takers when it comes to making sure Americans are kept safe.
Despite its flaws, inaccuracies and shortcuts, I do believe this film is well worth seeing. Theatergoers should understand, however, that “Zero Dark Thirty” is more than a movie and less than the literal truth. It is more about Maya and her 10-year hunt for bin Laden and all of the hurdles, both external and external, she had to jump. This is especially apparent in the final scene, with Maya in tears, drained, not sure where to go or what to do next.
And finally we come to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the folks who pass out the Oscars to their BFFs. David Clennon, an Emmy Award-winning actor and member of the AMPAS, announced in an op-ed for the leftist website Truthout that he would not be voting for “Zero Dark Thirty” in any Oscar categories because of its torture scenes.
“At the risk of being expelled for disclosing my intentions, I will not be voting for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – in any Academy Awards category,” Clennon wrote. “Torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances. ‘Zero’ never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal. It does portray torture as getting results.”
Clennon, who is best known for his work on TV series' "Thirtysomething," "Almost Perfect" and "The Agency" won an Emmy for a guest spot for "Dream On" in 1993. A longtime political activist, his remarks caused something of a furor since Academy members are specifically encourage by AMPAS not to reveal who they are voting for (assuming they are even voting). It's unclear whether Clennon will be reprimanded for his revelation.
But Sony executive Amy Pascal pushed back against Clennon’s assertions, stating bluntly: “Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture. To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate.”
Pascal said the studio is “outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in AMPAS as a platform to advance their own political agenda.”
“This film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an Artist’s right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is,” she said.
According to The Wrap Zero Dark Thirty” roared out of the gate in its nationwide expansion Friday, taking in $9 million. That puts Sony’s controversial drama on pace to easily win the weekend box office race with $25 million.
It was running safely ahead of the weekend’s two debuting movies, Warner Bros.’ star-studded “Gangster Squad” and the horror spoof “A Haunted House,” the two R-rated films in a battle for No. 2. The period mob drama opened to $6.6 million from 3,103 theaters and is looking at a roughly $19 million weekend, just under analysts' projections. Marlon Wayans' comedy brought in about $6.7 million from 2,160 theaters, which puts it on pace for $17 million, in line with expectations.
In conclusion the film is worth ten bucks and a couple hours of your time if you like action thrillers based on actual events and to see the outstanding performance of Jessica Chastain. Theatrical movies are not made for the study of history, but they can motivate the viewer to research the events portrayed in the film and learn for themselves.