The CIA and Zero Dark Thirty

I did not see the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) about the mission that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, an action that many of president Obama’s supporters hailed as the finest moment of his presidency, showing his toughness in the face of Republican charges that Democrats are wimps. In fact, in the 2012 election, vice president Joe Biden adopted the slogan that thanks to president Obama, “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

President Obama and the administration gave the filmmakers extraordinary access to secret information and from all accounts, it seemed like the film makers returned the favor by making a propaganda film, designed to glorify him and the US military, and make torture seem to be effective and necessary.

Peter Maass writes that this idea of a quid pro quo turns out to be accurate.

The plot behind the plot of Zero Dark Thirty just gets better and better.

From the moment it premiered in 2012, the film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been criticized as pro-torture propaganda. According to its many detractors, the film embraced the discredited notion that torture by CIA interrogators made Al Qaeda members talk about the whereabouts of their leader. It subsequently was revealed that Bigelow and Boal had received an unusual amount of access to CIA officials who had a keen interest in peddling the virtues of waterboarding, and this spawned a cottage industry of investigations and articles.

But the biggest takeaway from these documents is that even as the CIA turned Bigelow and Boal into its willing propagandists, the filmmakers were turning the CIA into star-gazing dupes; the seduction went both ways. Bigelow and Boal emerge in these documents as excellent co-opters of the nation’s toughest spies — and it didn’t take much for them to do that.

While this film was initially hailed and seen as a multiple Oscar winner and nominated in five categories, the truth about its propagandistic nature and the collusion with the government emerged rather quickly and its reputation was tarnished and it ended up with just one award, for sound editing.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that filmmakers have colluded with the government to produce propagandistic films nor will it be the last. The problem is that both sides benefit from such an arrangement. The filmmakers get access to military facilities and equipment and information to make their films and in return, the government gets to look good.


  1. sigaba says

    I’m not sure how anyone could see Zero Dark Thirty and conclude that the film has a pro-torture or even a torture-justfiying agenda. They show several kinds of torture in the film, by the CIA, by foreign intelligence, waterboarding, withholding of food, psychological abuse and funnel-feeding; and for all kinds of different information. In every case it’s basically counterproductive and they don’t actually get anything they can use, and even when they get actually “good” information, like the nom de guerre of Bin Laden’s courier, its redundant and just repeats information the CIA had gathered years earlier. That’s the irony of the movie, Maya spends half the film trying to track down a person she had heard about from a detainee, fails, and then discovers the CIA had known where he lived for years before even she’d learned about him but the information had been lost in the paper chase.

    Feinstein’s reaction was typical-- she said it was pro-torture, while also conceding she walked out after 10 minutes and never actually bothered to follow the storyline. For her, it portrayed the CIA torturing people, the movie ends with Bin Laden dying, therefore it justifies torture. This interpretation is infantile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *