Sunday, 24 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Analysis

Zero Dark Thirty has come under fire from journalists and politicians about its depiction of torture and its effectiveness. In this post, I am to examine exactly what Zero Dark Thirty claims happened in the 10 year hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Whilst I may touch upon the ethics and morality of torture, this is not a post arguing whether or not torture is justifiable. Nor is it a post about the repercussions (or lack of repercussions) from the Obama administration for those people who approved the use of torture. This post aims to clarify whether or not the film-makers behind Zero Dark Thirty are accountable for some of the claims made against them.


The intense torture scenes at the start of the film produce no information about Bin Laden. The captive (named Ammar) is being tortured by Dan (Jason Clarke) because the CIA believe he holds information about an imminent terrorist attack. Afterwards, the CIA trick him into believing that he gave up information which enabled them to prevent the attack and interview him again over a nice meal. In this interview, Ammar mentions a name of someone that might be Bin Laden's courier. Ammar only knows this person's "war name" Abu Ahmed. Abu Ahmed can't be identified by that name alone.

 Jessica Chastain's Maya then looks back through previous interrogations and discovers that this name has been mentioned at least 20 times by other detainees. She decides to pursue this lead, based purely on the significant number of mentions of this name. Later, another high level detainee called Abu Faraj lies about Abu Ahmed; claiming that the person the other detainees are thinking of is called Abu Khalid. Whilst talking to Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) sometime later, Maya points out that Abu Faraj only lied about two things: Abu Ahmed and the location of Osama Bin Laden. She decides that these lies indicate that Faraj thinks that Abu Ahmed is as important to protect as Bin Laden himself.

Several years later, it is revealed that the CIA already had the name of the courier on file. It was on a watch list that the CIA had received from Morocco. The courier's full family name is Ibrahim Sayeed. The young CIA officer that found it suspects that it had got lost in the mad rush to collect data in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

So the CIA does not gain any hard information from interrogate the torture victim, but the aftermath of the torture does indicate the significance of a potential courier. 

There are 2 questions to be answered: 

1. Would the detainee have talked to the CIA if he had not been tortured?

2. Would the CIA have discovered the importance of the name without this detainee's information?

 I would say the answer to the first question is no. It is implied that Ammar talks to the CIA after the torturing has stopped because he believes that he already gave up information which enabled the CIA to stop the terrorist attack at the beginning of the film. The CIA manage to pull off this charade because the detainee cannot remember everything from his torturing. He is physically drained and sleep deprived so, to him, it is believable that he might have given up information. He is perhaps aware that he might be killed if any terrorists realise he had spoken to the CIA. If the torture didn't happen, Ammar would know he had not given up information and he would be less willing to give up the names of people he thinks might be involved with Bin Laden.

The film does imply that it was Ammar's information that encouraged Maya to look through other detainee interrogations. Personally, I think that Maya (or the group of real people that Maya is representing) could have noticed the importance of the courier as she is likely to have looked through the interrogation footage anyway. According to Mark Boal, there were many different investigative strands that were being used. One of Bin Laden's wives was in Iranian custody and plans were set in place to follow her when she was released as the CIA thought that she might return to Bin Laden. Mark Boal also claims that resources were used to try and gain information about Bin Laden through bribery (as seen in the film through the actions of Jessica). Bin Laden's videos were also extensively analysed to determine if they contained any information regarding Bin Laden's whereabouts. Attempting to trace Bin Laden using one of his facilitators/couriers was not considered to be a high priority method in the hunt because most of the trails about couriers have to rely on potentially false information from detainees.


Interestingly the links between torture and Bin Laden suggested by Zero Dark Thirty have (as far as I am aware) yet to be discredited. Here is a transcript of a letter from Leon Panetta (director of the CIA at the time of Bin Laden's assassination) to Senator John McCain, who had requested information about torture and Bin Laden's death.

Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that Bin Ladin was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There was no one "essential and indispensible" key piece of information that led us to this conclusion. Rather, the intelligence picture was developed via painstaking collection and analysis. Multiple streams of intelligence - including from detainees, but also from multiple other sources - led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was at this compound. Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier's role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether these techniques were the "the only timely and effective way" to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that that information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to Bin Ladin.

Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in the CIA custody in 2002. It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier's role were alerting.

In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

If we look at the statements made by Panetta in this letter, it is clear that Zero Dark Thirty does not suggest anything which Panetta has denied.

1. 'there was no one "essential and indispensible" key piece of information that led us to this conclusion' - The film shows that it was a vast collection of information that led to the discovery of the compound. Of all of them, it is arguably the true name of the courier that is the most vital.

2. 'Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier's role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.' - The film does show detainees who have been subjected to torture revealing the name Abu Ahmed, which was useful information.

3. 'Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in the CIA custody in 2002.' - In my opinion the film agrees with this point, but I can understand that some people could believe that the film suggests something else. After Ammar gives up the name Abu Ahmed, Maya proceeds to investigate this this lead by looking at recordings of other interrogations. It is implied that these interrogations are already on file and that the questions being asked about Abu Ahmed are not as a result of the information from Ammar. Therefore, the film is not suggesting that Abu Ahmed's name was first revealed by Ammar. However, I can appreciate how somebody might interpret that all of the subsequent interrogations about Abu Ahmed that we see were performed as a result of the information about Ammar.

4. 'It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier.' - As previously mentioned, Abu Faraj attempts to convince Maya that Abu Khalid/Al Buluchi is the courier in an attempt to draw the CIA away from Abu Ahmed. Even when he is subjected to torture, Abu Faraj says nothing.

5. ' In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.' - The film clearly shows that Abu Ahmed's full true name is not found through a detainee in CIA custody. It was in fact on a watch list of names sent from Morocco, who advised the CIA to watch him. A young CIA researcher/analyst finds this information in a file. This information hadn't been recorded properly (explaining why Maya hadn't come across it previously) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the CIA received an overwhelming amount of information and potential leads. 


More significantly, Zero Dark Thirty shows that torture was inefficient and that perhaps time could have been spent in other ways.

Firstly, the torturing of Ammar at the beginning of the film fails to bring up any information about the terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. This attack was not stopped, the torturing failed. 

Secondly, the importance of Abu Ahmed is questioned in the initial stages when all Maya has is detainees claiming he is involved with Bin Laden. She has no concrete proof and this is pointed out by station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). As he so eloquently puts 'Perhaps this Abu is actually a cover story and he's really a f***ing unicorn.'. This is the CIA questioning the lead. At this point, Maya has no irrefutable evidence to back up her claim. 

The film shows Abu Faraj being tortured by the CIA, but he gives up no useful information and attempts to trick Maya by giving false information. 

The revelation that the CIA had the exact name that they were looking for all along demonstrates that if they might have uncovered this information sooner had they not been torturing people instead. This information is found after Barack Obama announces that America will no longer torture suspects.

The torture also plays an important thematic role for the characters. Jason Clarke plays Dan, the main instigator of the torture, who is shown doing deplorable things all in the name of anti-terrorism. Maya is visibly repulsed in the initial torture session but has to maintain a sense of professionalism. Chastain has said that women were not taken seriously if they showed too much emotion. It was still a male dominated world. (I would post the link to the video, but the page has disappeared during the writing of this article). Later on, Dan realises that he has given a lot of his time to these torturing sessions and has lost track of what normal is. As such, he decides to go to Washington to try and get back to reality.

If Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are attempting to justify the use of torture, these events shown in the film and the overall tone of the piece weaken their own argument.

To say torture doesn't work is incorrect. Doesn't work means that it never works and this is not the case. To say torture is inefficient is true. The number of times accurate information is given up during torture is far fewer than the number where nothing or false information is given up. On this point alone, torture is not justifiable. You wouldn't place significant time and resources into producing  a microwave which only works 1% of the time. When you add the more important factor that torture is morally reprehensible, the case for torture is non-existent. Zero Dark Thirty shows torture to be working in an altogether inefficient way.

The main point that has to be remembered here is that Mark Boal is attempting to condense a ten year manhunt into a two and a half hour film. Yes he merges characters and events, but these are based on facts he has gained from his research. He is representing the main issues, events and themes surrounding the hunt for Bin Laden in a form which works as a film. From his research he says that on more than 20 occasions, the name Abu Ahmed was given up under questioning and that this became one of the paths which the CIA investigated.

As I see it, Mark Boal had four options surrounding the depiction of torture.

1. Do not show the torture - To not include it would not be a fair representation of the times.
As much as we don't want to admit it, people were tortured in the aftermath of 9/11. Many viewers and critics would've accused Zero Dark Thirty of glossing over the more difficult issues and only depicting the events which show the CIA in a good light; and they would've been right.

2. Show the torture with no connection to Bin Laden - Without the connection to Bin Laden, the torture scenes are not integral to the story and whilst accurate of the period, would've been labelled as gratuitous.

3. Only show other nations performing torture - No. This again would be whitewashing history and could rightfully be accused of being propaganda. 

4. Integrate the torture into the Bin Laden story in a very loose manner based on accounts from those involved, whilst also showing that torture is inefficient and cruel.

The last option was his only one and is the best one. In relation to the killing of Osama Bin Laden Zero Dark Thirty claims that some detainees, whilst being tortured or interrogated, gave up a name of someone they believe to be involved with Osama Bin Laden. This name was not the full family name, but a war name and did not able the CIA to identify their target. The CIA followed this line of enquiry along with many others. Torture was not solely responsible for finding Bin Laden. Torture is reprehensible and unpleasant. Had more time been spent reviewing data they had on file, they might have caught Bin Laden earlier.

I can accept these statements made by the film whether I believe all of them to be 100% true or not as I believe Mark Boal has given the best representation of what he believes happened.


The main reason I feel that some politicians have taken issue with Zero Dark Thirty is because of the way many members of the public will interpret the film. As I have hopefully demonstrated, the issue of torture in the film is complicated, very complicated. Without wanting to sound snobbish, the average movie viewer could take away the simplistic view that "torture lead to Osama Bin Laden". This is because of the linear progression of the film and the condensed portrayal of the investigation which leaves out a lot of the dead ends and investigative methods.

It has been pointed out that in some cases, the general public take their understanding of historical events from movies. In particular, those movies which claim to be based on facts. There is an expectation that a film which is preceded by a statement like this is going to be somewhat factually accurate. However, Zero Dark Thirty has no responsibility to be 100% accurate as it is, after all is said and done, a fictional account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. It just happens to be based on a lot of accurate information, more so than some other movies which claim to be based on true events. That's not to say that the film should play fast and loose with the facts. Mark Boal has stated that this was not only his main concern, but also the main concern of the CIA. 

In this extensive interview (, part of the great DP/30 interview series, Boal states how the CIA trusted him to tell the truth, whether it portrayed them in a good light or not. Here's an excerpt of the interview:

Interviewer: And what about this notion that you were somehow embedded in the CIA and this is all a... you know... you covering or telling their story as they would want it told.

Mark Boal: Well I mean I think that's kinda bulls**t to be honest with you. A couple of months before I went in to talk to... before I went to Washington a piece appeared that I'd worked on for a number of months, in Rolling Stone. The piece was about American soldiers in Afghanistan killing Afghan civilians for sport. It was a pretty unflattering, to say the least, portrayal of the behaviour of American soldiers in Afghanistan.There was a small team of guys that was murdering civilians and then taking their picture, taking pictures with the corpses of the people they had murdered. This story was pretty graphic. I had obtained these photographs and Rolling Stone put them up online. There were videos that were really graphic and disturbing. The Department of Defence was not thrilled by that piece, I can tell you that. But a couple of months later when I went in and said "Hey I'm working on this film" and their reaction was 'Well we really didn't agree with that last article but we appreciate the way you did it, that you were factual.' So I was given the possibility to work their official channels. Now I can tell you, they don't do that if you play fast and loose. They just don't. I didn't take anybody's word for anything and I never have in 20 years of making my living doing this stuff.

The disclaimer presented at the start of Zero Dark Thirty states 'The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events'. That is not saying everything in this film is true and that everything it says should be taken as gospel. In fact, it's not even saying which elements of the film are fact or fiction. The film makers have every right to put this disclaimer at the start of the film. They should never have to compromise their vision for a film because some people won't fully understand it. Documentarian Michael Moore recently wrote a piece in defence of Zero Dark Thirty ( In it, he makes the same point I have in a much more concise manner.

I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that lesser minds among us 'get it.' Should Springsteen not have named his album 'Born in the USA' because some took it to be as a a salute to patriotism?

I hope I've been able to explain why I believe that the claims made against Zero Dark Thirty are unjustified. In my opinion Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify, justify or endorse torture and  its portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a fair representation of what is known to have happened. Zero Dark Thirty is a complex and difficult film and whilst the controversy has forced it out of the Oscar race, I'm sure it will be remembered as one of the great films of the decade.

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