The new movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Boston Society of Film Critics’ pick for best picture of the year, is still not playing in theaters here. But the film, which tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is already generating a lively debate. In early scenes, the movie depicts Al Qaeda suspects undergoing “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, and leaves open the suggestion that these aggressive measures may have been responsible for uncovering information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. The film’s producers acknowledge that, like many docudramas, “Zero Dark Thirty” takes some liberties. But this liberty serves to reinforce a dangerous fiction — one that needs to be called out.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is finalizing its three-year, 6,000-page investigation into alleged torture by government interrogators, has determined that coercive interrogation techniques did not provide the information that led US forces to bin Laden’s hideout. These harsh tactics, promoted by some officials in the Bush administration including former Vice President Dick Cheney, are nonetheless being romanticized in some circles as crucial tools in the fight against terrorism. And “Zero Dark Thirty” could help to rewrite history. It’s especially alarming because misperceptions about the effectiveness of waterboarding, the simulated-drowning technique that is no longer part of interrogators’ repertoire, could easily lead to its revival.