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.
For most intelligence experts, “enhanced interrogation” is not the best way to glean the truth. It is exceptionally unreliable, and more likely to inflame passions against the United States than to provide actionable intelligence. There are legitimate, ongoing debates about the risks of unfettered drone warfare and the long-term detention of terrorism suspects without trials, but the torture debate is done: Only the most ideological stalwarts still promote waterboarding.
Having the movie begin with rough interrogations may be Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s attempt to be as nonpartisan as possible, since conservatives have been wary of the film’s potential to glorify President Obama. Whatever the reason, any ghost of a suggestion that waterboarding may have helped capture bin Laden is wholly inaccurate and could leave movie watchers, both here and abroad, with the wrongful sense that torture works. For a movie that wanted to tell the true story of the hunt for a man who took so many American lives, “Zero Dark Thirty” begins with a dangerous piece of fiction.