Peter Bergen on Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, the action thriller dramatizing the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, has been generating lots of Oscar buzz since its release in late-December. But the film has also received plenty of criticism about the accuracy of some details and how it portrays the torture of detainees.

Journalist and author Peter Bergen, who wrote the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad, told CBC News that Zero Dark Thirty is "an excellent piece of filmmaking ... It's a less excellent piece of history."

"The filmmakers have presented it as a work of, sort of, dramatic journalism, or some such formulation, but essentially the idea of it is fiction with some reported qualities, and some of the reporting is accurate, but some of it is not accurate, and I think tens of millions of people around the world, including Canada, are going to come to this film and it's going to sort of colour the way that they view what happened in the hunt for bin Laden. And we now have the Senate Intelligence Committee in the United States saying that essentially their portrayal of what happened is grossly misleading and inaccurate, which I think sort of speaks for itself."

Earlier this year the committee said, after years of investigation, that there is little evidence to support the idea that severe interrogation techniques used by the CIA, which including water-boarding and sleep deprivation, resulted in any information vital to the capture and killing of bin Laden. Throughout his own research for his book, Bergen wasn't able to conclude that torture was an effective method of gathering intelligence.

The film opens up with a note about how Zero Dark Thirty is based on first-hand accounts of actual events. Bergen said he believes filmmakers should consider adding a disclaimer about dramatic licenses being taken, something that U.S. senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin have asked the movie's distributor, Sony, to do in a letter.

manhunt-cover-100.jpgBergen says the film does offer much insight into the long and complicated hunt for the al-Qaeda leader, including the espionage efforts on the ground and tracking techniques, but feels that the film will be overwhelmingly remembered for the scenes of torture and the suggestion that it was vital to downfall of the 9/11 mastermind.

"I think that's something they need to consider. If they simply said this is a fictional account of the war on terror, no one would be having this discussion, but because they said it's a fictional account based on real reporting and first-hand accounts, that's why we can have this discussion. Because, in a sense, they're producing this hybrid which can be critiqued not only filmmaking grounds ... but also it can be critiqued on -- Is it good history?"

Related links:

CBC Books: Bin Laden's last days