"Zero Dark Thirty," the film about the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, got a fresh infusion of buzz over the weekend when outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed again that enhanced interrogation techniques aided the effort to find bin Laden.
"Some of it came from ... interrogation tactics that were used," he said. "But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that. I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that."
In other words, the movie exaggerates the role played by enhanced interrogation techniques -- torture to some -- but they did have a role in the hunt for bin Laden. But why stop there? Like most films about real events, "Zero Dark Thirty" exaggerates all sorts of things. For starters, the hunt for bin Laden wasn't conducted single-handedly by a very attractive red-haired woman, recruited from high school by the CIA.
The movie also exaggerates how the detainees were treated. To watch the film, torture was used every time a detainee -- pretty much any detainee -- gave a false or partial answer to a question. The interrogators could beat, humiliate and waterboard prisoners on an impulse. In reality, they didn't beat detainees at all.
As former George W. Bush aide Marc Thiessen notes, of the more than 100,000 prisoners in the war on terror, only about 100 were ever held by the CIA and of those, only about a third were subjected to any enhanced interrogation methods. A total of three detainees were waterboarded -- and then only under medical supervision and with written authorization from superiors.
Though the film exaggerates some things, to the dismay of critics on the right (and in the intelligence community), it ignores other issues. For instance, critics on the left fairly complain that the stark cost in Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani innocent lives is never referenced. More relevant, nobody ever raises moral objections to the torture of detainees (in part, because the objectionable treatment doesn't need a monologue for the audience to recognize it).
All these complaints are fair game as far as movie criticism goes. Director Kathryn Bigelow had every right to make whatever movie she wanted. And critics have every right to respond however they want. That said, most of the complaints from the left and the right can be boiled down to the fact that Bigelow didn't make the movie her critics wanted.