PARIS -- The realities highlighted by the Oscar-nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty," which detailed the operation that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden, don't begin and end with the debate over what some call "torture" as a means of obtaining intelligence. That's just the only issue from the film that politicians and the media have glommed onto. More than anything else, "Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the rare films that accurately portrays the realities and frustrations of working in espionage and intelligence.
I think it's safe to say that tactics like loud music, sleep deprivation and water-boarding would at least be more effective than asking an unlawful enemy combatant obsessed with killing you to politely fill you in on any adverse operations. The question of whether an activity constitutes torture really depends on your own definition of it: your point of reference, personal preferences and level of tolerance. Western military and intelligence personnel are trained to withstand enemy interrogation tactics. It's just one of those things that go with the territory when you choose warfare as a profession, particularly when you engage as a freelance guerrilla unassociated with a nation-state covered by the Geneva Conventions' protections.
But "Zero Dark Thirty" depicts many other realities about intelligence work that have passed under the radar.
One of the reasons why most films about intelligence and espionage are unrealistic is because in movies, officers are allowed to take initiative. They get an idea, maybe run it by a colleague on the down-low or muse about it to a superior, then simply run out and execute it. The paper-shuffling and painstaking approval process is typically omitted from films, likely for fear that watching officers fill out forms would put audiences to sleep.
"Zero Dark Thirty" makes the very real frustrations of not being able to act entrepreneurially within a bloated bureaucratic agency highly compelling, with the main character -- a CIA officer portrayed by Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain -- butting heads with her chief of station and her colleagues almost as often as with obstructive terror suspects at agency black sites. As in real life, the bureaucracy was almost a character unto itself in the movie -- like the ghost in a horror film that we never see but constantly tortures the protagonist.
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