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Not Based on a True Story: Zero Dark Thirty

(With our thoughts on Syria published (for now), we return to our 2013 Academy Awards coverage. To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Unlike Argo, whose inaccuracies were treated with a collective media shoulder shrug--the few articles correcting the record were short and off the front page--the inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty created a (relative) media maelstrom.

As soon as filming started, conservatives accused the Obama administration of leaking information to make itself look good. When people started seeing the film, liberals accused the filmmakers of pushing a pro-torture narrative. Senators and CIA chiefs got in on the action, debating what was and wasn’t true.

Not all inaccuracies are made equal. According to the article, “The Shooter” in Esquire, the finals scenes of the raid had some small, technical errors. I have to ask: who really cares if they shouted Osama bin Laden’s name or not? In the long run, that’s bad, but fixable. (All this assumes we can even figure out what happened.)

But that doesn’t mean those little mistakes can’t lead to huge misunderstandings. As Eric C pointed out when he reviewed the inaccuracies of Argo, changing a bunch of minor facts can change how Americans see their role in the world. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, this gives many Americans false views on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty had so many little mistakes that we divided this post into two parts. Tomorrow’s will deal just with torture; today’s with the rest. So what are the biggest myths peddled by Zero Dark Thirty?

Myth 1: The CIA is super effective. Why isn't this true? See this whole post on topic. Remember, we didn't even know the CIA's budget until last month. The CIA doesn't release good records on successful and unsuccessful operations. They do, though, leak tantalizing stories of their successes in operative memoirs and Hollywood films, as we’ve written about before.

Myth 2: The bureaucracy still sucks. Just as Eric C pointed out with Argo, in Zero Dark Thirty, the federal government can’t do anything right, but intel folks come off looking like superstars. Mindless DC bureaucrats--the CIA station chief in Pakistan, then his replacement (he doesn't deny Maya's requests, he just says, "whatever" and shrugs), then the CIA officials in Washington D.C., then Obama's Chief of Staff--all delay finding Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, Bigelow and Boal never even say what changed Obama's mind, it just kind of happens with about 45 minutes left to go in the film. (That’s what we call a deus ex machina in the biz, folks.)

Myth 3: Terrorism is a grave, continuing threat. The film parades a series of terror attacks before the viewer: starting with the sounds of first responders, Flight 93 passengers and news reports on 9/11; then the 7/7 attacks; then showing the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan; and finally a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It leaves the viewers with this conclusion: Osama bin Laden was planning and conducting terror attacks around the world and we needed to kill him.

This version of history is wildly wrong:

- The 7/7 attacks were conducted by homegrown extremists. While Al Qaeda did take credit for the attack, later intelligence discredited their involvement. In other words, they took credit after the fact, without providing logistical or material support.

- The Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing was not linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It may have been politically motivated or conducted by another Islamic group. Frankly, we don’t know. Including it, then, seems odd, considering this was a movie about Osama bin Laden.[ital]

- Finally, displaying terror attacks like this make terrorism seem common, even though it it incredibly rare. For proof, see this post, this post, this post, this video, this post, this article, this article or this article. Films like Zero Dark Thirty leave viewers emotionally scared, but logically misinformed.

Myth 4: Pakistan is dangerous for westerners. Not as dangerous as you think. In one scene, analyst Maya is attacked by gunmen entering the Embassy compound. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone describes, this type of scene has happened in Peshawar, but doesn’t really take place in Islamabad. Pakistan, like many third world nations, isn’t as safe as America. But it also isn’t a war zone where Westerners can’t leave their homes without fear of dying. There are parts which are very violent--you know, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--but not Islamabad.

Myth 5: The CIA analysts approach their targets objectively. Actually, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't show this. They show one agent believing she is right, and doing whatever it takes to prove herself. Guess what? In the run-up to the Iraq War, countless analysts and case officers (and Vice Presidents/Secretaries of Defense) felt the exact same way about the threat of Iraq's WMDs. They desperately tried to make that case. They were wrong.

Throughout the investigation to find Osama bin Laden, plenty of analysts and case officers thought for sure they knew where he was. They were wrong too.

Sadly, the CIA, not the American public, will learn the wrong lesson from this. Instead of relying on data and evidence, they will think, "I will go down in history if I just trust my gut. Isn't that what leaders do?" Of course, they'll be wrong.

So watch Zero Dark Thirty. Enjoy it as a fictional spy story, equivalent to The Bourne Identity, 2 Guns or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But don’t consider it in anyway, "based on true events". It wasn't, not even remotely.

five comments

I didn’t even find ZDT very entertaining. I actually fell asleep during my screening. I have to wonder if Catherine Bigelow has gotten a little rinse/wash/repeat. ZDT, The Hurt Locker, and Point Break are all kind of the same movie. She and Mark Boal were apparently getting set to put together a film about Tora Bora prior to the bin Laden raid. That actually sounds more interesting to me than ZDT.

I didn’t think it was all bad entertainment-wise. I was impressed by Édgar Ramírez’s character and his team. I really liked the scene in which Maya is reading Larry (Ramírez’s character) the GOYA riot act and they walk into the next room where his team members are seen in the background literally too tired to sleep.


I avoided seeing this film as it struck me as (intentionally or unintentionally) propagandic. When I attempted to explain this to people, I was literally shouted down. Hollywood, used to playing on sets with actors, is far too easily enamored by what they perceive to be James Bond-esque spies. What I have found frighteningly alarming lately is how supposedly liberal Hollywood is being a mouthpiece for our government/CIA (Argo, ZDT, and now the anti-Bradley Manning film) rather that providing a genuine debate against Empire.


I’m sorry, but I disagree with the last paragraph in the article. Numerous movies have claimed their origin/upbringing as a result of being ‘based on true events’. This doesn’t necessarily mean all incidence of filmed sequences are historically verifiable. For example, the CIA’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan are true events which, hypothetically, could be used as the valid foundations to make thousands of “espionage” films. Zero Dark Thirty is simply derived from the CIA’s attempt to capture/kill OBL (CIA analyses) and the specific means to ultimately kill/capture OBL (DEVGRU assault). So yeah, Zero Dark Thirty was “remotely” based on true events.


D. Miller:

It may be alarming but I don’t think it surprising that Hollywood is a mouthpiece for the government. Firstly, as you mention, they have always been fascinated with violent people, witness the all the Mafia movies over the years.

Secondly and I think more importantly is something that appears to me to have really developed over the last generation or so. Hollywood views itself as part of the cultural/political elite. They are part of the superzip establishment. The federal security services (some gov official actually used that phrase ‘security services’ in the last couple of weeks) are the natural guardians of the elites. It is only natural that the superzip elites glorify their sword and shield, as the Soviet Union glorified the KGB. So it is the most natural thing that Hollywood act as a mouthpiece for the part of the federal gov that actively protects the establishment as they are an integral part of the establishment.


I stumbled onto this website while researching all of the negativity surrounding Marcus Luttrell and Operation Red Wings. This lead me to read your articles on this subject as well as others such as Zero Dark Thirty. After reading five or six posts, it is clear to me that the writers of this site are misinformed, liberal babies. I cannot believe how critical you are of so many things.
Also, your “sources” cited in several posts i.e. Lone Survivor are in no way based in concrete fact. You think the military would actually release an after-action report on a SPECWAR mission? Especially one that went so wrong? This is ridiculous. Speculate all you want on the actual numbers of how many men Luttrell and his Teammates faced that day, but I’ll take him at his word. I suggest you do the same.