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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and terrorism expert Steve Coll has joined the chorus of voices debating Zero Dark Thirty‘s depiction of torture. The film, which follows the hunt to track down Osama bin Laden, garnered five Academy Award nominations on Thursday and is hitting wide release this weekend.
In a new essay in The New York Review of Books, Coll, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, takes aim at director Bigelow’s claim that the project is a “reported film” and argues that Zero‘s “faults as journalism matter because they may well affect the unresolved public debate about torture.”
The piece, titled “‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading,'” argues that Bigelow and filmmaker Mark Boal — despite their attempts at basing the film on real events — “cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden.”
Coll argues that the duo’s depiction of torture influences public policy. TV shows like 24 and Hollywood blockbusters like Taken have depicted torture as a means to an end, which in turn may affect how audiences perceive torture as an interrogation technique.
“In public opinion polling, a bare majority of Americans opposes torturing prisoners in the struggle against terrorism, but public support for torture has risen significantly during the last several years, a change that the Stanford University intelligence scholar Amy Zegart has attributed in part to the influence of ‘spy-themed entertainment,'” Coll contends.
Bigelow stated last week at the New York Film Critics Circle ceremony that “depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices.”
Coll is only the latest to level criticism at the film’s claims to authenticity. A bipartisan group of Senators, including Dianne Feinstein and John McCain, wrote a letter to Sony pictures calling the film “grossly inaccurate.” Acting CIA Director Michael Morell issued a public statement in late December that emphasized that the film is a “dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts.”
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