Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal‘s film claims to be ‘based on a true story’ but no non-fiction writer could take such liberties
“Zero Dark Thirty is a dreary and predictable movie (predictable even beyond that we know Osama bin Laden‘s fate). Also, it’s a bit copy-cat. It’s Homeland without the character quirks. (“OK… picture this… Homeland… but the girl isn’t nuts – just super-focused. What about that?” is something like how the screenwriter, Mark Boal, must have pitched it.)
The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. Pretty much everybody in the intelligence community in a position to say this isn’t true has said it isn’t. And then there’s the girl-alone-against-the-world narrative: Maya, our heroine, thinks about nothing else but Osama bin Laden for almost 10 years and because of this single-minded obsession, American forces are able to find and kill him. That according to everybody and anybody, and to common sense, is hogwash too.
A non-fiction writer couldn’t do this. If you did this and maintained, to the extent that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty appear to maintain, that this was true, and with as little documentary evidence, either no one would publish you or you would have to invent evidence to get published. And then, you’d invariably be found out, scandal would ensue and your name would be blackened.
Movies, on the other hand, even when they represent themselves to be non-fiction like Zero Dark Thirty, are still what we accept as a “dramatization”, so therefore not really real. How that is different from a non-fiction author using novelizing techniques to bring to life his story – and subsequently being humiliated by Oprah when he turns out to have significantly stretched the truth – I don’t know.
It certainly isn’t that this is just mere suspension of disbelief and that, when the lights go on, we go back to known reality. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty, wrapped in the great praise that invariably accompanies middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day, will compete as a true narrative for how al-Qaida was dealt with and Osama dispatched. (Similarly, The Social Network, an almost entirely made-up version of the founding of Facebook, has pretty much become the rosetta stone of social-media history.)
Notably, the makers of this silly, stick-figure and cartoonish movie, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Boal, are not out on talk shows defending the verisimilitude of their film. Their affect – which perhaps journalists caught in the act of making things up ought to study – is much more sphinx-ike. They are artists and don’t have to lower themselves to defend or respond.”