Enforcing the mythology

If “the past is just a story we tell ourselves,”[35] [open notes in new window] then to create a story that defines that past also means to control both our present and future, particularly in the case of movies where the power of photographic reproduction collapses the distance between object and symbol, events and their representation. Significantly, while promoting a global mythology through its assistance to Boal and Bigelow, the U.S. government simultaneously denied access to others who might challenge the story told in Zero Dark Thirty.

The operative is always on the move. The camera catches him seemingly unaware from a variety of angles and distances. The viewer is “on the ground.” Sometimes the operative nearly disappears.
At other times we watch unknown persons in the crowd looking off-screen. The camera swerves, and suddenly, unexpectedly, we catch sight of the operative who seems to move independently of the camera. The operative is seen from afar, caught momentarily moving amidst unknown objects in the foreground.
The operative is one person lost among a crowd of similarly active and similarly dressed persons. He blends in and becomes indistinguishable. Carts are piled high with fruit, each cart likewise indistinguishable from the next. We lose sight of the operative in a vast marketplace. History, too, lacks significance - but for the narrative coherence that Zero Dark Thirty provides.

U.S. courts have historically given deference to the U.S. government’s claim of “national security” under the doctrine known as “states secrets.”[36] Thus, while the U.S. Congress enacted the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in order to promote open government through the public disclosure of government documents, the Act includes an exemption for “national security.” Thus courts will often refuse to compel the disclosure of information under that exemption even when the government has seemingly waived the exemption. Where courts have found, for example, there was a waiver of the confidentiality of the attorney-client privilege because an unrelated third party was present, courts have upheld the national security exemption even when the government has disclosed that same information to those outside of government. In effect, the FOIA disclosure must be redundant before a court will compel its disclosure.[37]

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the U.S. government successfully resisted efforts by third parties to obtain documents that would have identified the access given to Boal and Bigelow, namely “the names of the SEAL and the CIA officers” with whom the filmmakers had spoken.[38] Moreover, nearly all of the documents produced in response to a FOIA request were redacted, such as emails between the government and the filmmakers, internal government emails, and memos of meetings between the government and the filmmakers. This was especially the case for documents originating with the CIA, where in some instances the documents are so heavily redacted as to be barely readable.[39]  Thus, the government disclosed to the filmmakers the information that it wanted leaked while simultaneously barring access to others who sought to learn what had been disclosed and then reported on the screen. Indeed, in its effort to restrict public disclosure beyond what it deemed appropriate, the government threatened sanctions even against members of the SEAL team who had participated in the raid. Some of them had sought to take commercial advantage of their participation, whether through writing and publishing a first-hand account of the raid or acting as consultants to a video game about the Navy SEALS. In the case of the first-hand account, its author, a former member of the Navy SEALS team, forfeited $6.8 million in royalties and speaking fees in return effectively for his avoiding a criminal prosecution. [40]

Moreover, the courts also upheld on the grounds of “national security” the government’s refusal to produce other documents that might have enabled others to test the accuracy and authenticity of filmmakers’ depiction, namely, 52 photographs showing post-mortem images of bin Laden, supposedly including both photographs taken at the Abbottabad compound as well as at bin Laden’s burial at sea.[41] The government’s representatives testified that they had seen these photographs and asserted that their disclosure would violate national security. The trial court’s deference to the government’s claim of “national security” was unequivocal: 

“The Court declines Plaintiff’s invitation to substitute its own judgment about the national-security risks inherent in releasing these records for that of the executive-branch officials who determined that they should be classified.”[42]

Leaving aside those photographs that included evidence of facial recognition analysis (and could reasonably be expected to reveal classified intelligence methods) or that identified members of the Navy SEAL team (and might, therefore, be expected to endanger these persons, notwithstanding that they may have already met with Bigelow and Boal), the government argued that the other photographs, wholly “innocuous” and not “graphic” or “gruesome”, were a national security risk in that their release would incite violence outside the United States.[43] The government analogized the potential social harm to the publication of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. That had led to hundreds of injuries and deaths as well as to an attack on a U.S. airbase in Afghanistan; it also led to an erroneous article in Newsweek, alleging that U.S. soldiers had desecrated the Koran, that had led to deaths and injuries during protests against the United States in Afghanistan and Egypt. [44] The appellate court was no less deferential, if somewhat more careful, than the trial court in articulating the reason here for upholding the government’s claim of “national security”[45]:

“First, it is important to remember that this case does not involve a First Amendment challenge to an effort by the government to suppress images in the hands of private parties, a challenge that would come out quite differently…. [I]t is a statutory challenge, in which the sole question is whether the CIA has properly invoked FOIA Exemption 1 to authorize withholding images in its own possession…. Second, this is not a case in which the declarants are making predictions about the consequences of releasing just any images. Rather, they are predicting the consequences of releasing an extraordinary set of images, ones that depict American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al Qaeda. Third, the declarants support those predictions not with generalized claims, but with specific, reasonably analogous examples.”

In short, the court’s decision indicates that U.S. government may withhold information from the public by speculating on possible harm to national security based wholly upon an analogy to past events.

While the appellate court summarily observes that it was “undisputed” that the government was not withholding the images “to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment,” there’s an element of “catch-22” to this observation. How can one dispute the significance of documents that have not been disclosed? Such a problem arose a few years earlier when the U.S. Supreme Court denied “standing” to parties bringing a lawsuit in which they sought to test the constitutionality of the U.S. Patriot Act’s surveillance authorization. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the parties—lawyers, human rights researchers, and journalists—could not demonstrate that the government had obtained warrants for eavesdropping on their communications. It was only later, when Edward Snowden made public his unauthorized disclosures about the U.S. National Security Agency, that these “speculative” claims were effectively vindicated. The U.S. government has, in fact, engaged in wholesale surveillance, both domestic and foreign, under the guise of needing foreign intelligence against terrorism—though it remains unclear to what extent U.S. Courts will acknowledge this vindication.[46] Moreover, left unsaid in the appellate court’s decision denying access to the government’s photographs of bin Laden is whether there is any expiration date for this classified material, some of which the court, in denying access, acknowledges is qualitatively different from that made public.[47]

This presumption in favor of the government’s claim of “national security” in the case of Zero Dark Thirty effectively forecloses disclosure to the public and advances a governmental interest that may be wholly political and not coincide with public interest.[48] Would the government have barred the now iconic photographs at Abu Ghraib prison, released by Amnesty International and the Associated Press, because of “national security”? Isn’t the need for the disclosure of the bin Laden photographs all the more compelling, because they constitute what the court described as an “extraordinary set of images”? Boal and Bigelow reaped the benefit of the government’s self-serving largesse to just them. Given their filmmaking skills, the resulting movie has fostered a narrative in which the government’s perspective becomes the equivalent of historical events, a goal that coincides with Bigelow’s stated purpose in directing the movie, namely to create a “first draft of history.”

Moreover, the irony of that largesse is that the government’s assistance results in a movie in which the killing and post-mortem images of bin Laden are shown, including scenes in which a Navy SEAL takes photographs of bin Laden immediately after he has been shot and killed at his compound and in which Maya identifies bin Laden’s dead body in a military camp. The government simultaneously denies access to the actual images and recreates those same images in a manner consistent with its mythology. Arguing successfully that the release of the actual photographs will harm national security, the government simultaneously facilitates a fictional portrayal that could equally incite violence, such as resulted from the publication of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (as the government cited in its brief) or from the satirical cartoons drawn of the Prophet Muhammad by those killed in the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. However, no violence resulted from the film’s release.[49]

Moreover, the power of a fictional portrayal, such as Zero Dark Thirty, to define history is implicitly best evidenced by the collective yawn that seems to have resulted from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s release in early December 2014 of its unclassified, over-500-page report on the CIA’s interrogation program. That report found not only that the CIA had engaged in far more extensive torture than was previously revealed but also that such torture had been ineffective.[50] Thus, the Chair of the Committee, together with the Chair and a Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in mid-December 2014 to the movie’s producer, Sony Corporation, protesting Zero Dark Thirty as

“grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”[51]

The senators said,

“The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques.”[52]

Their letter to Sony also seem to plead for their helplessness in dispelling the misinformation conveyed in Zero Dark Thirty.

Under the guise of “national security” the executive branch of the U.S. government successfully shapes the mythology of the raid. Even if there is an expiration date on this “national security” material, it is not likely that anyone will care by the time that it is released. Does anyone care, for example, about the detailed accounts of CIA torture at Guantanamo Bay now that the CIA is belatedly beginning to allow its victims to speak about their memories of those details without violating classified “state secrets”?[53]

The mythology triumphant?

U.S. culture favors pragmatism and commercial business values, and as such movies are considered primarily entertainment, not real and inconsequential. Nevertheless, movie mythmaking inevitably begets efforts at counter-mythmaking. The power of a movie fiction, such as Zero Dark Thirty, to create a mythology and hence an historical record resulted in the release about 2 ½ years later of a PBS documentary in which the narrative of the raid is retold. In contrast to Zero Dark Thirty, where torture plays a role in finding bin Laden, PBS through its Frontline series on May 19, 2015, broadcast a documentary nearly one hour long titled “Secrets, Politics and Torture” that focused on the raid and recast the role of torture in that raid.[54] Thus, for example, the documentary addressed the following:

The broadcast specifically mentions Zero Dark Thirty as a presentation of the CIA’s view of torture, commenting that such a movie has a “huge impact” on the public perception of past events.

Not surprisingly, much of the U.S. media praised the broadcast for setting the record straight on the role of torture in finding bin Laden.[55] Such praise coincides with the adverse publicity that had initially greeted Zero Dark Thirty when the media learned of the government’s assistance to the filmmakers. Nevertheless, the broadcast introduces no new information and instead recasts that which had already been disclosed. Moreover, if the broadcast represents an effort to remake the mythology that Zero Dark Thirty has created, how successful is a PBS documentary relative to a large-budgeted, Hollywood action movie? A more effective counter to Zero Dark Thirty was surely the comic riff on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in which Dame Helen Mirren reads without inflection the horrifying details on torture from the Senate Committee’s report and Oliver openly mocks the fictional portrayal of torture in the hyped-up TV series 24.[56]  Entertainment and especially the Hollywood ending, as exemplified by Zero Dark Thirty, create our mythology and define our perceptions—and not a U.S. Senate Committee’s 500-page, redacted findings detailing the ineffectiveness of the CIA torture program or a one-hour PBS documentary broadcast years later.  

Moreover, at about the same time as the PBS broadcast, Seymour Hersh published in an early May 2015 issue of London Review of Books, a 10,000-word article entitled “The Killing of bin Laden.”[57] In contrast to the PBS broadcast, Hersh’s article introduces wholly new information that directly contradicts the depiction of events in Zero Dark Thirty. A celebrated journalist, who, among other things, had disclosed the My Lai massacre and its cover up during the U.S. war in Viet Nam and had more recently reported on the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Hersh disputed through his sources—primarily “a retired senior intelligence official”—the portrayal in Zero Dark Thirty that the CIA was solely responsible for finding and killing bin Laden. To the contrary, as Hersh wrote:

Hersh’s account clearly contradicts the portrayal of events in Zero Dark Thirty. It also contradicts the sworn testimony given on behalf of the CIA in its successful argument against the disclosure of the photographs showing bin Laden after his death, including his supposed burial at sea.[60] Moreover, Hersh attributes the official version of the details of the raid that were released publicly (and depicted in the movie) as a result of the need to reconstruct events following a lack of coordination within the U.S. government, or what Hersh describes as a “poorly constructed cover story.”[61]

Both the White House and the CIA, not surprisingly, immediately denied Hersh’s retelling of what led to and happened during the raid. The White House issued a flat denial of Hersh’s article as “utter nonsense.”[62] The CIA indirectly denied Hersh’s account through its former Deputy Director and Acting Director Mike Morell. Morell had met with the filmmakers in 2011 and ironically later had issued the CIA’s release describing the movie’s inaccuracies. Appearing on the Charlie Rose Show, Morell now summarily dismissed as inaccurate Hersh’s account, claiming that the Pakistani government had not known of bin Laden’s location. It had instead willfully remained ignorant. Not incidentally, Morell took the opportunity of Rose’s show to describe his briefing in Dallas of former President George Bush on the bin Laden killing (with Bush reacting “like a kid in a candy store”) and to characterize the U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, that few have presumably read and is to some extent now forgotten, as “deeply flawed.”[63]

With exceptions,[64] the press also attacked Hersh’s account, including Hersh’s use of an anonymous source.[65] Indeed, that attack continues unabated. Thus, for example, several months following Hersh’s account, Mark Bowden, the author of one of the first books on the raid on bin Laden’s compound, The Finish,[66] has sharply criticized in Vanity Fair an effort at rehabilitating Hersh’s account, namely author Jonathan Mahler’s cover article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?”[67] Bowden notes how his book-length account was based on many interviews, including a lengthy interview with President Obama. He says that Hersh’s theory, if accepted, would improbably require that all his sources had consistently and repeatedly lied. In the absence of Mahler’s offering any reliable evidence disputing the narrative resulting from his [Bowden’s] interviews, Bowden views Mahler’s failure to dismiss Hersh as simply promoting a narrative that will delight “conspiracy theorists” everywhere. For his part Mahler observes that reporters typically shape historical events in order to create an interesting narrative, such as Bowden’s earlier book (and the later movie) Black Hawk Down. Mahler then speculates how Bowden came to shape his particular official narrative, noting, for example, how Bowden had available to him virtually no unclassified paper trail and didn’t personally view the supposed photos of bin Laden’s dead body, let alone the burial at sea.

Mahler further observes that Zero Dark Thirty, in enacting the government’s narrative, favors the CIA’s agenda to promote the myth that the raid somehow “transformed American politics.” Moreover, he openly speculates on how improbable a number of these narrative events are. He found unlikely that the Pakistani government was unaware of bin Laden’s nearby presence to the Pakistani military college or that it could fail to detect the CIA’s intrusion, considering both the Pakistani air defense and the explosions on the ground during the raid itself. Mahler admittedly raises questions that he is unable to answer, but he offers historical precedent. These include the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that justified U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and the more recent claim about Sadaam Hussain’s “weapons of mass destruction” that resulted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Of course, as striking as Hersh’s account may be in contradicting the government’s official report on the finding and killing of bin Laden, his account is surely no less striking than the Senate Committee’s findings (based on its examination of more than six million CIA-originating documents) of the CIA’s pattern of deliberate obstruction and deceit. Thus, the Senate Committee’s Report includes findings that the CIA misrepresented in hearings and in other contexts the brutality of its interrogations and confinements, provided inaccurate information to the U.S. Justice Department, and impeded Congressional and White House oversight.[68] Contrast the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty—whose filmmakers emphasized how the government fully cooperated with them and whose film portrays how torture resulted in the finding of bin Laden—with the Senate Committee’s express finding that CIA torture was wholly ineffective.

Indeed, perjury often seems part of the intelligence community’s tradecraft. Thus, in March 2013 while Zero Dark Thirty was still in release, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, famously testified before U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the NSA does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”[69] When, however, in early June 2013 Edward Snowden—one amongst many, many persons knowledgeable about this program but all of whom had kept silent—began releasing classified documents that demonstrated that the NSA was, in fact, engaged in massive surveillance of Americans, Clapper wrote the Senate Committee’s Chair and admitted that his sworn testimony had been false.  

“…I realized later that Senator Wyden was asking about Section 215 metadata collection rather than content collection [sic]. This was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize….I can now openly correct it because the existence of the metadata program has been declassified [sic]….Mistakes will happen, and  when I make one, I correct it.”[70]

Hersh’s account underscores the issue of whether it is ever appropriate to recreate on the large screen (or on any platform that receives wide distribution) a movie that depicts a recent, historically important event and to rely upon, for that depiction, those who participated in and have much to gain (or lose) from how that event is depicted. The rights of free speech and of a free press, whereby U.S. journalists routinely check and confirm the accuracy of their sources in order to avoid liability, surely do not exhaust the moral obligations of filmmakers who would effectively document historical events—and are motivated by the commercial demands of the marketplace and influenced by their own aesthetic vision.

The authenticity of mythology in Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow and her screenwriter Boal’s reliance upon the U.S. government’s version of events, as told to them through interviews with those involved in planning and executing the raid, has resulted in a movie that seemingly documents and thereby fixes our collective memory of how the U.S. government found and killed bin Laden. In doing so, Bigelow, as the director of Zero Dark Thirty, has created the mythology that will define bin Laden’s death long after articles about those events, including this essay, will have been forgotten. Correcting the public perception, as in the case of Hersh’s article, is extraordinarily difficult given the power of the entertainment media. If movies have an unprecedented ability to conjure up and recreate our memories, then filmmakers surely have a far greater moral obligation to themselves and their audience in creating history in the name of artistic license. History is hardly neutral. Rather it is what we create in an effort to make sense of and understand our past and thereby who and what we are and will become.

Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is singularly lacking in self-awareness. In portraying the events leading to the death of bin Laden as a reenactment of The Searchers, Bigelow ironically plays the role of reporter Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a movie which John Ford, the director of The Searchers, made a few years later. Interviewing Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), who was elected to the U.S. Congress because he was known as the “man who shot [the outlaw] Liberty Valance,” Scott learns that, in fact, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), not Stoddard, had killed Valance. Rather than print that story, Scott deliberately tears up his notes to the interview and famously declares,

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty prints the legend as fact. In contrast, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with its theatricality of actors too old to play their parts[71] and outdoor scenes so clearly Hollywood sets, represents Ford’s acknowledgement of how Hollywood movies lie through constructing a mythology. In twice depicting the gunfight in which Valance is killed, Ford unequivocally exposes how the editing and framing of shots deceive audiences in the process of creating that mythology. A conservative filmmaker who believes in tradition, the innate corruption of human civilization and the inevitability of historical fact, Ford accepts the legend even as he acknowledges, documents and extols the deceptiveness necessary to its creation.

Therein lies Ford’s authenticity, however, and the emotional response of many, including young, radical filmmaker Jean Luc Godard’s supposed reaction to Ethan Edward’s sweeping gesture in which he lifts Debbie into his arms. How could he hate John Wayne and his politics and yet be moved by the warmth of that gesture?[72] For all of its seductiveness, Ford’s American mythology evidences a Brechtian distancing from the enacted epic drama, and it arouses in us a partial disbelief in that mythology. The iconic shot of the homestead door closing on a now weary John Wayne in The Searchers is both anticipated and objectified in the film’s opening shot in which Aaron and his family open the door of their soon-to-be-destroyed home to the approaching figure of Aaron’s brother Ethan in the distance. The Searchers announces from the outset that it is mythmaking. For all of his fascination with the United States, Godard in his early movies also enacted the pleasures of Hollywood genres as well as exposed those genres for their sad, sometimes tragic role in historical mythmaking.

Stoddard momentarily steps off the sidewalk and into the street in order to retrieve his gun that Valance has easily shot out of his hand. Stoddard returns to the sidewalk, however, and seemingly kills Valance.
Stoddard walks off screen right and crosses ... ... the 180 degree axis of the shot. He encounters his love interest, Hallie. Hallie has chosen Ransom Stoddard over Tom Doniphon.
The later dramatization of this scene is shot from the perspective an alley, disclosing that Doniphon and Pompey, unbeknownst to the audience or Stoddard and Valance, have been watching the shootout. There is now a spatial depth to the scene. Doniphon is, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance.
Like Stoddard in the initial dramatization, Doniphon, too, walks off screen right. However, followed by a momentary black screen and a dissolve ... ... we watch Doniphon explain to Stoddard in another time what we have witnessed. Cinematic conventions enable Ford to reveal to the audience, if transparently, his version of history. In mythologizing events, Ford tells us, movies lie.

Bigelow early in her career as a painter and film student associated with such conceptual and radical artists as Vito Acconci, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, and Susan Sontag.[73] Each of these artists understood the distance necessary to engage and give meaning to their art. Bigelow has increasingly forgotten the emotional disengagement that underlies Ford’s movies and the resulting authenticity of his politics in depicting American culture on the movie screen, howsoever conservative those politics may have been. It is not simply a question of the “social and moral obligation to get the facts right,” as the U.S. Senators wrote to Sony in protesting the depiction of how the U.S. found and killed Bin Laden.[74] As a result of the absence of a reflective distance from the mythology enacted on the screen, Bigelow lacks an authenticity in her filmmaking and becomes simply another commercially successful technician, a celebrated filmmaker unspooling the Company line and the mythology that serves to benefit that Company.

Four figures later pose on the porch to the Jorgensen home as Ethan delivers Debbie safely home. The door will then close on Ethan who will return to the barren plains of the American West. Situating the Jorgensen’s home beneath the towering buttes of Monument Valley, The Searchers doesn’t document the West. It mythologizes the domestication of the West.


FOIA requests continue to disclose the nature and extent of the cooperation between the US government and the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty. Thus, after the writing of this essay, it was reported that:

Undoubtedly there will be additional disclosures with the passage of time.   Nevertheless, on the fifth anniversary of the death of bin Laden the CIA tweeted in celebration the Navy SEAL’s raid, “remembering the Raid in Abbottabd” as “one of the greatest intelligence operations of all times,” thereby echoing the triumphant portrayal of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Evoking both the larger-than-life, heroic vision of John Wayne in The Alamo (1960) and Slyvester Stallone’s rewriting of history in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Zero Dark Thirty enables the United States to win this time. [80]

Our understanding of the past, our collective history and its mythology, is not a neutral accumulation of facts. Rather, it consists of a selection and arrangement, no different in that respect from the creative process of filmmaking. In both we define our imaginative and moral worth as individuals. Such is the possible authenticity and thereby the value of movies as an art form. Lacking that authenticity, movies merely entertain, seamlessly create for us as paying - but largely passive - consumers the story of our past, and seek to define both our present and future cultural history.