In denial over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

You’ve got to admit that it’s awfully precious that there was a huge controversy about “Zero Dark Thirty” because Kathryn Bigelow’s film suggested that enhanced interrogation techniques helped intelligence officials find Osama bin Laden but no controversy about the final mission in the movie — to kill, but not capture, the al-Qaida leader.

Some of the film’s defenders believe that the controversy robbed “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow, actress Jessica Chastain and screenwriter Mark Boal of well-deserved Oscars. Maybe so but maybe not; a number of fine films were up for best picture this year.

But it cannot have helped that Ed Asner and other Hollywood lefties urged Academy members not to vote for the film, because they believed that it glorified “torture.” And it probably didn’t help that author Naomi Wolf called Bigelow a “Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture.”

It also cannot have helped that the family of Sept. 11 flight attendant Betty Ann Ong — who alerted American Airlines that her plane was being hijacked — was demanding that filmmakers apologize for using Ong’s voice, list her name among the credits and include a disclaimer that the Ong family does not endorse torture.

Other critics have acknowledged that Bigelow and Boal depicted the ugly side of intelligence extraction, but they expressed dismay that the film did not depict more hand-wringing on the part of CIA interrogators and decision-makers.

It also cannot have helped the film’s Oscar prospects that three senators — Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin and Republican John McCain — sent a letter to Sony Pictures to voice their “deep disappointment” in the film’s “suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of … bin Laden.” The three senators also harrumphed that the movie was “factually inaccurate.”

The irony here is that the letter prompted acting CIA Director Michael Morell to acknowledge that though he thought the film had sold the agency’s dogged teamwork short in many ways and falsely left the impression that the agency’s “former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden,” some of the intelligence that led to bin Laden indeed “came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques.”

The controversy also dredged up a 2011 letter that Leon Panetta, defense secretary and former CIA director, sent to McCain. The Washington Post reported that Panetta wrote, “Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.” Panetta also has said he believes that the information could have been extracted without enhanced interrogation techniques.

Both letters suggest that on the senators’ big sticking point — whether enhanced techniques helped bring bin Laden to justice — “Zero Dark Thirty” was on the money. What they call torture produced results, and they don’t want the public to know that. That’s why some heavyweights in Washington and Hollywood were rooting for Bigelow and company to fail.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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