Director Kathryn Bigelow has been forced to defend the torture scenes in her Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty, saying such actions were an undeniable part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September, 2001.
Much was made about the authenticity of the film by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who used insider access to tell the sweeping, meticulously detailed story of the decade-long search for Bin Laden.
Last week, Zero Dark Thirty won five Academy Award nominations – including best picture, but not best director – and this past weekend, it was top of the US domestic box office with a gross of nearly $25 million.
At last weekend’s Golden Globes, the film missed on the best film and best director titles, though its star, Jessica Chastain, took the best actress award.
What may be the film’s biggest challenge in the pursuit of Oscar glory is playing out in the debate over the film’s accuracy in its depiction of torture, and whether the movie itself endorses the use of torture.
Legislators lead by Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican John McCain are also investigating whether the CIA gave Bigelow and Boal false information as to whether “enhanced interrogation tactics” led directly to the 2011 capture and killing in Pakistan of the al-Qaeda leader.
“Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue,” Bigelow wrote in the Los Angeles Times yesterday.
She wrote: “I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.”
She added: “War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.”
At least one member of the motion picture academy, David Clennon, has said he will not vote for Zero Dark Thirty because of how it depicts torture.
Amy Pascal, co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which distributed the film, has issued a lengthy statement in support of the film, saying it does not advocate torture and would have been inaccurate without its inclusion.
Bigelow and Boal had said previously that they “depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding Bin Laden”.
They said: “The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatises.”
Oscar historian Tom O’Neil said: “Kathryn Bigelow paid a price for giving torture such a starring role in this movie.
“Whether that’s a reaction to the controversy over its accuracy or it was a reaction to the use of torture at all … some people are being thrown by that.”
Glenn Whipp, who covers the awards season for the Los Angeles Times, said: “For academy voters, there’s two issues here. Some believe the filmmakers fudged the facts. And even if they didn’t get it wrong, there’s the notion that showing torture and acknowledging its role in the decade-long hunt for Bin Laden all but endorses its use. That’s going to ding the film’s Oscar hopes.”