Much like Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty is another movie that I had began writing a blog post about but never finished. Jay and I saw it at the end of January. Let me just get this out of the way first: I loved Zero Dark Thirty. The acting was spectacular. I was involved from the moment the opening credit titles appeared over real-life 911 calls on 9/11 from people trapped in the World Trade Center. I chewed my nails right down to my knuckles watching that incredible raid scene where Andy from Parks & Rec helps kill the head of al-Qaeda. I thought as a piece of entertainment, it was great. Man, if only I could get all of my blog posts into such concise thoughts. But it’s me, so I hope you can endure all 1,300 words that follow this paragraph…
Since Zero Dark Thirty was based on actual events, I went to Google to search for the “real” story as soon as we walked through the door after seeing it. Naturally, I felt inspired to write about the truth vs. fiction aspect of it, just like I did when I saw The Social Network and Argo. So what’s the “real life” story behind Zero Dark Thirty? I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve come up with:
The character of Maya was inspired by a real life female C.I.A. operative, though director Kathryn Bigelow has said that she changed everything about her physical appearance in order to protect her identity as she is still active in the field. Screenwriter/ journalist Mark Boal has said that as he was looking to change the film’s direction after the news broke that Osama bin Laden was killed, he caught wind from sources in the intelligence community “that a woman was there on the night of the raid as one of the C.I.A.’s liaison officers on the ground.” Further inquiries told of a young woman, recruited just out of college, who had spent her entire professional career on the bin Laden hunt.
Maya is popularly believed to be a woman who is also referred to as “Jen” in the book “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden.” The book’s author, former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, describes “Jen” as a young woman who had been recruited out of college, had been working on the bin Laden search for five years and had “worked to put all the pieces together” in tracking him to Abbottabad, Pakistan. This woman was also the SEALs’ “go-to analyst on all intelligence questions regarding the target.” Book Jen shares two very important moments with movie Maya: Bissonnette writes that he himself asked Jen, “Honestly, what are the odds it’s him?” To which she responded, “One hundred percent.” The second thing Maya shares with Jen is a similar reaction to seeing bin Laden’s body back at the compound: “With tears rolling down her cheeks, I could tell it was taking a while for Jen to process. She’d spent half a decade tracking this man. And now there he was at her feet.” Sadly, no word on whether or not she actually told the director of the C.I.A. that she was the “motherfucker that found this place.”
That said, there is a dissonant voice to the idea that Maya was only based on one brave woman. Says former C.I.A. agent Nada Bakos, “From my perspective, Maya is a compilation of a variety of women. [Retired agent] Cindy [Storer], myself, and a variety of others who worked there. It doesn’t take one person to be able to unravel that thread throughout the ten years.” Ah, the time issue. Bissonnette’s description of “Jen” tells that she had only been working on the bin Laden task force for five years, not 10, as Maya had. Boal confesses that he knows many women were central to bin Laden’s eventual death and that while Maya’s persona is based on one person, ” she also represents the work of a lot of other women.” It is likely that Boal refers to a group of female C.I.A. analysts called “The Sisterhood” who lead the bin Laden search starting in 1995. Did Bakos, Storer, and co. find that thread and “Jen” was the gal who was in the right place at the right time?
…Or was she even a woman? Writer Peter Bergen told NPR back in December that Maya is actually based off of a man. And according to the Washington Post, the actual Maya is a female who is allegedly a raging bitch in real life who has “sparred with C.I.A. colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission.” Unnamed sources at the C.I.A. told the Post that the film’s depiction of her dedication and “combative temperament” is accurate and that she was “not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden.” The same sources claim that the director of the C.I.A. has forbidden this woman from talking to any media.
Played by Jennifer Ehle, the character of Jessica was based on real-life C.I.A. agent Jennifer Lynne Matthews, who just like her counterpart was killed in the Camp Chapma suicide bombing. The portrayal of Jessica/Jennifer in the movie is highly contested by those who knew her. Bakos laments, “The portrayal of who we’re supposed to assume is Jennifer Matthews is not accurate. This was not representative of who she was as a person. A lot of the first articles that came out really trashed Jennifer and most of those people don’t know her and don’t know what happened.”
In the movie, Jessica is one of Maya’s co-workers, a flighty analyst who ultimately is killed by an informant who promises dirt on al-Qaeda. A very enthusiastic movie Jessica convinces colleagues to let him on the base without being searched so as not to scare him off. In real life, the bomber was actually let on without a search because he was already established as a trusted source – who ended up being a double agent for al-Qaeda. I know that Hollywood tends to change things around for the sake of a better story, but the concept of a C.I.A. base in Afghanistan not searching anyone before entering it is far-fetched and failed my “suspension of disbelief” test. Retired C.I.A. agent Cindy Storer who tracked bin Laden from 1995 commented, “I was so angry at this heated depiction of Jennifer as some fluffy-headed schoolgirl [that] I just lost respect for it right there.” Lest there be any doubt, Matthews has been described as one of the “one of the C.I.A.’s top experts on al-Qaeda.”
Maya’s boss at the C.I.A., played by Kyle Chandler, is based off of Jonathan Banks. Banks was the C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan before being named in a lawsuit brought by a Pakistani journalist whose relatives were killed by U.S. drone strikes. This lawsuit lead to protests in Islamabad, just as they did in the movie, and he was removed from Pakistan when this all went down. So, that part was real. I’m going to guess Maya yelling at him was not real, though reading that real-life Maya is just as confrontational, who knows, haha?
In the movie, Maya’s main obsession was finding Ahmed because she believed he would be the key to finding bin Laden. In real life, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was in fact bin Laden’s courier and he really did drive “a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino.” And just like in the movie, it was Abu Ahmed who led the C.I.A. to bin Laden’s hideout.
The Torture Scenes
You probably know by now that the torture scenes depicted early on in the movie – everything from beating to water boarding to whatever it’s called when you lock someone in a box in complete darkness for days – is the most controversial and hotly contested part of the movie. It’s brutal to watch. A group of former C.I.A. agents have spoken out about it while promoting a documentary about the search called “Manhunt” which insists that more “traditional” interrogation techniques have proven more effective. Says Marty Martin, a former member of the Senior Intelligence Service in the Middle East who ran top covert operations in top field cases in the ’90s, “The interrogation stuff was inaccurate, that’s not the way.” C.I.A. Director Mike Morell also issued a statement to deny that waterboarding played a positive role in finding bin Laden. Director Morrell wrote:
“Zero Dark Thirty takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate. [The film] is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”
The Raid on the House
I have read several articles in order to compile this blog post. Every single one of them praises how accurate the raid on bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad is. Navy SEAL expert Don Mann praises, “I can say that the depiction of the Navy SEALS preparing for the raid on Bin Laden’s compound and conducting the mission was quite accurate.” The house itself didn’t just look real from the outside: The film’s producers built a real compound in Jordan, based on what they could learn from diagrams and reports about the home where bin Laden was hiding out in. If you want to read more about the raid, this highly detailed article in The New Yorker is great.
Cairo the Dog
Seal Team 6’s dog was real. He even got to meet Obama. Yay, doggie!
Alright, I’m done. I could go on for days. Instead, I defer to the list of sources I compiled below, all which were sites that I gathered info from while writing this. Most of them are the same sources linked to within the actual post. Thanks!
Oh and P.S. – What did you think of Zero Dark Thirty?