The Real Story: “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Hunt for Bin Laden

Posted on January 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

Letter from Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain“Zero Dark Thirty” is a leading contender for the Best Picture Oscar.  Following her Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow began work on what she thought would be a part journalistic, part feature film version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  She did not expect that during the course of developing the film with “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal Bin Laden would be found and killed, so that the entire direction of the movie would have to be revised.

The CIA was criticized for working with Bigelow and Boal, but insists that they did not provide the filmmakers with any classified information and has published a statement correcting what it says are inaccuracies in the film.  Now that the film is out in a few cities and preparing for its wider release on January 11, politicians and commentators on all sides are criticizing its depiction of torture. Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin have written to the film’s distributor outlining their objections to the portrayal of torture in the movie, calling it “grossly inaccurate” to portray information gathered as a result of torture as essential to determining Bin Laden’s location: “We are fans of many of your movies and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will believe the events it portrays are facts.”  Writer Glenn Greenwald was so eager to complain that the movie supports the use of torture that he decided to condemn it before actually seeing it for himself.  I will be addressing some of these issues in my review, but for now I will just say that it is hard to imagine that anyone who sees the movie will think it is an endorsement of torture and that while the movie depicts waterboarding and other high-pressure tactics that have been well documented and are — as the movie makes clear — not permitted any longer, and one or more characters may endorse torture, that does not mean that the movie is pro-torture.  When Bigelow accepted her New York Film Critics Circle Best Director award, she said, “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices. No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”

I recommend this piece by Paul Miller, describing his reaction to the film as someone who was in the military on Sept 11, 2001 and later served as a CIA analyst, and this piece about a key interview that informed the screenplay.

Watching this movie made me both sad and angry.  Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures.  I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend’s death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare.  This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.

But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story.  I told my wife after seeing Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film,The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers’ lives in a modern combat zone I’d ever seen.  I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.

Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless  soldiers, sailors,  airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al-Qaida and its murderous allies around the world.  It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I’ve ever seen in a movie–the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes.  There isn’t the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here:  even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare….Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching….The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers.  It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes.  I was angry most of all at al-Qaida, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend.  But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness:  Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.

The CIA is by nature, culture, and function inclined to keep secrets.  And any story-telling, even documentaries, selects some details, leaves others out, shifts emphasis, intentionally and unintentionally.  At least one commentator says that the real “Maya” is a man.  And the publicity from the film and the focus on the character played by Jessica Chastain, known only in the film as “Maya,” has led to some internal conflicts as well.  Now that story would make a great movie.


Related Tags:


Spies The Real Story

Interview: Ben Affleck, Director and Star of “Argo” (Part 2)

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm

More from Ben Affleck about Argo:

What were some of the tougher scenes to film?

The scenes with the actors were the easiest scenes. We have all these good actors, they know what they’re doing, it was really fun. I got to enjoy acting with really good actors.  Getting 2000 extras out in Turkey was really hard.  It was cold and people wanted to go home and the idea was like, “Every hour, we’re going to give away sweet rolls!”  But we’re still losing a lot of people who felt the sweet roll wasn’t worth hanging around and it was a lot of work. So that was tough. The car stuff wasn’t that bad. I was kind of excited, there was a car, sort of a Porsche Cayenne that has a huge crane on the back and it’s called “The Russian Arm” and they do incredible things with it. You can be driving like 100 miles an hour next to something else that’s 100 miles an hour and moving the crane around.  They use them a lot for car commercials and I had wanted for “The Town” and we couldn’t afford it.  This time I said, “We’re going to need the Russian arm” and we got it. I got play with it and that was a lot of fun.

This was something of an homage to the late 70’s, you know, with the clothes and all the TV and Walter Cronkite. Was that something that attracted you to the movie?

I’m the age of the kid in the movie and so I definitely identified with the child.  When I went into his room, with all the action figures and the Star Wars stuff, it really hit me: this was my childhood. And I got really fastidious about the sheets and everything.   There’s something remarkably innocent about that era. We think of the 70s as being slightly debauched in some ways, key parties and all those other sort of images we get from some other movies, but we had none of that technology, huge TVs, the people on television, you know, had these sort of crummy sets. Nowadays, we get a theme song and a graphic for every news story but then it was these gigantic cars that probably got 6 miles to the gallon, you know, it was the true sort of internal combustion engine in bloom and I don’t know—I thought there was something kind of sweet about it, sweet about the big answering machines and you just leave the house and that’s it. No one can find you until you come home. Put a quarter or a dime in a pay-phone slot…So I discovered a little bit more about it as I was doing it.

How are Hollywood and the CIA alike?

That is a good parallel, and it’s true, there is a symbiotic relationship.  People make movies about military and if  you go on a tour of the military, they’re all movie buffs, all these guys and women overseas. Movies are a big part of our culture, and both the movies and our military and our intelligence services (particularly our intelligence services) are inventing things, are filmmakers and actors for the sake of art and for entertainment and for our intelligence services, it’s for, God knows, skullduggery and spy-craft and all that kind of stuff. And they both tell stories.  One of the themes of this movie is storytelling and how powerful it is, whether it’s political theatre or relating to our children or trying to get some people out of a place where their lives are in danger.  Usually telling stories is incredibly powerful.  There’s this shot I really like where there’s this firing squad and there’s a firearm, a rifle and a camera, and hopefully it’s subtle, but suggests that the camera is much more powerful than the gun.  That has been really borne out, as in the YouTube era, as true.

You begin with strong criticism of the Shah and America’s support for him.  Were you as tough on the people who took over after the revolution?

I don’t think anyone would argue that the Islamic Revolution was good for the country.  It’s just that it was a reaction to the Shah who was not good for the country, who was embezzling a lot, and as you point out.  Unemployment was low, but a lot of those jobs were done by foreigners, because they didn’t have Persians who were trained to fly the helicopters he was buying and run the cranes and even drive trucks, so there was a lot of importation of labor that the people resented.  I didn’t have to show, in specific, what happened and how bad the revolutionaries became (so to speak) because you see them hanging people from construction cranes, you see firing squads happening impromptu in the streets, kangaroo courts, you see a place that’s living in fear under the revolutionary guard, so in that sense, you very much see what has happened to this country as the Islamic Revolution took hold.  It’s an extraordinarily complicated scenario. Part of it was a reaction against the Shah, you know, the Savak were sort of modeled after the KGB, they were extremely oppressive, but there were a lot of people who really prospered under the Shah and the revolution was not fomented strictly as an Islamic revolution. There were merchants and communists and secularists and students and Islamists and nobody would have engaged in this revolution with most of those other people if they thought, “Well, we’re all just going to end under Khomeini.” In fact, Khomeini was able to use the hostage situation himself, which he didn’t engineer, but was supposed to be the short-term two-day thing that the students did. He sent his son to say, “You know what? Let’s keep the hostages here, let’s hold out and see what happens,” and because he sort of controlled this event, he was really able to marginalize the moderates in government.  I was a Middle Eastern studies major, I took classes and classes and classes on this and still don’t feel I understood the Iranian revolution sufficiently. I do know that we tried to capture the essence of the truth; I absolutely standby the prologues, and people call it the history lesson, but I also acknowledge that we did not have the room, dramatically, to really get into the minutiae and the complexity and the nuance of what happened as the Islamic Revolution took hold. I do feel that we show it in a fairly negative light, but I also wanted to give people some context so that they see it just wasn’t just sort of mad barbarians who made a rush for a country, but that this was something that was developing over time as a reaction to the Shah’s policies.

Tell me about the character you play in the film.

I think Tony in real life was a guy who got his mission and got his orders and followed through, and it was rather uncomplicated. He had a certain amount of fear but he was going to do it. As a result, the story’s a little wonky, in a way, in the film, because it was really about the six people. If you want to talk about, like where your empathy is, where the line is that’s pulling you through the story, it’s the six people, not the guy on his horse with the sword who’s going to kill Saxons or whatever, you know. And then you start to be developed emotionally with these other characters who have different emotional relationships to the story, you know, John and Alan and Bryan and so on. I thought that was interesting, and I also sort of worked with Tony’s slightly passive personality, you know, that his focus was he was going to go and save these folks’ lives, and so they became a center of the wheel, the hub, in a way, and all of this other stuff was spokes in that way.


Related Tags:


Actors Directors Interview


Posted on October 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some violent images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of mob violence, hostages, references to terrorism
Diversity Issues: Ethnic, political, and cultural differences a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2012
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2013 ASIN: B00AHTYGRW

The movie within the movie, an outlandish space fantasy possibly named “Argo” for Jason’s vessel in the ancient Greek myth, may be more believable than the true and recently declassified story that surrounds it.  In 1979, when American State Department employees were taken hostage in Iran, six escaped and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador.  A CIA “exfiltration” expert who specializes in getting people out of difficult situations, rescued them by disguising them as members of a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a fictitious Hollywood movie called “Argo.”

It is like an episode of the television series “Mission: Impossible” except that (1) it really happened and (2) it was much, much harder.  Unlike “Mission: Impossible,” the people creating an elaborate false reality in order to fool the other side had to work with civilians.  And they had to navigate a lot of bureaucratic, diplomatic, and national-security-related internal conflicts in a volatile environment with limited sharing of information.  James Bond has something more valuable than a license to kill.  He has a license to pretty much do whatever he wants with M ready to stand behind him.  But Tony Mendez (played by director Ben Affleck) has to make a lot of literally life-or-death decisions very quickly and yet is still subject to oversight by layers of people with different priorities and points of view.

Affleck, following “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” (and a screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting”) is no longer one of Hollywood’s most promising new directors — he has arrived.  This film works on every level.  Even though we know the Americans were rescued (Canada’s embassy was given a prominent location near the White House in gratitude for their efforts), the tension is ferocious.  The scenes in Hollywood, with John Goodman and a sure-to-be-nominated for a third Oscar Alan Arkin are as sharp and witty, recalling “The Producers” and “Get Shorty.”  But rather than an easy way to provide contrast or comic relief, Affleck and first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio (based on an article in Wired Magazine) use those scenes to provide context, along with some tang and bite.  One masterful section of the film intercuts the two stories as the Hollywood group set up shop, secure the rights to the screenplay, and put together a staged reading to get publicity to demonstrate their bona fides while the six Americans are trapped and the exfiltration mission gets underway.  There are a lot of similarities — both sides deal in illusion, and not just the illusion of the sci-fi fantasy film they are pretending to make.  The constant lying about the project comes naturally to Arkin’s character, an old-time Hollywood guy who has seen it all and who himself has no illusions about the integrity and loyalty of those around him.  He says, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah.  Try the WGA.”

Affleck locates the film in its era with hair and clothes that evoke the time period without exaggeration or ridicule, not easy to do with 70’s styles.  He even used 70’s era film stock and borrowed some of the staging from movies of the era like “All the President’s Men,” and the opening titles are in a 70’s font.  But the film also has some important insights about what happened and about our own time, reflected in the conflicts of three decades ago.  It begins with a brief description of the events leading to the hostage crisis, emphasizing America’s support (to benefit the oil companies) of the Shah’s brutal regime, told somewhat differently than it would have been in 1979.

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” a State Department official asks the CIA.  “This is the best bad idea we have,” is the reply from Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston).  They can’t fake any of the usual identities for the Americans because they are too easy to disprove.  The normal reasons for foreigners to be abroad — teaching, studying, aid — are not plausible.  Only something completely outrageous could be true.  And it turns out that Iranians are as in love with Hollywood movies as everyone else.  This one is a good reminder of why we all feel that way.

Parents should know that this film includes scenes of mob violence, hostages, references to terrorism, characters in peril, tense confrontations, alcohol, a lot of smoking, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the Canadians take in the Americans?  Why did Mendez defy his orders?  What would you do if someone approached you the way Mendez approached the Hollywood insiders?

If you like this, try: “Charlie Wilson’s War”


Related Tags:


Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Politics Spies

Argo: The Real Story of the Crazy CIA Caper to Rescue Six Americans in Iran

Posted on October 8, 2012 at 8:00 am

The employees of the US embassy in Iran were taken hostage in 1979, but six escaped and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador and his wife.  A CIA “exfiltration” expert worked with the Canadian government and some Hollywood talent to create fake identities as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for the six Americans.  The story was classified for many years (the CIA agent even had to give back his medal), but it is now public.  This week, Ben Affleck directs and stars in “Argo,” based on the rescue mission.  Affleck and the real-life former spook, Tony Mendez, were interviewed by Entertainment Weekly.

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be boring,” Mendez said. “As an operative, you don’t want to be caught on camera.  And here I am watching Ben on a big screen saying, ‘My name is Tony Mendez.’  That really is weird….The movie is so well-done that I felt exactly like I was back there.”  You can catch the “boring” Mendez in the movie if you look carefully.

The story first came to light in a Wired Magazine article in 2007.  As the movie acknowledges in its conclusion, there were some dramatic liberties taken with the facts.  But the most outlandish aspects of the story really happened.  Mendez had worked with Hollywood experts before on make-up and disguises, so he had some contacts.  Mendez, using the name Kevin Harkin, really did set up a film production company that could credibly be scouting locations for a wild sci-fi/fantasy film.

In just four days, Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell created a fake Hollywood production company. They designed business cards and concocted identities for the six members of the location-scouting party, including all their former credits. The production company’s offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what was formerly the Columbia lot, in a space vacated by Michael Douglas after he finished The China Syndrome.

All they needed now was a film — and Chambers had the perfect script. Months before, he had received a call from a would-be producer named Barry Geller. Geller had purchased the rights to Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light, written his own treatment, raised a few million dollars in starting capital from wealthy investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who cocreated X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller imagined a Colorado theme park based on Kirby’s set designs that would be called Science Fiction Land; it would include a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a “planetary control room” staffed by robots, and a heated dome almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Geller had announced his grand plan in November at a press conference attended by Jack Kirby, former football star and prospective cast member Rosey Grier, and several people dressed like visitors from the future. Shortly thereafter, Geller’s second-in-command was arrested for embezzling production funds, and the Lord of Light film project evaporated.

Since Chambers had been hired by Geller to do makeup for the film, he still had the script and drawings at his house. The story, a tale of Hindu-inspired mystical science fiction, took place on a colonized planet. Iran’s landscape could provide many of the rugged settings required by the script. A famous underground bazaar in Tehran even matched one of the necessary locations. “This is perfect,” Mendez said. He removed the cover and gave the script a new name, Argo — like the vessel used by Jason on his daring voyage across the world to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

The new production company outfitted its office with phone lines, typewriters, film posters and canisters, and a sign on the door: studio six productions, named for the six Americans awaiting rescue. Sidell read the script and sketched out a schedule for a month’s worth of shooting. Mendez and Chambers designed a full-page ad for the film and bought space in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The night before Mendez returned to Washington, Studio Six threw a small party at the Brown Derby, where they toasted their “production” and Mendez grabbed some matchbooks as additional props to boost his Hollywood bona fides. Shortly thereafter, the Argo ads appeared, announcing that principal photography would commence in March. The film’s title was rendered in distressed lettering against a black background. Next to it was a bullet hole. Below it was the tagline “A Cosmic Conflagration.”

New Yorkers can see some of the actual artifacts from what was called “The Canadian Caper” on display at Discovery Times Square, including the script for the fake movie.  One of the State Department officials who was rescued wrote about what the movie gets right and wrong in Slate.  My favorite footnote: in an interview with Joshuah Bearman, the reporter who wrote the first story about the declassified details, he says that the fake “Studio 6” production company set up by Mendez and named for the six Americans they were trying to rescue actually received 26 scripts, including one from Steven Spielberg!

Related Tags:


Spies The Real Story

Safe House

Posted on February 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Denzel Washington is the vodka and Ryan Reynolds is the orange juice in this spy story with top-notch action, middle-notch story, and bottom-notch ending, with a “surprise” plot twist that is obvious from the first 10 minutes.

Apparently, the CIA has big, high-tech, empty “safe houses” all over the world, just in case we need to stash an “asset” there for debriefing with or without torture, but I gather more often with.  Reynolds plays a junior CIA agent named Matt, stationed in Cape Town, South Africa. His lissome French oncologist girlfriend (the glorious Nora Arnezeder of “Paris 36”) has no idea that he is really a spy.  He’s not so sure himself, after a full year of sitting alone in the safe house, throwing a ball like Steve McQueen  in “The Great Escape” and waiting for something to happen.  He begs his mentor back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) to reassign him, but Barlow tells him to be patient.

And then the most notorious rogue spy to go AWOL from the CIA, Tobin Frost (Washington) , a man who ” has no allegiance and is wanted on four continents” walks into the American consulate.  We know he has injected some sort of memory chip into his thigh and that some guys with guns are willing to kill a lot of people to get to him.  Matt gets the call that a “guest” is en route and when Tobin arrives with an entourage of serious-looking guys, he escorts them to the interrogation room.  They tell him to turn off the surveillance cameras and they start waterboarding Tobin, who calmly first offers to tell them whatever they want to know and then advises them that they are using the wrong kind of towels for torture.  Then the other group of bad guys break in, shooting everyone they see, and Matt grabs Tobin, steals a car, and they’re on the run.

It’s “Bourne”-lite, a lot of well-staged action but without the personal or political identity issue resonance of the Bourne stories.  Washington is superb as a spy whose specialty was manipulation and whose moral code is compromised, but clear.  “I only kill professionals,” he tells Matt.  “You’re not going to get in my head,” Mitch says. “I’m already there,” Tobin responds, and, predictable as it is, we know he is right.  Part of what makes him effective is that he tells the truth.  But Matt, whose specialty is analysis, strategy, and spycraft, gets into Tobin’s head, too, partly from observation and partly from the encounters along the way that show him

The hand-t0-hand combat and shoot-outs are intense, prolonged, and graphic. But when it comes to acting and holding our attention on screen, Washington wins by a knock-out.


Related Tags:


Action/Adventure Spies
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik