BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new film, “Zero Dark Thirty” has been controversial since long before its release. It's the story of the American intelligence community's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.
MALE VOICE: Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I'm not your friend. I'm not gonna help you, I'm gonna break you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First, Republican Congressman Peter King pointed the finger at the White House, charging that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had too much access to classified documents. Then, amid some grumblings that the film would unfairly boost President Obama's reelection chances, the film's studio delayed wide release of the movie from October to January. This week, the screening of the film for critics and journalists has yielded a new headline, that the depicted use of torture to get to bin Laden is dangerously misleading.
Peter Bergen is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Osama bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.” He screened an early cut of the film as an unpaid adviser and wrote about it on CNN.com this week. Peter, welcome to the show.
PETER BERGEN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So before the release of the movie, Kathryn Bigelow told the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins that she and screenwriter Mark Boal were taking a quote "almost journalistic” approach to the film." So is this an “almost piece of journalism?”
PETER BERGEN: It's a movie.
PETER BERGEN: And, in a sense, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal who are obviously incredibly talented and smart individuals have set themselves up for a discussion of how accurate the film is, by making claims that it is journalistic. And, and, you know, it's a great movie. Let's start with that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PETER BERGEN: And there's a lot, there's a lot to say about it that's good. I felt that the half an hour at the beginning of the film of a detainee being abused didn't really represent what really happened in the hunt for bin Laden. It's not really my feeling either, Brooke. It's the Senate Intelligence Committee, that Senator Dianne Feinstein is the chairperson and Carl Levin, the chairperson of the Armed Services Committee, they have done a three-year investigation. They have written a 6,000-page report which hasn't been released. They have said publicly that coercive interrogations didn't lead to bin Laden.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The filmmakers suggest that torture led to important clues that ultimately led to the apprehension of bin Laden. Of course, there was a long road from those first clues to actually getting to Abbottabad, but it started there and that's where the argument is.
PETER BERGEN: The story is much more complicated. The film does go into clues that came from our Foreign Intelligence Service, direction-finding technology that led to the courier, human spies that followed the courier to where bin Laden lived. But the fact is, and I certainly don't think the filmmakers intended this, tens of millions of people are going to see this film and a lot of them are gonna walk out of the theater saying coercive interrogation somehow led to bin Laden.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You saw an early cut of the film and, along with others, you told the filmmakers that the torture scenes were, I think in your word, “overwrought.” They listened. They toned down, you say, some of the bloodier scenes?
PETER BERGEN: I had this reaction. One or two other people who were in this rather small group of people had the same reaction. As a result, I think they did. When I saw the final cut, it didn't seem quite as visceral.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film claims to be based on actual events.
PETER BERGEN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a central figure, a woman like Maya, who put so many of these pieces together and, and drove the agencies to Abbottabad?
PETER BERGEN: There was a woman who appears. Her name is Jan in the book “No Easy Day.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “No Easy Day” was written by one of the Navy SEALs.
PETER BERGEN: Right. So she was obsessed by finding bin Laden. She was always sure that he was living in Abbottabad, even though a lot of other people didn't think so or were much less sure. That said, there's a male analog who goes by the pseudonym of John who was always at 90 percent probability that bin Laden was up in Abbottabad and worked on the case, starting in 2003 and was completely obsessed about it too.
So yes, there is this woman in real life, but there were also other people who played a real life role and they don't get a look-in, but they wouldn't – I mean, you'd be doing “War and Peace”on steroids if you told the whole story. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] This actually strikes me as quite interesting. You have this film and you have – I'll say it – the Showtime series Homeland, and both are built around brilliant, obsessed, effective, also relatively isolated women. Is this a reflection of reality?
PETER BERGEN: Well, I've met many women who work at the CIA. Gina Bennett, who was the first person within the intelligence community in 1993 to flag a guy called Osama bin Laden. Right from the beginning of the bin Laden Unit, it was made up of largely women who were regarded as being sort of on a jihad to find bin Laden. They were sort of ridiculed for that in the pre-9/11 era.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You, Peter, wrote maybe the most definitive book about this subject. You'd met Osama bin Laden. But movies wind up being the way most of us remember how things happened.
PETER BERGEN: There have been many books written about it and many books will be written about it. That said, 50,000 people may go out and buy my book and, you know, probably tens of millions of people will see this film around the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you glad it was made?
PETER BERGEN: Yeah. We’ll leave the theater with a pretty good summary about the war on terror, told through the CIA lens. I think it's raised this issue again in the public debate, and it might have a useful effect of prying loose this 6,000-page report the Senate Intelligence Committee has been working on for three years, which will actually settle some of these questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER BERGEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Bergen is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Osama bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad” and executive producer of the documentary “Manhunt” which will be showing for the first time at Sundance in January.