Letter from America

My daughter Nell is studying for a degree in psychology and tells me she may consider a career in law enforcement. On Saturday we went to see Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s artistically, if not officially, licensed rendition of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which ended in May 2011.

Nell’s reaction to the film may explain why Ms Bigelow has been denied what should have been a shoo-in Oscar nomination for best director. The filmmaker insists it was not her intention to shake anyone’s opposition to torture. She is adamantly opposed to it herself. But shake my daughter’s moral certainties she did, and no doubt did the same to countless others.

This has some Hollywooders up in arms. David Clennon, a character actor better known as an activist, says the film "promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture". He has Martin Sheen — President Bartlett of The West Wing — in his corner and is campaigning to see that the film wins none of the five other Oscars, including best picture, for which it has been nominated.

Because of its claim to be "based on first-hand accounts of actual events", Zero Dark Thirty is proving no less controversial in Washington, not for justifying torture but for contending it was used at all to find Bin Laden.

Screenwriter and former journalist Mark Boal is lawyering up in case he has to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has called the film "grossly inaccurate … in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location" in Pakistan of the al-Qaeda chief.

The senator wants to know who at the CIA spoke to them and what was said. The agency has admitted its co-operation with the filmmakers was unprecedented.

The film opens with a shocking piece of actuality recorded on September 11 2001. Over a dark screen, a woman is heard pleading for rescue as she catches on fire in one of the twin towers. From there, Ms Bigelow cuts to a CIA operative torturing a badly beaten al-Qaeda detainee somewhere in Pakistan a year or so later. It is not easy to watch.

The detainee does not yield, while being variously water boarded, sexually degraded and stuffed into a small box.

It is the fear of more and the confusion resulting from what he has already endured which cause him to give his captors a small but important lead when they shift, as they do from time to time, to "good cop" mode.

Other leads are similarly extracted throughout the hunt phase of the film. These add to the mosaic of evidence which eventually lets the CIA triangulate circumstantially on "UBL’s" whereabouts (the agency called him Usama, not Osama) by finding and following his personal courier to Abbottabad.

Intelligence Committee staff went through 6-million pages of CIA records to compile a still (and probably long to remain) classified study of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation activities. According to a summary Ms Feinstein released last April, "the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation programme" and associated "coercive" methods.

Because the film flatly contradicts this, Ms Feinstein, joined by Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee who was tortured himself while a prisoner of war in Hanoi, are demanding that the CIA turn over "all information and documents" concerning contacts between its officials, past and present, and the filmmakers. Both senators are fierce opponents of torture.

Their concern seems to be that some in the CIA continue to chafe at President Barack Obama’s ban and used Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal to make the case for keeping rough stuff on the menu.

Maybe. But shortly after Navy Seals dealt with Bin Laden, then CIA director Leon Panetta wrote to Mr McCain, stating "some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator-courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques". He continued: "It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator-courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator-courier’s role were alerting."

In other words, in their willingness to suffer pain and degradation for not telling the truth, detainees told the agency it was on the right track. This is in the film.

A filthy business, to be sure, but Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal are not proselytes for filth. They brilliantly hold up a mirror to show how war corrupts and compromises all who engage in it, whatever the justice of their cause.

Simon Barber is the US country manager for Brand SA.