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January 8, 2013 at 5:54 AM

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Torture and "Zero Dark Thirty"

I saw “Zero Dark Thirty,” and enjoyed it. It said it was based on a true story. I knew that meant it was dramatized history, but I expected the history not to be needlessly distorted. In particular, the film showed a prisoner who had apparently soiled himself being hung by his hands in a bare concrete room. He is waterboarded, deprived of sleep and water, made to wear a dog collar, grovel on the floor and stuffed into a box uncomfortably small. Because I knew there had been waterboarding and such things, I assumed that when the movie showed these working--producing information that helped lead to Osama bin Laden--that this is what had happened. In other words, that torture worked.

Now we have politicians, including one who was tortured in Hanoi, saying that this was not true and that the torture scenes are “grossly inaccurate.” Intelligence people are saying the same. One of the answers in reply to this, from Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is that this is just a movie. “It’s entertainment, not a documentary,” he said to the Los Angeles Times. “What’s next, a Senate inquiry on the Bourne trilogy or ‘24’?”

I don’t buy this. “Zero Dark Thirty” is not in the same category as “The Bourne Ultimatum.” The Bourne trilogy was not presented as a true story, nor were the James Bond movies. “Zero Dark Thirty” is about a real CIA operation to find a real guy. It starts with recordings of real people stuck in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. It is dramatized history.

“Dramatized” implies that minor liberties are O.K. You can have some minor composite characters, you can make up some dialogue because you don’t know exactly what people said, and you can compress some incidents, etc., but to have the information come via torture if it did not is to fundamentally change the story, and on a point of morality that people care about and will remember and take as fact.

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