Does ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Take Liberties With Waterboarding?

Veteran war correspondent Dexter Filkins says film "appears to have strayed from real life"

Dexter Filkins, a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" appears to have "strayed from real life" in a waterboarding scene.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Filkins details Bigelow's efforts to accurately portray the hunt for Osama bin Laden — including consulting with Navy SEALs and CIA staff who took part.

The film is considered a top contender for the Best Picture Oscar, which will only bring more scrutiny over its accuracy. The question of whether waterboarding actually helped lead to bin Laden's killing is likely to be especially contentious given the national debate over whether torture should play a role in interrogations, and is necessary for gathering information.

"I felt we had a responsibility to be faithful to the material," Filkins quotes Bigelow as saying. "And it was an inherently dramatic story."

But the waterboarding scene may be the exception, writes Filkins, who covered the wars for the New York Times.

"Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life," he writes. "According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding."

Filkins quotes the film's screenwriter, Mark Boal (pictured with Bigelow), explaining: "It’s a movie, not a documentary. … We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program."

Bigelow adds: "The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience."

"Zero Dark Thirty" opens in limited release on Dec. 19, 2012.