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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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  • 01/11/13--16:01: Kathryn Bigelow: under fire
  • The Hurt Locker made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win a best director Oscar. But some say her new thriller, Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, endorses torture

    When Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces two years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was deep in preparations for a movie about the failure to capture him during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. The script, by Mark Boal, was more or less finished; they had scouted locations in Kazakhstan and were preparing to helicopter into Bagram and Jalalabad to see for themselves the terrain they'd be trying to replicate. When news of the death came in, it blew apart the project in such a way, Bigelow says, that any frustration was eclipsed by a sense of being "propelled by history". In fact, she says, "I think our first thought was, 'Well, at least we have a third act.'"

    As it turned out, Bigelow and Boal, who had successfully collaborated on The Hurt Locker three years earlier, quickly realised it was not a third act but "the entire story". Zero Dark Thirty, which has been igniting feverish reactions since before its first screening, is an account of the 10-year CIA search for Bin Laden and the culminating raid on his compound in Pakistan. It opens with a black screen, over which real audio from 9/11 plays, the screams and entreaties as shocking now as they ever were, and what follows, including scenes of brutal "enhanced interrogation" of detainees in CIA blackspots, is either "a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs" (the New York Times) or "false advertising for waterboarding" (the New Yorker) – a film that, ultimately, "endorses torture".

    Bigelow only finished the edit two weeks ago and, in a Park Avenue hotel suite in the throes of publicity, has the air of someone surfacing to scenes of unexpected confusion. By Hollywood standards, it was a lightning-quick turnaround – just three months of filming, with India and Jordan standing in for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    At 61, Bigelow is a striking figure, slight, angular and tall (5ft 11in). She is softly spoken and pulls awkwardly at the sleeves of her jumper. Her assiduously neutral position on the politics of the film brings to mind, ironically, a politician. There will be many accounts of the war on terror, she says, of which the new film will be just one: a specific story, told from a specific point of view, informed by Boal's interviews with CIA operatives. "I feel very confident with his reporting," she says, "very confident with my handling of his reporting. And I think we can both, with confidence, stand by that film from beginning to end."

    Not even its harshest critics dispute that Zero Dark Thirty is a beautifully made film, with clean, sharp lines, completely gripping, and light on any extraneous material. There is almost no backstory for the characters, just the grinding sense of mission that propels people working in extraordinary circumstances. There is nothing glorifying about the torture scenes, either, which illustrate both the hideous reality behind the euphemistic language and the fact that you can't trust information coming out of them: when asked for details of an imminent attack, the detainee – beaten, waterboarded, dragged on a leash and finally shut in a box – mumbles in terror and bewilderment every day of the week. (Later, when not under duress, he gives up a key name, which critics of the film say sets up a false causality: there is no conclusive evidence that torture led to this particular disclosure.)

    Bigelow's approach to the film and the ensuing furore has clearly been influenced by her experiences on The Hurt Locker. In that movie, the wider controversies of the war in Iraq are sidelined in favour of the experiences of the soldiers: the beads of sweat, the dust, the fly dancing on an eyelash as it looks, unblinkingly, down the barrel of a gun. These small details accrete, over the course of the film, into something like a moral force. Bigelow justifiably won the 2010 Oscar for best director, the first woman to win in that category.

    Zero Dark Thirty takes "a similar perspective", she says, with its focus on the individuals, a group of CIA agents tasked with finding Bin Laden and played with brilliant understatement by Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke. "It's a very human piece and it's a story of determination," Bigelow says. "We can all, as human beings, identify with believing in something – believing in something so strongly that there is nothing else in your life."

    Furthermore, she says, "It's a real tribute to the men and women in the intelligence community who obviously have to, by the nature of their job, work in complete secrecy. It's a nod of respect and great gratitude."

    The difficulty here is that expressing respect and gratitude to those involved in controversial interrogation techniques is not quite the same as expressing gratitude to those in the relatively neutral field of bomb disposal. When Bigelow says her aim was "to be faithful to the research, to not have an agenda, to hope that people go to see the movie and judge for themselves", she overlooks the film's structural sympathies.

    There will, I suggest, be people who argue that torture is such a black-and-white issue that to provoke sympathy for those engaged in it is in itself a reprehensible act.

    "That's an interesting point. But I think that you certainly see the human cost. And also, if it had not been part of that history, it would not have been in the movie. You can't have it one way and not the other way."

    By "human cost", she means both the bloodied, humiliated form of the detainee in the film and the deadened responses of the CIA agents, some of whom were killed in the 2009 suicide bombing of their base in Afghanistan. Bigelow trusted Boal's reporting when he turned in the script, but I wonder if she insisted on knowing his sources – if, when it came to the most controversial scenes, she needed to satisfy herself that they were double-, triple- or quadruple-sourced.

    "Having worked with Mark on The Hurt Locker, I felt like his attention to detail is so acute – and he comes from the world of investigative journalism – that it's sort of like… He described the way we worked together as he cuts the vegetables and I make the soup."

    Right, so she didn't feel it necessary to, um, meet the farmer who grew the vegetables?

    There is a short, confused pause. "I suppose. That's one way of looking at it."

    Bigelow's absolute conviction in her own rightness is a habit of mind she has had since childhood. There is no other way to direct, she says: you wouldn't get through the day. She supposes it came from her parents. Her mother, a Stanford graduate, taught English and her father ran a paint factory. They lived in California and took a mildly modish approach to rearing their only child, subscribing, Bigelow says, "to a certain kind of education where I had to make all… This is so crazy, but as a child I had to make all my own decisions."

    Such as what?

    "If a friend said, 'Can you sleep over?' I'd go to my parents and they'd say, 'Well, it's up to you.' It was always up to me. It created a tremendous sense of independence, which of course my mother regretted when I left home at 17 and went to school… I suppose being confident in a decision-making process is something that helps me a lot in production. You cannot equivocate."

    After leaving home, she went first to art college in San Francisco and then on to a fine arts programme run by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. At that point her only thought was to become a fine artist: it suited the unsociable side of her nature. Bigelow's diffidence is something she acknowledges with wryness and regret. She finds self-promotion irksome, which is why, perhaps, she promotes Boal so strenuously, calling herself the "delivery system" for his content. (Bear in mind that for two years in the early 1990s Bigelow was married to James Cameron, which, I imagine, might turn anyone off the charms of self-promotion.)

    "I'm kind of shy by nature," she says. "When you meet with an actor, you have to get very specific very quickly, because you've got a scene to shoot. In a work situation, that comes very easily. Any other situation: not at all."

    She thinks about it for a moment. "It's a strange dichotomy. I wish that I could pretend in my life that I was working. I would probably be much more effective." She laughs. "I don't know."

    She got into film-making by default, after falling in with some video artists, among them Lawrence Weiner, and being inspired to make a short film herself. It was called The Set-Up (1978) and ran along textbook grad-student lines: a 20-minute exposition of "two-men fighting each other as the semioticians Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the images in voiceover".

    It seemed, she says, "like a very good fit. Film wasn't something I searched for; I backed into it."

    There followed a series of low-budget films, the odd music video – for New Order, in 1987– and, in 1991, Bigelow's first big hit, Point Break, the surfing blockbuster starring Keanu Reaves and Patrick Swayze. It established a certain muscularity of style, which Bigelow consolidated with Blue Steel, Strange Days and, in 2002, K-19: The Widowmaker, the Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson nuclear submarine movie that more or less tanked.

    "I can't even think about it," she says on the subject of failure. "I feel like there's so much soul-searching going on in the making of a film, it's enough for any given production. I'm content in the knowledge that we've made something we're proud of. That's what gives me the most solace."

    She is firmly of the belief that commenting excessively on women's restrictions in Hollywood only compounds their ghettoisation – although this is also, surely, another facet of a generally apolitical mindset. "If there's specific resistance to women making movies," she has said, "I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies."

    Occasionally, however, there's no avoiding it. The morning of the interview, the novelist Brett Easton Ellis tweets that Bigelow "would be considered a mildly interesting film-maker if she was a man but since she's a very hot woman, she's really overrated". (He has since apologised.) Was she aware he'd been an arsehole in her general direction? Bigelow laughs. "I was told about it and I just…" She waves a hand dismissively.

    If not politically, then as a film-maker at least, Bigelow must have been delighted that two of the CIA sources in Boal's script were youngish women. As Lynndie England showed during the Abu Ghraib scandal, women in warfare provoke more complex reactions than their male counterparts.

    "Well, that's the thing," Bigelow says. "Women in defence, I think, are sort of the unsung heroes. I was first of all surprised to learn that women were at the centre of this hunt. And I was sort of surprised that I was surprised. You don't think of a young woman being a terrorist-hunter."

    Does she think women should be able to serve on the frontline? "You know, I don't know. I can't imagine why not."

    Bigelow has been working on the film with such intensity – "You work in this dark room, you work in this tunnel" – that there has been nothing much outside it for almost a year. Making Zero Dark Thirty was like an epic puzzle, she says, and she sheepishly confesses that's one of the things she likes best: "Logistics – I know it sounds crazy, [but] I do I enjoy it. Because it's like finding order out of chaos."

    Given the film's scope and ambition, the budget was relatively tight at an estimated $20m. The major expense was recreating the compound where Bin Laden was discovered. Bigelow became obsessed with the accuracy, right down to the fixtures and fittings. "We had to build it in a structurally sound way to withstand the rota wash of the helicopters. The production designer even researched what tiles were on the floor, replicated the bed frame and the oak chest of drawers – it was all from the ABC footage they were playing after the assault."

    When she gives any thought to the vastness of the story, and to the radioactive sensitivity of so many of its elements, she reassures herself that, "as a film-maker, it's a responsibility to engage with the time I live in. You're kind of creating an imagistic version of living history." And with all the risks that entails.

    Beyond it is blankness. A week or so earlier, when Bigelow left the first screening in New York, Jennifer Ehle walked along the street with her and asked how she was doing. "And I said to her, 'I feel kind of… I don't know.'" She shrugs and pulls at her jumper. "Without purpose all of a sudden."

    • Zero Dark Thirty is released on 25 January.


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    David Clennon has urged others to snub Kathryn Bigelow film at awards for 'promoting acceptance of the crime of torture'

    Hollywood studio Sony has been forced into a fresh defence of the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, after a member of the body that organises the Oscars called for a boycott.

    Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) member David Clennon said last week he would not be voting for Kathryn Bigelow's film, which has been nominated for five Oscars, and urged others to snub a movie that he said "promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture, as a legitimate weapon in America's so-called War on Terror". Writing on the truth-out.org website, he added: "I cannot vote for a film that makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture."

    In response, Sony president Amy Pascal said she was "outraged" that an Academy member would try to influence the voting process. "Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture," she said on Friday. "To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate. We fully support Kathryn Bigelow and [screenwriter] Mark Boal and stand behind this extraordinary movie. We are outraged that any responsible member of the Academy would use their voting status in Ampas as a platform to advance their own political agenda."

    While Zero Dark Thirty remains in the running for five Oscars, it already appears to have slipped behind frontrunners such as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Ang Lee's Life of Pi owing to the ongoing controversy over whether Bigelow and Boal endorsed torture by their depiction of its use in the film, and whether that depiction was accurate. Bigelow surprisingly failed to receive a nod for best director when the Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday, and Zero Dark Thirty will compete only for best film, best original screenwriting, best actress (Jessica Chastain) and two editing prizes.

    The furore over the film, which also stars Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton, seems to have had a more positive effect on its potential profitability, however. Zero Dark Thirty went to No 1 at the US box office at the weekend with $24m. Bigelow and Boal's previous film, the multiple Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, took just $17m throughout its entire US box-office run, despite the Academy's accolades.

    The controversy showed no sign of letting up over the weekend as an ex-CIA agent, Lindsay Moran, publicly questioned why photographs of Bin Laden's dead body have not yet been released by the CIA when Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of the hunt for the al-Qaida leader would most likely – in her opinion – do far more to radicalise potential terrorists.

    "Zero Dark Thirty is an amazing movie, but very revealing about the entire hunt for Osama bin Laden," she said. "It contains a lot of disturbing scenes of detainees being tortured." Speaking on US TV show The Young Turks, Moran added: "What I find ironic is the government claiming that this is classified information and would put Americans at risk at the very same time that two Hollywood film-makers were given unprecedented access to the CIA – basically made an infomercial about CIA interrogation."

    Meanwhile, actor Martin Sheen and former president of the Screen Actor's Guild, Ed Asner, were named as the latest Hollywood figures to join Clennon's boycott, according to the LA Times. "One of the brightest female directors in the business is in danger of becoming part of the system," Asner was quoted as saying.


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    Film-maker takes to LA Times to suggest criticism of 'torture-endorsing' film be directed at US counter-terrorism policy instead

    The Oscar-winning director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, has defended her controversial film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden against continuing allegations that it endorses the use of torture in an article for the LA Times.

    Describing herself as a "lifelong pacifist", Bigelow said she supported "every American's First Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment". She added: "I support all protests against the use of torture and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind."

    Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, have come under intense pressure from media commentators, politicians and even members of the body that organises the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, since Zero Dark Thirty was first screened for critics. The US Senate intelligence committee is currently probing whether the pair were granted "inappropriate access" to classified CIA material. Last week the actor Martin Sheen and the former head of the Screen Actors Guild, Ed Asner, came out in support of a proposed Oscars boycott of the critically acclaimed film, which documents the hunt for Bin Laden and includes several scenes of torture early on. Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for five Academy awards but Bigelow missed out on a best director nod last week – a decision some believe was fuelled by the current furore over the film's depiction of waterboarding and other controversial practices during CIA interrogations.

    The director, whose previous film The Hurt Locker won six Oscars in 2010, made clear in her LA Times article that she feels critics should target their ire elsewhere. "I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these US policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen," her piece continues. "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no film-maker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

    "This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation. Indeed, I'm very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat.

    "On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in US counter-terrorism policy and practices."

    Earlier this week the Pulitzer prize-winning author of a book on Bin Laden, Steve Coll, became the latest figure to criticise the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. "Boal and Bigelow have offered two main responses to the criticism they have received," he wrote in an essay for the New York Review of Books. "One is that as dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative, they must be granted a degree of artistic licence. That is unarguable, of course, and yet the film-makers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for Bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy."

    The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, which stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton, has not hurt its prospects at the US box office, where it reached first position at the weekend with $24m.


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  • 01/19/13--16:04: Trailer Trash
  • Madchester inches towards the West End, Ken Loach demonstrates the wonder of socialism, and Kathryn Bigelow can't tell one London bus from another

    Rave on stage

    Long shot as it may be – and Trash loves a long shot – I hear there are plans to turn Madchester film comedy 24 Hour Party People into a stage musical. The film's director, Michael Winterbottom, told me that he and producer Andrew Eaton have been toying with the idea for several years and that there is even a rough script "floating around". Steve Coogan is apparently interested in reprising his part as the lead. The show would tell the story of Factory Records, its founder, Tony Wilson, and the rise and fall of bands including Joy Division, Buzzcocks, A Certain Ratio and Happy Mondays. I'd personally love to see some genteel West End theatre transformed into a hands-in -the-air, tops-off sweatbox for a while, throbbing to Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body. But, following the film's soundtrack, the show could also include songs such as Love Will Tear Us Apart, Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've) and Blue Monday. Meanwhile, two alumni from Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, John Simm and Shirley Henderson, are currently starring in Winterbottom's latest cinema release, Everyday, while Coogan and Winterbottom are now at Sundance, promoting their latest collaboration, The Look of Love, about the life of Soho porn king Paul Raymond. Co-starring Imogen Poots, Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton, it will be released here in April, after also playing at the Berlin film festival next month.

    Summon the Spirit

    Also at Berlin will be Ken Loach's new documentary, The Spirit of '45, which I have had the stirring pleasure of seeing in advance. It makes an eloquent and poetic case for the nationalisation that went on after the second world war under the socialist Attlee government of 1945-1951. It is in awe of Bevan's creation of the NHS. It warns us now that current society (the film blames Thatcher for destroying and dismantling it all, of course, but also New Labour for being no help) is close to re-creating the poverty of the 1930s. Perhaps most fascinatingly, the film implores the older generation to help energise and educate the betrayed working-class youth of today with their knowledge and experience. Using wonderful archive material and interviews – all conducted by Loach himself – with economists, miners, dockers, nurses and pensioners, the film is passionate and deeply personal but done with Loach's usual humane intelligence as well as a patient elegance of style. It made me cry.

    Bigelow bungle

    Trash is a big fan of Kathryn Bigelow and her blisteringly intense film Zero Dark Thirty, and my money is easily on Jessica Chastain to win the best actress Oscar. However, the film, a dramatisation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has come under heavy fire in the US, with accusations being made that it endorses the use of torture.

    Most of the criticism seems bonkers to me. The film doesn't endorse torture, it merely shows that it went on – and shows it as the nasty business it undoubtedly is. Nor does the film glorify the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It leaves the viewer feeling pretty empty and sorrowful about the necessities of war and the obsessions of politics.

    However, it is difficult to defend the film's accuracy when one glaring error struck me early on. When Bigelow restages the 7/7 bombings in London, she blows up the wrong bus. The reconstruction is in the right place, in Tavistock Square, but everyone in London knows it was a number 30 bus, not a number 172 as the fillm implies, that was ripped apart. How could she get that wrong? Pictures of that red bus, with "30" visible on its side, are among of the most famous and unsettling images of this century, and 13 people were killed on it. Being embedded in Iraq or talking to top-secret CIA honchos is all very well, but sometimes a glance at Wikipedia wouldn't hurt.


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    Here's the briefing: op-sec is a priority when searching for OBL, since the ISI is unreliable. KSM is not a Dutch airline and we depart Area 51 at Zero Dark Thirty. Got it?

    It may be one of the best films of the year; it's certainly turning into one of the most controversial. But in some respects, it is also the most perplexing. Woe betide those who go to see Zero Dark Thirty without being properly briefed. A passing interest in the CIA and the hunt for Osama bin Laden will not make it easy on the eye, or the ear.

    The screenplay of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film assumes people know about counter-terrorism. And Maya, the main character, is an obsessive, whose relentless search for the al-Qaida leader doesn't include pausing for explanations. Names and acronyms fly at viewers faster than a Black Hawk helicopter, so stragglers could be easily left behind. For non-military types, and those too shy to ask, here is a glossary of some of the terms that might make the film a tad more comprehensible.

    Zero Dark Thirty

    The title is a good place to start. Zero Dark Thirty isn't the name of the operation to find Bin Laden, nor is it actually mentioned anywhere in the film. It isn't a term that is unique to the special forces units that found the al-Qaida leader hiding in Pakistan. Zero Dark Thirty is military slang, used across the services, by British and American soldiers, to describe a time after darkness has fallen. Zero Dark Thirty is night-time. Some soldiers say it refers to 12.30am, but others insist this is not true. The phrase, it seems, doesn't refer to any single point, just night-time. When it is pitch black, dark.

    The Saudi group

    The film starts with a reference to the Saudi group, and immediately focuses on the tribulations of a prisoner, Ammar. It is not clear whether Ammar is a Saudi, or which group is being referred to. Confusingly for experts on Middle East construction firms, Saudi Group is the name of a vast building business in the kingdom, but this is a red herring. The group here is probably the number of detainees in CIA custody, such as Ammar, who are being interrogated, and tortured, for information leading to the whereabouts of the man who is known to them as the "emir". Bin Laden was a Saudi, but his closest associates were not all fellow countrymen.

    Black sites

    These were secret locations where bad things tended to happen– places that US government agencies used to transport, detain, and interrogate detainees. Their use was authorised in the days after the 9/11 attacks as hubs for prisoners accused of terrorist involvement. They were also handy stopover sites for suspects who were being transported, kidnapped really, under the extraordinary rendition programme coordinated by the CIA. For years their existence was rumoured, but denied. President Bush was forced into an admission in 2006, but only after the media began to publish details of black sites around the world. Poland and Romania are known to have hosted black sites, and some campaigners say 17 ships were also used for the same purposes.

    Tora Bora

    A decade ago, when everyone became an armchair general in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most people had heard of the Tora Bora. But it's been a long time since the invasion of Afghanistan. For those of us with poor memories and worse geography, Tora Bora is the complex of caves in eastern Afghanistan where it was thought Bin Laden was hiding. Back then, there was speculation that al-Qaida had created a James Bond villain's lair, hewn from the rock. The range was a fortress, apparently. Apparently not. Despite relentless special forces operations, very few al-Qaida supporters were found in the caves, and the caves themselves were just, well, caves.

    KSM

    The initials do not stand for a Dutch airline. That's KLM. The CIA officers in Zero Dark Thirty keep referring to KSMKhalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is regarded as the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, and one of Bin Laden's most trusted and senior lieutenants. KSM was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and taken to the Guantánamo Bay detention centre three years later. In the meantime, he was waterboarded 183 times as the CIA pressed him for information about the al-Qaida network. A man who graduated at an American university, he is currently facing charges relating to his involvement in 9/11 that are being heard by a military tribunal.

    ISI

    This is another of the acronyms used repeatedly during the film. The ISI is Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a powerful part of the country's military machine. It is MI5 with hobnailed boots on, and has the word "shadowy" as an almost permanent prefix. World leaders, including David Cameron, have questioned the loyalties of the ISI, and claimed that it appears to be both a supporter of terrorist groups, as well as the agency responsible for keeping them in check. The ISI has been accused of funding and training the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many commentators said have said it is inconceivable that the ISI didn't know Bin Laden was living in Pakistan. But as Maya suggests, would Bin Laden really have trusted the ISI to have kept such a secret? And would he have felt safer or more vulnerable if the ISI had known his whereabouts?

    Abu Faraj al-Libi

    He is another senior member of al-Qaida who features in the film, albeit briefly (a character played, incidentally, by an Israeli actor, Yoav Levi). Faraj al-Libi was captured in 2005 and is still in US custody. He is alleged to be Bin Laden's number three, who knows the identity of Abu Ahmed, the courier who has become the focus of Maya's obsessional search for OBL. But unless I missed something, he doesn't tell the CIA anything. So why he is in the film at all is a bit of a mystery.

    Tony Soprano

    Yes, that really is him. "T" makes an appearance in Zero Dark Thirty. Not as a ruthless Italian mafioso from New Jersey, but as a ruthless CIA boss who is only referred to as "the director". The character played by Soprano, AKA James Gandolfini, is a thinly disguised portrayal of Leon Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time Bin Laden was found. Gandolfini was slightly abashed by his performance, and admitted writing to Panetta to apologise. "I sent a note to Leon saying, 'I'm very sorry about everything," he told reporters. "The wig, everything. You're kind of like my father. You'll find something to be angry about'."

    Area 51, south Nevada

    This place actually exists. It is part of the vast test and training range in the south Nevada desert. Without giving too much away, it is the place in the film where Maya tells some rather sceptical special force troops that Bin Laden has been found. She hopes. The helicopters they are to use on the mission are based at Area 51. They ain't just any old helicopters either. Though it remains one of the most secret military installations in America, the CIA has acknowledged operating there, and it is thought to have been a test site for military aircraft, such as the U-2 spy plane, and the stealth fighter.

    Op-sec

    This means operations security, and it is something the military is obsessed by, understandably. Op-sec is the protection, encryption, and removal of any information that might unwittingly lead an operation to be compromised, and/or anticipated by an enemy. Piecemeal identification of a target, or a plan, is often a concern. Journalists who go on visits to Afghanistan embedded with the military have to agree to have their stories cleared by op-sec before they are published. The MoD won't ask you to remove criticisms of the campaign, but it will demand the removal of any material that might be handy to the Taliban. That could be something as basic as saying when a flight leaves.


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    Mokhtar 'Marlboro man' Belmokhtar and his fighters are more interested in overthrowing government than attacking west

    The intervention of French military forces in Mali and the apparent reprisals in the form of the hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas processing plant in Algeria have brought the threat of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to international attention. The drama of the hostage crisis has shot the hitherto unknown group Signatories in Blood and its leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, variably referred to as an Islamist with ties to Osama bin Ladin and/or a senior al-Qaida leader, to notoriety overnight and has prompted western leaders to focus on the possibility of a growing threat of Islamist terrorism on Europe's southern border. Such tragic events are bound to provoke a strong reaction, yet, upon closer examination, it seems that the idea of a threat to mainland Europe is overstated.

    Even at a glance, the nature of the attack – hostage-taking for financial gain – is not the kind we have come to associate with al-Qaida over the years. Rather than reflecting the "signature" suicide attack with mass casualties, the event fits more appropriately into the series of other hostage-takings that have taken place in Algeria in recent years but which have not been on so grand a scale and hence have not gained the same attention as events at In Amenas.

    It is not only the events which are different: the particular branch of al-Qaida to which they have been ascribed, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly known as the GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) stands out for its focus on a local agenda. Although it has allegedly claimed that it supports Bin Ladin, the group, which was found to be responsible for car bombings that took place in Algiers in 2007, as well as a number of other local incidents, appears to be more concerned with overthrowing the Algerian government and the institution of an Islamic state in its place than with Bin Ladin's vision of the reestablishment of the caliphate and global jihad against the west.

    While it can be argued that the above is not entirely out of touch with al-Qaida's stated aims, it is nonetheless a return to the "near enemy" – the forces of occupation and secularisation – that have preoccupied Islamists for almost a century. While the AQIM's claim to be acting in the name of "al-Qaida central" feels very much like a convenient piece of flag-waving, current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared in 2006 that America and France were the enemies, indicating a pragmatic approach by which senior al-Qaida leaders aim to flatter their local affiliates, enabling one side to continue to maintain the impression of its global reach while the other benefits from association with the infamous name. The true extent of any link or cooperative strategy, however, remains open to question.

    If there is little evidence to suggest genuine cooperation between AQIM and the senior leadership of al-Qaida, the connection between al-Qaida and Belmokhtar and his Signatories in Blood is even more tenuous. Sometimes referred to as "Marlboro man" for his cigarette-smuggling exploits, Belmokhtar has a wide-ranging and impressive criminal career which includes drug trafficking, diamond smuggling and the kidnapping of dozens of westerners, such as diplomats, aid workers and tourists, for ransoms of up to $3m each. Yet Belmokhtar's success and growing influence were to be his downfall as far as his membership of AQIM was concerned.

    While his actions at In Amenas supposedly link Belmokhtar to al-Qaida in the eyes of the west, he in fact made the news on various jihadist forums for falling out with AQIM for his "fractious behavior", and either resigned or was formally dismissed from its ranks in late 2012. Such splintering is far from exceptional; indeed, it exemplifies the present state of al-Qaida.

    Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating in Yemen, and the recently formed Ansar al-Sharia are a case in point: despite their different names and agendas, the two groups are frequently referred to as one and the same and are conceived of as somehow representing a joint force. This bias amongst commentators towards presenting a united al-Qaida in various regions of the world is conducive only to resurrecting the popular, yet deeply flawed theory that al-Qaida operates on a global basis as a cohesive group, with all that this implies for the threat it poses to global security.

    Today more than ever before, al-Qaida and its local affiliates are highly fragmented and in disagreement as to their priorities of ideology and strategy. Indeed, the lines of fragmentation only begin here: beyond the increasing internal debate, al-Qaida and its local affiliates find themselves in direct contest with other, often more established Islamist groups with radically different worldviews and agendas, many of which now enjoy greater popularity because they are not so ready to spill the blood of their fellow Muslims.

    Whilst the existence of groups such as The Signatories in Blood and the dramatic, violent nature of incidents such as mass hostage-takings and car-bombings heightens fears in the west of a resurgence of the al-Qaida that caused so much death and destruction on 9/11, the truth is that most of today's al-Qaida franchises have a much more limited vision. Thus, when David Cameron announces that Britain must pursue the terrorists with an iron resolve, he unwittingly reinforces a notion of a unified Islamist threat that does not exist in that form. It is a convenient narrative which benefits both the propaganda machine of Islamists and the calls of those in the west who support military action, yet the true picture of those who claim to act in the name of al-Qaida – both in Africa and elsewhere – is far more nuanced, and much less of a threat to Europe, than we are commonly led to believe.


    Christina Hellmich is reader in International Relations and Middle East Studies at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading


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  • 01/24/13--13:01: Zero Dark Thirty – review
  • Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is only ever on the side of the home team

    This movie, along with the TV series Homeland, makes me think we have a new American genre – war on terror procedurals. Black sites, Washington corridors, tense SUV rides through dangerous city streets in Pakistan, operation rooms containing corkboards packed with names and faces … this could be a regular new milieu for flawed, maverick, attractive young investigators. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a key text: a spy drama about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, starring Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent Maya on a personal mission to nail America's Public Enemy No 1.

    It is well made, with a relentless, dour drumbeat of tension and a great final sequence, but nowhere near as good as the first season of Homeland, whose troubled heroine Carrie resembles Maya in key particulars. The movie doesn't have the TV show's subversive, satirical sass and fictional limberness. Zero Dark Thirty sticks solemnly and submissively to the CIA's official version of events, as received by screenwriter Mark Boal from his anonymous sources. This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain's faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.

    The waterboarding scenes are unwatchably horrible. The agency's torturer Dan (Jason Clarke) is apparently entirely callous, ostentatiously caring more for the soldiers' pet caged monkeys in Guantánamo Bay than the human inmates. Does this movie show torture getting results? It's ambiguous – and slippery. At first, the film makes a very big deal of showing us torture failing to get results. Then Barack Obama comes in, clamps down on torture, and the agency resorts to conventional analysis and clerical spadework, turning up a crucial long-overlooked lead, relating to "Abu Ahmed", Bin Laden's courier. But they wouldn't know that name was important without the intelligence gained through torture.

    What the movie does is maintain a dramatically numbed, non-judgmental view on the torture and then on the non-torture. There is no tonal shift, and no disavowal, moral or strategic. They just change their tactics and the movie stays toughly, undemonstratively onside with the CIA good guys. There is nothing in Zero Dark Thirty comparable to Gavin Hood's soul-searching 2007 movie, Rendition, in which Jake Gyllenhaal's CIA agent denounces waterboarding information as valueless; he quotes Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and says torture victims "speak upon the rack,/ Where men enforced do speak anything".

    I can well believe that, but for me the most sinister depiction of torture is non-depiction. Many Hollywood movies about the war on terror have managed to ignore the subject, implying non-existence. Despite its fence-sitting, I prefer Bigelow's account.

    The final scene is edge-of-the-seat stuff, shot with masterly coolness. But for all that the recent pulpy version of the same story by John Stockwell is inferior to Bigelow's, Stockwell did acknowledge the existence of those Pakistani nationals who helped the Americans get into the country, and are now locked up for it. They are not mentioned in Zero Dark Thirty. It's an effective thriller – uninterested in anyone other than the home team.

    Rating: 3/5


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    While Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been ridiculed for its Arabic dialogue, CIA secrecy prevents historians from fully assessing its accuracy

    Director: Kathryn Bigelow

    Entertainment grade: B–

    History grade: C  

    Osama bin Laden was the leading figure in al-Qaida. His involvement with terrorist activity, particularly the attacks of 11 September 2001, made him one of the FBI's most wanted men. He was assassinated by an American special forces unit in Pakistan on 2 May 2011.

    People


    Setting itself up as a harder-edged and slightly less bonkers version of Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fiercely driven, socially awkward CIA agent, on her pursuit of Osama bin Laden. She seems to be inspired by a real agent known as 'Jen' in No Easy Day, an account of the assassination mission written by former Navy Seal Mark Bissonnette under the pseudonym Mark Owen. How much resemblance Maya bears to reality – indeed, whether the equivalent real-life character is even a woman– are questions difficult for historians to answer conclusively while CIA secrecy remains in place.

    Torture


    Zero Dark Thirty has already run into a heap of trouble over its depiction of the CIA's use of torture. Some critics have argued that it "glorifies torture" or even constitutes "torture porn". Director Kathryn Bigelow has replied that "depiction is not endorsement". The practices shown in the first part of the movie tally with what the CIA has admitted about what it calls EITs, or "enhanced interrogation techniques", in an extensively redacted but still profoundly disturbing report released in 2009. Historically, the torture scenes are broadly accurate insofar as the CIA did use techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and forcing detainees into tiny, coffin-like boxes. They may not be accurate in terms of their context in this film – particularly the fact that no one from the FBI or CIA is shown disputing their use – or the results they show.

    Controversy


    Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes create the impression that these interrogations provided early clues as to the identity of Osama bin Laden's courier, who would ultimately lead the CIA to the man himself. This has outraged some US senators, including John McCain, who deny that in the strongest terms on the basis of their access to classified CIA material which is still not publicly available. The CIA document mentioned above says that: "The Agency's detention and interrogation of terrorists has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists." This does not relate explicitly to the finding of Bin Laden, and not merely because the document was written before he was found. As war on terror expert Jane Mayer has pointed out, former CIA director Leon Panetta has stated that "we first learned about 'the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre' from a detainee not in the CIA's custody" and that "no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts".

    Along with what the senators have said, and further evidence quoted by Mayer and others, this appears to corroborate the view that torture interrogations were irrelevant to finding Bin Laden. "Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt," Bigelow wrote. "That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore." That depends on which story you're telling. Torture is part of the story of how the CIA operated in the early 2000s. Based on currently available evidence, though, there is a strong case to argue that torture is not part of the story of finding Bin Laden.  

    Languages


    The most gripping part of Zero Dark Thirty is its final act: the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This has been meticulously recreated, and is brilliantly performed, shot and edited. However, the street scenes leading up to it have provoked bemusement and hilarity among Pakistanis on Twitter – including the Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who otherwise praised the film – for having some dialogue in colloquial Arabic. Many languages are spoken in Pakistan, but not that one.

    Geography


    Meanwhile, all the supposed experts in Zero Dark Thirty mispronounce Abbottabad (the stress should be on the first syllable, not the second; it's named after General Sir James Abbott) and Peshawar (the stress should be on the second syllable, not the first). Find Osama bin Laden? You wouldn't even trust these people to give you directions to the next town. Nor should you. "If you take a right out of Islamabad, drive about 45 minutes north, you'll find yourself here: Abbottabad," one agent tells the CIA director (James Gandolfini). Only if you're driving a helicopter. Also, if you're leaving from the US Embassy, it's a shorter land route if you take a left.

    Verdict


    Zero Dark Thirty is an accomplished and undeniably powerful piece of film-making – but chilling, and not always for the reasons it intends.

    With many thanks to Saba Imtiaz.


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  • 01/26/13--16:06: Zero Dark Thirty – review
  • Kathryn Bigelow's dramatisation of the hunt for Bin Laden is a riveting thriller to match The Hurt Locker

    In the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal approached the "war on terror" through the eyes, ears and unwavering fingers of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb-disposal expert who comes to Iraq in 2004 after service in Afghanistan. He's what the French call a baroudeur, a man addicted to combat, alienated from everyday civilian life, and the film covers 38 tense days before his unit completes its tour of duty.

    Bigelow and Boal's second collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, spans a whole decade, from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and it centres on a CIA operative called Maya (Jessica Chastain). The first film was inspired by Boal's experiences while embedded with the US army in Iraq. The new one is based on extensive research including, apparently, direct access to key personnel in the CIA.

    The title of The Hurt Locker was said to refer, via standard military usage of the term "locker" for a storage space, to the place where stoics hide their pain. The equally resonant Zero Dark Thirty is similar tough forces jargon, combining the post-midnight hours before sunrise – "zero dark" – and the precise time – 12.30am – when the navy Seals' stealth helicopters zeroed in on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. It's a riveting movie in that now familiar semi-documentary style of contemporary action thrillers that every couple of minutes tells us we're in the "US embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan", "CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia", "London, England" or "CIA Black Site, Gdansk, Poland".

    Whereas in The Hurt Locker Sergeant James is obsessed with bombs and improvised explosive devices, deadly stand-ins for the remote enemies he confronts, Maya's obsession is with the elusive man behind it all, OBL as they call him. Like the "most wanted" Iraqi criminals whose photos were distributed on playing cards, Bin Laden is identified as the world "public enemy number one", a term created in the 1930s for purposes of self-promotion by the FBI's J Edgar Hoover.

    The handsome, red-headed Maya (convincing, determined, mysterious in Chastain's compelling performance) knows no other life but the agency, having been recruited straight from university. We assume her mission as manhunter dates from 9/11, as the film opens with a blank screen and a soundtrack carrying the last words of people trapped on the higher storeys of the World Trade Centre.

    In 2003 she's thrown into the interrogation business as a witness to the extraordinary rendition and torture of suspected terrorists. She reluctantly accepts the task as part of the business, as police investigators in contrasted regimes have done for hundreds of years, usually but not always with the open or covert permission of their superiors. Bigelow shows it in graphic detail, though not with anything resembling sadistic glee, and Maya develops some kind of relationship with the handsome, intelligent, bearded interrogator called Dan (Jason Clarke). He has the same "this hurts me more than it hurts you" attitude of the torturers in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, a film used on orientation courses for US troops in Iraq.

    Dan quits, evidently shocked by what he's seen and done (we later see him kempt and shaven among the top CIA men back home). But Maya remains in the field, working assiduously and singlemindedly, gradually losing her faith in the efficacy of torture. Her mission, however, is strengthened when a fellow female operative is lured into an ambush by putting too much trust in dubious sources. Maya is clearly trying to find acceptance and approval in a man's world, and her combination of persistence, intuition, psychological insight and intellectual brilliance is rewarded when she finds vital links that lead her to OBL's Pakistani fastness.

    It's fascinating to observe her at work in this alternative existence of chilling, hi-tech surveillance, and perhaps the key exchange comes when she's eventually brought into a top policy meeting at CIA headquarters. She's shown to a seat at the back, but when she intervenes to correct a comment made upon a table-top model of the Abbottabad compound, the surly, foul-mouthed CIA chief (James Gandolfini) asks: "Who are you?" "I'm the motherfucker who discovered the place – sir," she replies. From then on she's one of the guys, accompanying the Seals to Afghanistan on their brilliantly staged mission and finally identifying the corpse in its body bag. But afterwards, she's alone once more. This is a fascinating film, and Chastain's wonderful performance has something in it of the tragic sense of life.


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    Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty has caused controversy in the States, but how has it gone down in Pakistan? Our correspondent reports on the film's howlers

    It would be nice to watch Zero Dark Thirty in the cinema in Pakistan. The extraordinary final sequence when Seal Team Six swoops into Abbottabad and raids the compound where Osama bin Laden had remained undetected for six years would definitely benefit from surround sound and a big screen.

    And it would be fun to listen to the chortles of derision from a Pakistani audience in a real time, rather than following the tweets and Facebook updates of those who watched versions downloaded from the internet weeks before its release in the UK.

    But I'm not holding my breath that Kathryn Bigelow's account of the hunt for America's greatest enemy will go on general release here any time soon. The film's distributors have not offered it for theatrical release in Pakistan over concerns that the official censors would take exception to it.

    While the movie is controversial in the US over the suggestion that the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques were instrumental in nabbing Bin Laden, in Pakistan the film is an unwelcome reminder of a past humiliation.

    Pakistan's security establishment is still seething over the Americans's decision to mount a massive operation without bothering to involve the Pakistanis, nominally allies in the war against al-Qaida.

    So, in Pakistan many people are making do with illegal downloads and pirated DVDs. In my local video shop it comes in two different cases. One has the original artwork on the cover; the other features a large portrait of Bin Laden, a character whose face is never actually shown in the film.

    "For me the biggest problem was that the production design was so weak," says Wajahat Khan, a television journalist. Not only is he unconvinced by many of the locations used to stand in for Pakistan, Khan is, like many others, bemused by the depiction of Pakistanis speaking Arabic to each other. And he thinks the film-makers are guilty of "imagining Pakistan to be what they want it to be".

    "It does a disservice to how complex the society is," Khan explains. "This society may have housed Bin Laden but it's not the backyard of a local mosque in Jeddah."

    Expatriate life is also shown to be grimmer than the reality of large and spacious houses enjoyed by diplomats in Kabul. Perhaps the foreign press corps is to blame for disabusing Zero Dark Thirty's screenwriter, Mark Boal. During a visit to Pakistan before filming began, Boal asked a group of hacks whether foreigners in Islamabad enjoy "crazy parties where everyone gets naked in the pool". The poor man looked crestfallen when told the (all too depressing) truth that Islamabad is a pretty subdued place.

    Although it was described by Bigelow as a "reported film", Zero Dark Thirty offers a feast for fact-checkers. Inaccuracies abound, largely due to the need to compress the decade-long hunt, create composite characters and make the whole thing work as a piece of drama.

    A single character, Maya, is used to carry the film. She is portrayed as a lone voice challenging the CIA's bureaucratic inertia after Bin Laden trail goes cold and she is placed at the centre of the action. She is shown dining in a poor imitation of Islamabad's Marriott hotel even though it was blown up in 2008. Her car is attacked by gunmen as she drives out of her house – something that has happened more than once to US government employees in Peshawar, but not to anyone's knowledge in Islamabad.

    One of the CIA's overseas "black sites" used for interrogating members of al-Qaida is shown in Pakistan itself, presumably to place Maya in both the torture scenes and where the action was in the CIA's Islamabad station.

    Her character appears to be based on a real CIA agent named as Jen in an account of the Bin Laden raid written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette. But Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who has researched Bin Laden more deeply than anyone else, claims the CIA officer who worked on the search for eight years up until his death and was convinced he was hiding in the Abbottabad compound was actually a man.

    In December the acting director of CIA went public to criticise the film for taking "significant artistic licence, while portraying itself as being historically accurate".

    The film, which claims to be based on "firsthand accounts of actual events" adds tantalising and colourful details that build on what has been reported elsewhere.

    But it's hard to know what to believe when the film makes an astonishing error in portraying one of the gambits used to try and identify whether Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. A controversial hepatitis B vaccination programme run on behalf of the CIA in the town in an attempt to get hold of Bin Laden family DNA is clearly shown as an anti-polio campaign. It's a truly sloppy mistake given how widely reported the incident was.

    And it's also potentially dangerous. The scandal of the CIA using aid workers as cover for operations has helped to inflame deep mistrust in Pakistan's tribal areas towards vaccination programmes. Two Taliban commanders have banned polio eradication from their areas of control. In December, six polio vaccinators were murdered by gunmen while going about their work.

    Another curious departure from the truth, likely only to be noticed in Pakistan, is the decision to rename the CIA's station chief in Islamabad who, as accurately depicted in the movie, has to leave the country after anti-drone campaigners blew his cover by naming him in a court action.

    For some reason the film-makers name the character Joseph Bradley, not the real-life Jonathan Banks whose name is now irretrievably all over the internet. Could this be some small (but pointless) quid pro quo for the access Boal was granted to CIA officers and White House officials? Or just artistic licence?


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    Film-maker Michael Moore says Kathryn Bigelow's controversial Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty will make you hate torture

    The US film-maker Michael Moore has defended Kathryn Bigelow's controversial Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty as "a disturbing, fantastically-made movie" that "will make you hate torture".

    In an extended post on Facebook, Moore said he did not buy critics' argument that the film glorifies torture by showing its use during the search for Osama bin Laden. He also dismissed suggestions that the film erroneously depicted torture as a vital tool in the hunt for al-Qaida's figurehead. Figures ranging from US senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and terrorism expert Steve Coll have criticised Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal for their approach on Zero Dark Thirty, and the film is the subject of an investigation by the US Senate intelligence committee.

    "I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place," wrote Moore. "You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate – namely, in this case, to debate 'whether torture works'. You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, "is torture wrong?" And, after watching the brutal behaviour of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can't believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this."

    Moore continued: "Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity – and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains."

    Appearing on the US TV show This Week on the ABC network at the weekend, Boal hit out at the Senate probe, comparing the response to Zero Dark Thirty to government scrutiny of Hollywood creatives during the McCarthy era. "I think that it could discourage other screenwriters or writers of any kind from making topical movies – it could discourage studios from releasing them," Boal said. "Criticism is fine, and we, I can take criticism on board. But there is a difference between criticism and investigation. And I think that crosses a line that hasn't been crossed really since the 1940s, when you talk about government investigating movies."

    Meanwhile, it has emerged that Zero Dark Thirty will not be hitting cinemas in Pakistan, where Bin Laden was killed by a US Navy Seal squad at his compound in the north of the country in May last year. "The movie had some controversial scenes in the story related to Pakistan … For us it's not possible to bring it here," distributor Mohsin Yaseen of local firm Cinepax told the BBC. "It did affect our business, but, you know, it's better to be safe than showing that film."

    Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty is said to be extremely popular via pirated DVDs, despite what many Pakistanis see as strange inaccuracies, such as the depiction of modern Islamabad as a dusty war zone.


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    I take issue with Slavoj Žižek on the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow's gift to America, 26 January). I found the film's torture scenes profoundly disturbing, made more so by Maya's uneasy acquiescence to it. I wanted her to intervene, but had she done so, the film would have become a superficial thriller with "good guys" and "bad guys". Instead, I was left to think: how would I have behaved? Might I have done the same? Circumstances can cause any of us to break our moral codes, as any psychologist or historian knows.

    What Žižek decries as the normalisation of torture is what makes the film so powerful. Post-9/11, torture was normalised by our politicians, hidden behind words like "enhanced interrogation", and this is what the film shows. Bigelow is right: showing does not mean endorsement. Are we not intelligent enough viewers to work that out? The film does not attempt to answer whether torture works. I certainly did not come away thinking torture was right because Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed, an equally horrific scene that raised moral questions of its own. This is a powerful, psychologically sophisticated film that, in the debate it has provoked, shows the value of the serious artist in our society.
    John Marzillier
    Oxford

    • Even if we accept Slavoj Žižek's dubious premise that Kathryn Bigelow's film condones torture, is he arguing that there should only be films which confirm the cosy certainties of leftist, bourgeois audiences? That all films should offer some sort of mushy liberal consensus that never challenges the beliefs of their liberal audiences? What an extraordinary thing for a man who characterises himself as some sort of intellectual rebel to say.
    Simon Jarrett
    Harrow, Middlesex

    • Jon Boone's report on the "howlers" of Zero Dark Thirty (Less than zero, G2, 28 January) is based on a false premise – that fictionalised events are an appropriate hunting ground for fact-checkers. Bigelow's description of it as a "reported film" (whatever that is) in no way sanctions a criticism of the but-that-hotel-doesn't exist kind. It's still fiction.
    Edwina Rowling
    Ditchling, Sussex


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    Group representing victims of 2001 attacks says criticism of torture scenes by media and politicians is 'deeply disturbing'

    An organisation that represents friends and relatives of those who died or were caught up in the World Trade Centre has come to the defence of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, whose film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden has, they feel, been "badmouthed" by politicians and the press.

    The group, 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, issued a statement condemning those who suggest the drama justifies the use of torture in the hunt for terrorists.

    Those singled out for especial shame include senators leading the investigation into whether the film-makers were given access to leaked CIA documents, a handful of film critics, and some actors who have spoken out about the film's use of torture.

    Their statement in full:

    As a group of 9/11 families sharing a rare moment of justice and elation in the viewing of a film chronicling the search for and ultimate death of Osama Bin Laden, we find it deeply disturbing that some of our elected officials want to discourage other 9/11 families and the public from seeing this outstanding film. Politicians who have criticised the movie and made misleading claims about it stand in the way of engaging a public dialogue for a stirring film which invokes feelings of patriotism and perseverance and honours our military, our country, and the victims of 9/11.

    We are greatly concerned that a few pundits, "film critics" and elected officials are badmouthing this movie because of the water boarding scenes and because this film directly confronts the enduring terrorist threat.

    We feel this is history – like it or not – and no effort should be made to rewrite or censor it for political correctness. Certainly there should be no organised boycott or suppression of films based on political differences. The word for that is "censorship". How bizarre that members of an industry that suffered so much during the McCarthy era would even consider doing this to their own members!

    The use of the term "torture" by elected officials in hopes of dissuading people to endorse or view this film is antithetical to what our government should be all about.

    As 9/11 family members whose loved ones were massacred at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, we applaud Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow for presenting a film that honours history, our military, our country, and the victims of 9/11 – through the excellent portrayal of how the US government and Navy Seals worked to apprehend Bin Laden. There is still a constitutional right to freedom of speech in our country, and censoring a film is totally unAmerican and against the tenets of our founding fathers. This film inspires dialogue and no elected official can censor any film. We do not want to allow Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain or actors David Clennon and 9/11 Truthers Ed Asner and Martin Sheen to inhibit our fellow Americans from seeing Zero Dark Thirty. Our loved ones died for these freedoms on 9/11 – and no one should ever try to abridge them. All citizens should see this film and make their own decisions about its value. This is what democracy is about.

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    Jessica Chastain is a red-hot Oscar favourite, with Zero Dark Thirty and Mama just the latest in her bumper run. But there's been plenty of struggle. She talks to Tom Lamont about waiting for fame, living with mice – and why her grandma hogs the limelight

    You wouldn't call it rags to riches. There was no last-dollar bus ticket bought in Kansas or Kentucky, destination Los Angeles. But if Hollywood still has the power to transform a no-name's life, and at dizzying speed, the example of Jessica Chastain is a good one. Two years ago she was "super poor", an actor from Northern California who hoarded coins for the laundrette. She shared her LA apartment with at least a dozen mice (they lived in cutlery drawers, the oven). Chastain has always had vivid red hair, a distinctive pinched chin and an arresting smile, but whenever she got a part in a film, no matter if it was her eighth, or her 11th, so few people recognised her she'd be asked: "Aren't you excited? To be in a movie?"

    In 2011, Hollywood worked its indefinite magic and now, she says: "Nobody asks that any more." The 35-year-old flew into London this morning from America, where her two latest films, the military thriller Zero Dark Thirty and the horror flick Mama, occupy the top two spots at the box office. She has just won a Golden Globe for Zero Dark Thirty (welling up during a speech thanking Grandma), and there's a possible Oscar to come. The bottled water in her London hotel room is labelled Deliciously Still, and a few corridors away a group of aides remind each other, direly, that "Jessica isn't vegan – she's very vegan". They go on to strategise in tones really best suited to leaders at war, or foreign-territory publicists deciding where to treat an American star to lunch.

    Chastain, oblivious, sits on a sofa in her room, feet pulled up and a grey McQueen dress arranged over her knees. She talks me through her recent schedule, which as well as this visit to the UK somehow incorporates eight shows a week in a Broadway play, The Heiress. "Matinee yesterday, then straight to the airport. Landed this morning, then tomorrow morning I fly back and go straight to the theatre." Just hearing it said is tiring. She guesses she'll slow down soon.

    "You know when you've worked so hard for something? And you finally get a taste of it? That's how I felt last year. Like: oh my gosh, I'm an actress getting to the point where [Zero Dark Thirty director] Kathryn Bigelow will call me on my cell phone. You want to grasp it, not let it go. This year's the first time I'm starting to think that I don't need to be so terrified it's going to go away. I don't have to work every single second. It's new – starting to exhale."

    Her breakthrough came in the summer of 2011 – two superior indie movies creating a stir at Cannes: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Lifeand Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter. In both Chastain played a devoted wife. "And it was palpable, after that, how quickly I was typecast. Every script, the devoted wife and mother." She signed on to make a horror film instead: "Playing a woman who hates children and plays in a punk band." This is Annabel, her character in Mama, a tattooed rebel who ends up having to protect a pair of kids from ghouls. "I don't accept that as an actress I have to play one personality over and over. Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman – all these great actors are allowed to change what they look like. Women in Hollywood? I've noticed they're not."

    Even on Mama, a job expressly taken to void a developing stereotype, there was a row. Between the contract signing and her first day on set, Chastain had appeared in The Help, a commercial hit that later earned her an Oscar nomination. She was a commodity, and "they" (a term I take to mean producers, moneymen, a crust of mean and unimaginative Hollywood elders) wanted her in Mama with her tumble of red hair on show. It wasn't how the part was written, and Chastain said no – give me the dye job and tattoos set down in the script.

    It's how she appears in the finished film, Lisbeth Salander-ish, not immediately identifiable. "If someone tells me 'You can't do that', I'm going to try to do it even more. It doesn't mean I'll succeed. But it means I'll fight you."

    Chastain's grandmother, thanked through tears at the Golden Globes, is from Kansas; an actor inside, who might have got on a bus bound for Hollywood but for pressure to start a family. "I'm her first granddaughter. She saw a lot of herself in me." Chastain, daughter of a chef and a firefighter, wasn't so cheerful as a kid. She was tall and teased for being ginger. People asked: "Why don't you ever smile?" A frustrated creative streak was diagnosed, and the grandma, Marilyn, took Chastain to dance classes, to musicals.

    At a Broadway show, Chastain saw a kid her own age in the cast and thought: yes please. "The second that clicked, I became happier. I had a sense of myself." Juliet, Hero, Helen of Troy, Juliet again – she seemed to spend her formative years, in rep and training at Juilliard, getting the good parts. Then, in 2006, she scored the title role in a production of Salomé, opposite Al Pacino, and "all the agents came. That's what started my career in film."

    Among her distinctions Chastain can claim an IMDB page that's genuinely funny. The upper half of her filmography is impeccable. Zero Dark Thirty and those Cannes indies, also The Debt with Helen Mirren and Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes. Moving back, the work thins (not much in 2009, 2008) and suddenly we're at Blackbeard, a pirate special, and an episode of a TV serial called "The Rapist Next Door". She's the dead body in a discontinued cop show and a bit player in an episode of ER most memorable for a tank attack on County General. "I was frustrated," Chastain recalls.

    Less a problem after Salomé, when she made 11 movies in the build-up to that breakout summer of 2011. Delays bunched the releases (completed work left like "planes circling the airport"), but when a series of her films hit cinemas in succession, the actor became ubiquitous. "It's a Jessica Chastain universe and we're only living in it," the comedian Mindy Kaling said in late 2011. "The warmest actor of her generation," wrote the New Yorker.

    "Everyone's been very generous," Chastain says. Really the only demerit on her CV, at least since her days as a corpse, was Othello, an ambitious staging in 2009 that reworked the tragedy with modern trappings (senators, mobile phones – who knows, a handkerchief made from a polyester blend). There were boos at the curtain call, critics panned it, and Chastain swore off theatre, only changing her mind when a role in The Heiress was offered. Why? She shrugs. "I guess it's like going through a bad break-up. You say to yourself in the aftermath: 'I'm never dating again!'"

    I guess. Chastain's romantic life is a mystery, fenced off. Sometimes the gossip pages guess at boyfriends. Sometimes she makes a denial. She says to me: "Being on the sidelines for a long time gave me the opportunity to strengthen myself to the idea of what fame is. I've had time to understand the kind of actor I want to be. Personal life. Age. 'Who are you dating?' All of those things get in the way of playing characters."

    Maya, the character she plays in Zero Dark Thirty, is an ideal fit. A CIA agent hunting Osama bin Laden, we see almost nothing of her social existence. There's a quick restaurant meal with a pal, boys are mentioned… then the building explodes. "She's defined by her work, not by a male counterpart."

    It's true, and a strength of the film. But Maya's stiff, professional facade is emphasised by director Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, to suggest a starkness. That there's very little to Maya beneath the job. She's all business. Are there similarities here between actor and character? "I think it's different," says Chastain. "I have a very rich personal life. And Maya doesn't."

    Grandma Marilyn, anyway, has become an acceptable, discussable proxy for the rich personal life. At the 2012 Oscars, Chastain took Marilyn down the red carpet, where they charmed interviewers together. Same again this year? (The ceremony is on 24 February.) "Of course. Even though my grandma's a media hog, man." Chastain will be up for best actress for Zero Dark Thirty.

    I can't have been the only one who watched her in that terrific film and thought: clear statue space on the mantelpiece, dude. She's not so sure. "I keep hearing: 'Oh, there's so much politics involved.' I mean, I've been doing a play on Broadway. I've been on stage, so I haven't had time to do the schmoozing that goes along with it. So you never know what happens." Maybe it occurs to her this doesn't sound sufficiently grateful. The actor – forthright and articulate, on the sidelines until recently and only more plain speaking for it – tacks on a rare red-carpet cliché.

    "It's incredible to be nominated," she says, and beams.

    Mama is released on 22 February


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    Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where al-Qaida leader hid for years, plans to build an amusement park to improve image

    The Pakistani town that earned worldwide infamy as the place where Osama bin Laden hid for years is to build an amusement park in an attempt to restore its family-friendly image.

    Construction will begin in the next two weeks on a sprawling site on the outskirts of Abbottabad, the town where the al-Qaida chief lived with his family in a fortified house until May 2011, when he was killed by a raiding party of US Navy Seals.

    The Hazara Heritage Park and Amusement City will cost almost £20m and boast restaurants, a mini golf course, a butterfly zoo, various rides and a lake for water sports.

    Javed Abbasi, a provincial MP who has promoted the initiative, said he hoped a rollercoaster would also be included as part of the final stage of the five-year development.

    "This will be one of the biggest amusement parks in Pakistan and we are looking forward to welcoming visitors from all over the country and the world," he said.

    Authorities have long been keen to move on from the embarrassment caused by the discovery that the world's most-wanted man had been living undetected in the pleasant surroundings of Abbottabad, just 30 miles north of the capital.

    The building where he had remained concealed for so long was torn down last February.

    "The specific idea for this park is to show that this is a safe area," said Abbasi. "There is no militancy over here, no terrorism; the people are safe."

    Like many in Abbottabad, Abbasi believes the town has been unfairly tarnished by its association with a terrorist mastermind who lived undetected just a short distance from Pakistan's elite military training school.

    "It was unfortunate that Osama stayed here but I don't think it was the fault of the city, where he had no support," he said. "People are not fanatic, they do not support terrorists – you cannot blame a city if someone hides here."

    Abbasi said the other main objective was to provide more recreational activities in a region of great natural beauty that already attracts many sightseers, including visitors to the nearby hill station of Nathia Gali.

    But Syed Aqil Shah, minister for sports and tourism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said there needed to be more activities for families and young people.

    "We want to keep young people away from terrorism and extremism," he said. "We think healthy activities are a way to engage them in positive things."

    The plans, announced just weeks before Pakistan's national parliament and provincial assemblies are due to be re-elected, appeared to go down well with locals.

    "The capture of Osama had tarnished the image of this beautiful and peaceful city," said Hamuyoon Khan Jadoon, a 55-year-old resident. "But the construction of such a park will create a positive image of Abbottabad."


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    Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed, is rebranding itself as an 'amusement city'. Leicester needs to raise its game

    Why isn't Leicester twinned with Abbottabad? Those places have got so much in common. Both face stern economic challenges. Both are desperate to attract investment and tourism. And both have been the resting place of the mutilated remains of a notorious villain – who, in both cases, some say has been misjudged.

    There are differences of course: Leicester's dead guy, Richard III, belongs to a very different historical era from Osama bin Laden (who met his end in Abbottabad) – it was no less brutal but the distance of time has allowed it to become picturesque. And, perhaps consequently, Richard III is a little further along the path of reputational rehabilitation than Bin Laden. Also Richard III didn't actually die in Leicester but was carried there dead, while Osama bin Laden was removed from Abbottabad post-mortem, leaving no possibility of infra-car-park skeletal jackpots for the city's future mayors. But the main difference is in how the two towns are making use of their respective celebrity corpses.

    "This project has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden," is how Syed Aqil Shah, sports and tourism minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, last week described Abbottabad's latest plan to attract visitors, an "amusement city", complete with a zoo, paragliding club and water sports facilities. But Sir Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, isn't soft-pedalling Richard III to quite the same extent, announcing the ex-monarch's public reburial in Leicester cathedral, the opening of a new Richard III museum nearby and "In the meantime we have a small but excellent temporary exhibition… telling the story of Richard, the search for his grave and it even has an exact copy of his skull."

    There are currently no plans for an exact copy of Osama bin Laden's skull to be the centrepiece of the new attractions at Abbottabad. Instead, there's talk of a ski ramp. It seems the city is trying to distance itself from its famous former resident. The house where Bin Laden died, far from being considered for a blue plaque, has actually been demolished to avoid the area becoming a place of pilgrimage for those keen on terrorism. Abbottabad is refusing to become synonymous with one murderous dead guy. Meanwhile Leicester is jumping at the chance.

    The Abbottabad approach could be win-win: while ostensibly reclaiming the town for more mainstream holidaymakers, there's nothing to stop the new park benefiting from Bin Laden pilgrims too. However ghoulish or pro-al-Qaida your tastes, there's only so long you can look at the rubbly remains of a concrete compound before you start to think about lunch. And, after lunch, there'll be a wide range of other activities to tempt you: "a heritage park, wildlife zoo… adventure and paragliding clubs, waterfalls and jogging tracks", according to Mr Shah. They might get into it. Center Parcs would probably get a bit more chance custom if it ran a shuttle bus from where Fred West lived.

    Anything specifically Bin Laden-themed would be even more of a turn-off to his fans than it would be to the rest of us. I get the impression that most al-Qaida enthusiasts are pretty down on commercialism and branding, and any attempt to Disneyfy Osama is likely to be more distasteful to them than a Bin Ladened Mickey Mouse to a midwestern senator. The only way you could design a park that had any chance of tempting an OBL buff to have a go on the dodgems would be if you explicitly stated that: "This project has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden."

    Like the last Plantagenet king's battered corpse, the surface of the Earth is covered with wounds caused by various historical encounters. The sites of battles, murders, genocides, plagues, sieges, crucifixions and reality TV show planning meetings bespatter the planet. Should we commemorate them with respectful museums, temples and cathedrals? Should they be forgotten and left to nature and future car park builders?

    Or, as in Abbottabad, should those wounds be soothed with the Savlon of an amusement park – a place where those who wish to remember, forget, celebrate or condemn the reason for the area's notoriety can eat candyfloss and go paragliding together? Would Alton Towers not make more sense if it turned out to be on the location of some kind of slaughter? Would the site of the wreck of the Mary Rose not be brightened up by a windsurfing academy? Here are some suggestions of other historically scarred locations that could be turned into commercial beauty spots.

    Shooting-of-Abraham-Lincoln World

    This would be built on the site of the shooting of JF Kennedy and would combine rides and amusements with a museum explaining the circumstances of the assassination of the earlier president. This would greatly reduce the pain and shock that people still feel about the death of the USA's young and popular 1960s president by subtly making the point that lots of presidents get shot.

    Highland Clearances Designer Village

    It was a time of betrayal which made of the Scottish Highlands the wilderness we know today. A people were driven off their land and their cries of anguish echo down the centuries. A bit of retail therapy is long overdue. Amid the bleak windfarms of Caithness, a Bicester Village-style collection of designer outlets would attract visitors and transform the local economy. In time, there'll be fairground rides, a multimedia zone and buggy trips out into the countryside where teenagers get to fire air rifles at real sheep – but the retail would come first, if only because of the ready-made sale pun in the name of the historical event from which we're trying to divert attention. Maybe, in time, what once stood for the suffering of an entire nation will come to mean nothing more woeful than heavily reduced designer shoes.

    Waterworld

    Built at the rough location of the sinking of RMS Titanic, this spectacular watersports and rides complex, constructed around the framework of a former North Sea oil rig, would take as its theme the eponymous 1995 Kevin Costner aqua-flop. The central roller-coaster would be in the shape of a graph comparing the financial fortunes of that film and the James Cameron blockbuster Titanic, released only two years later, the spectacular financial success of which surely made the sinking it dramatised a net gain for humankind in the minds of all but those most morbidly obsessed with the sanctity of human life.


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    Retired commando alleges he's been left without healthcare or financial support as he struggles to adapt to a new civilian life

    A retired Navy Seal who claims to have killed Osama bin Laden by shooting him three times in the forehead has accused the US military of abandoning him to his fate without any financial support, healthcare or security protection as he makes the hard transition to civilian life.

    The former commando was a member of the team of 23 Navy Seals that stormed a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on 2 May 2011 and killed the world's most wanted terrorist, according to Esquire. An article in the magazine, written in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, tells the commando's story as apparently the last person to see Bin Laden alive.

    But it is the Navy Seal's caustic comments about his treatment at the hands of the military as he seeks to make the shift back to civilian life that are attracting most attention. The "Shooter", as he is anonymously referred to, tells the magazine that after the Abbottabad raid he felt burned out and decided to take early retirement three years before the official requirement of 20 years' service.

    As a result, he said: "my healthcare for me and my family stopped. … I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You're out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your sixteen years. Go fuck yourself."

    He bitterly remarks that if he had been killed on a special-ops mission, his family would have fared much better than the reality of his retirement. "If I get killed on this next deployment," he told Esquire before he made his final mission to Afghanistan before leaving the navy: "I know my family will be taken care of. College will be paid for, they'll be fine.

    "But if I come back alive and retire, I won't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of for the rest of my life. Sad to say, it's better if I get killed."

    He was also critical about the lack of security protection he and his family have been provided in the wake of the Bin Laden killing. He told Esquire that the best he was offered was a witness-protection programme similar to that provided for Mafia snitches – he could be given a new identity driving a beer truck in Milwaukee, he was told.

    The Seal told Esquire that he had expected the military at least to enhance security at his home which he shares with his wife and children. "Maybe some courtesy eyes-on checks. Send some Seabees over to put in a heavier, metal-reinforced front door. Install some sensors or something. But there was literally nothing."

    The navy, responding to questions from MSNBC, said that it could not corroborate the Shooter's account of events and his post-retirement treatment. "We take seriously the safety and security of our people as well as our responsibility to assist sailors making the transition to civilian life. Without more information about this particular case it would be difficult to determine the degree to which our transition programme succeeded."

    The commando's criticisms of his treatment are all the more excoriating because of his status, according to Esquire, as the Navy Seal who took down Bin Laden. He describes to the magazine the 15 seconds in which he apparently made history by shooting the spearhead behind 9/11.

    "I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! the second time as he's going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! same place … He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath."

    Experts in veteran care said Esquire had gone too far in its summary of the official response to the Seal's 16 years in the navy. The article says that on retirement he received "nothing. No pension, no healthcare, and no protection for himself and his family."

    Derek Blumke, who until last month ran the national mental health programme of the US Department of Veteran Affairs, pointed out that as a combat veteran the Seal would be entitled to healthcare for the next five years as well as disability benefits for life relating to any injuries incurred during military service. But Blumke, who worked for six years as an air force electrician and co-founded Student Veterans for America, said that the commando's anxieties about the transition to civilian life were representative of the difficulties faced by thousands of retiring service members every year.

    "When I left the air force in 2005 it was the scariest time of my life. I was terrified that I wasn't going to be smart enough to succeed," Blumke said.

    Zach Iscol, a former marine captain who runs Hire Purpose, a group that matches military veterans with civilian companies, said the department of defense had made strides in recent years in improving its help for veterans. "Historically, the military is so focused on the mission of war that it hasn't done a good job in setting up those leaving the services for success in civilian life, though that's changing."

    Iscol predicted that the Shooter's doubts about his ability to find a meaningful role in civvy street would prove to be unfounded. "As an operator in the Navy Seals he has incredibly marketable leadership skills that countless companies would be delighted to benefit from."

    • This article was amended on 11 February 2013. The original said that Derek Blumke currently heads Student Veterans for America. This has been corrected.


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    The Navy Seal who pulled the trigger on the al-Qaida boss has revealed some hard truths in a magazine interview

    Age: Classified.

    Appearance: Classified.

    Who is he? The Navy Seal who shot Osama bin Laden.

    I thought a lot of people shot Bin Laden? They did. But this guy shot him first, three times, in the forehead, at which point further shots were arguably redundant.

    And his age and appearance are classified? Yup. Along with anything that might result in his identity being revealed and him and his family being kidnapped and killed.

    Can you at least tell me his name? No, of course not. Just call him the Shooter.

    Fine. What's the Shooter up to now? He has told all. Or plenty, at least, to journalist Phil Bronstein, who has written a short novel of an article about him for US magazine Esquire.

    Revealing what? His thoughts in the seconds before and after Bin Laden died; how he was struck by how tall the world's most wanted man was, and how skinny, and how short his beard was; and how, as the Shooter watched him die, he thought: "Is this the best thing I've ever done, or the worst thing I've ever done? This is real and that's him. Holy shit."

    Is the whole piece about killing Bin Laden? Far from it.

    Aww. Shame. Any other good killings in it? Not really. The focus is on the Shooter's life in the aftermath of that night in Abbottabad.

    Boring! Let me guess: a quiet mansion somewhere secret, safe and hot? Nothing like. He retired three years short of the threshold to qualify for a military pension.

    Meaning what? Meaning the man who shot Osama bin Laden receives no income from the state, no health insurance and no protection, and leaves with little more to show for his service than "arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage and blown discs", a struggling marriage, a long wait to have his disability claims assessed, and a lifetime of looking over his shoulder.

    Yeah, but he gets to say: "I killed Bin Laden, dude." True. But he can't put that on his CV.

    Do say: "We will remember them."

    Don't say: "But we won't help with their bills."


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    Thousands of veterans have problems going back to civilian life, but it will take more than money to fix the issues

    Esquire magazine caused quite a stir on Monday when it published an extended interview with the US Navy Seal who shot and killed Osama bin Laden.

    The shooter, his pseudonym throughout the 15,000 word article, recounts the raid in gripping detail, but it's his comments on his life and struggles after leaving the navy that have provoked the strongest reactions. The shooter's struggles will shock readers, most of whom likely aren't familiar with the terms of military service and the benefits conferred after that service ends.

    In September 2012, the shooter left the navy after 16 years of honorable service. Over multiple combat deployments, the shooter racked up injuries, lost a lot of friends, and watched his marriage fall apart. He's struggled with suicidal thoughts and finding a steady job that doesn't require carrying a gun (that is, private security contracting).

    Regrettably, nothing the shooter has experienced makes him unique. Thousands of combat veterans, not just the special operations forces, have experienced these same problems transitioning back to civilian life. Coping with the tens of thousands of veterans who suffered mental or physical injuries and reintegrating them into society will be one of America's greatest challenges in the 21st century.

    As Bronstein tells it, the US navy and a grateful nation gave the shooter nothing upon leaving the military:

    "No pension, no healthcare, and no protection for himself or his family."

    This also does not make the shooter unique: 83% of all military veterans separate from the military before serving 20 years, which means they are not entitled to a pension, nor to remain on Tricare, the military's health insurance. But here's the thing: the shooter, like all service members, undoubtedly knew this when he made the decision to leave just four years shy of earning a lifetime of benefits for himself and his family.

    Inexplicably, in the original online version of the story, Esquire omitted the fact that the shooter isn't completely without healthcare. Like all combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the shooter is eligible to receive five years of health coverage from the Department of Veterans Affairs. If he has service-related injuries, which the article strongly implies, he can file a disability claim and potentially receive free care for the rest of his life.

    Not even Esquire's print version of the story is correct, however, as medical care is also available to those of us without service-related disabilities. In most cases, we simply have to pay modest co-pays for health services at VA medical centers. These co-pays are completely reasonable, but unlike equivalent civilian plans, veterans don't pay a monthly or annual premium. His family, however, will not be eligible for the same health coverage.

    By virtue of his status as the man who killed the most infamous US outlaw, the shooter's story will garner a lot of attention and sympathy. It should also prompt Americans to pause and reflect after 11 years of war: what do we owe our veterans? Is the military a profession or a public service?

    Answering these questions is a prerequisite to reforming the military compensation and retirement system.

    The current trajectory of military personnel costs is unsustainable. One report succinctly describes the problem:

    "If personnel costs continue growing at [the current] rate and the overall defense budget remains flat with inflation, military personnel costs will consume the entire defense budget by 2039."

    According to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), these expenditures have grown more than 90% – 30% above the rate of inflation – since 2001. Tricare has fueled spiraling costs. From 2001 to 2012, healthcare costs rose over 170% (pdf), from $19bn to $53bn.

    In addition to paying 1.5m active duty military, the Department of Defense is also responsible for 1.9m retirees at a cost of $50bn per year. The military retirement system has not changed in over 100 years.

    Unlike social security or Medicare, military retirees begin collecting their generous pensions immediately upon retirement. Because 76% of retirees leave the service in their 40s, most pensions are paid to people who likely will live for 40 years, twice as long as the service they rendered. But 83% of service members, mostly those enlisted men and women who have fought hardest and endured the worst, will, like shooter and me, not serve long enough to get a pension.

    We're operating an all-volunteer, professional military force using conscription era personnel policies.

    Since 2001, support for the troops mostly has meant yellow ribbon bumper stickers, care packages, or well-meaning, if awkward, "thanks for your service" banalities from acquaintances and strangers. Our elected leaders didn't ask us to pay any price or bear any burden. Instead, they gave us tax cuts and encouraged everyone to go shopping while we sent some, but not all our sons and daughters to war, over and over and over.

    So, what do we owe our veterans? Is the military a public service? Or is it a profession that demands compensation and benefits above and beyond what we pay civilians? Should we treat our special operations forces differently than other veterans? And what do we owe these brave citizens in retirement?

    Maybe, we should start by showing a bit more thoughtfulness when making decisions of war and peace; considerably more diligence prosecuting the wars we've decided to wage; and demanding an efficient, comprehensive system of care for those veterans who return injured.

    Ensuring these things requires more than a war tax and a "thanks for your service" nod. While throwing money at the problem may assuage our guilt, it won't solve the problem.


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    Investigation into whether Zero Dark Thirty film-makers were granted access to classified CIA material is closed

    Just a day after Zero Dark Thirty foundered at the Oscars, taking just a single technical prize, the high-profile US senate investigation that may have helped scupper the drama's awards season has been quietly dropped.

    With Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal having previously won best film in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty – about the hunt for Osama bin Laden – was one of the early frontrunners for this year's Oscars and took many of the critics' prizes that preface the bigger awards ceremonies. But then disquiet grew over the film's depiction of the CIA's alleged use of torture in the hunt for the leader of al-Qaida.

    In January the US Senate intelligence committee launched an investigation into whether Bigelow and Boal were granted "inappropriate access" to classified CIA material after the committee's Democratic chair Dianne Feinstein and member John McCain, the former Republican US presidential candidate, expressed concern about Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes. In an article on the Guardian website Naomi Wolf later compared Bigelow with the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.

    The film soon became a political football, with the film-makers furiously defending their right to include fictional elements. "It's a movie. I've been saying from the beginning it's a movie," Boal said last month. "That shouldn't be too confusing. It's in cinemas and if it's not totally obvious, a CIA agent wasn't really an Australian [Jason Clarke] that was on a lot of TV shows and Jessica Chastain isn't really a CIA agent; she's a very talented actress. But I think most American audiences understand that." Speaking at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, where she won best director, Bigelow 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 film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time."

    Zero Dark Thirty received unexpected support from leftwing film-maker Michael Moore, who defended the drama as "a disturbing, fantastically-made movie" that "will make you hate torture". But the damage was done in the eyes of Oscars voters, especially after Academy member David Clennon called for a boycott.

    When the Oscar nominees were announced on 10 January, Bigelow surprisingly missed out on a nod for best director and her film was left to compete only for best picture, best original screenwriting (Boal), best actress (Chastain) and two editing prizes. On Sunday night, Chastain lost out to Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence and Boal was defeated by Django Unchained's Quentin Tarantino. Zero Dark Thirty ultimately had to be content with a single gong for best sound editing, in a tie with James Bond movie Skyfall.

    A congressional aide, speaking anonymously, yesterday told Reuters the Senate intelligence committee had closed its inquiry. Studio Sony, which produced the film, had no immediate comment and neither Bigelow nor Boal has yet made a public statement.


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