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'Zero Dark Thirty' has the facts wrong – and that's a problem, not just for the Oscars

The movie 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition – nominated for five Academy Awards. But because it advertises itself as factually grounded, I have to point out: On each of its three major points, the film gets the story wrong.

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This image provided by Columbia Pictures shows Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty,' which has been nominated for five Academy Awards. Ahead of the Oscars, former Asst. Sec. of Defense Graham Allison writes ‘that this movie will shape more Americans’ understanding of the war against Al Qaeda than scores of books and major articles.’ And he sees ‘glaring holes in the [film's] story.'

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./AP/File

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The movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is unquestionably a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition (nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). If director Kathryn Bigelow’s film presented itself principally as fiction, it could be judged exclusively on its technical or dramatic merits, which are considerable. But because it advertises itself as a factually grounded “journalistic filming” of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it cannot duck a further question about what it owes to truth. 

Of necessity, condensing years into minutes and crafting story lines that engage the viewer require simplification. But it is still fair to ask whether the central lessons viewers will take away from the film are consistent with what really happened.

As a teacher, I am aware that this movie will shape more Americans’ understanding of the war against Al Qaeda than scores of books and major articles. As citizens, we know that cinematic historical fiction has left many Americans believing remarkable falsehoods. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” left a generation of students asking why the CIA conspired to assassinate an American president.

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