Episode 6: The Reckoning

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. In this first season of our podcast, we’ve explored the many ways that 9/11 influenced writers, directors and producers and how they used history to discuss and process that day and its legacy.  

Last week we discussed films about the day itself, September 11, 2001. In this episode we ask how Hollywood reckoned with both its causes and its effects. United 93 and World Trade Center portrayed our lack of preparedness for a disaster the size and scope of 9/11. But why did it happen in the first place? How could we miss it when he have the largest and richest military and intelligence agencies in the world? And what were we justified in doing to bring a reckoning down on the heads of our enemies? 

Moments after the planes hit, dozens of CIA and FBI officials had their worst fears confirmed. They each knew separate pieces of the story, but enduring and vicious turf wars over counter-terrorism prevented any meaningful cooperation. Aside from the incredibly detailed 9/11 Commission Final Report, released in 2004, excellent journalists told this part of the story. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 came out in 2006. It won the Pulitzer Prize in fact. And yet, no film studio or TV network wanted to take it up. It took 17 years and a relative upstart streaming service, Hulu, to finally adapt The Looming Tower for a miniseries. This is our first topic.

The Looming Tower - Wikipedia

Part two of The Reckoning confronts the choices we made in a cloud of fear and shame after 9/11. Dick Cheney casually let it be known that there would be no “tying the hands of our intelligence community” and famously urged the country to welcome a turn to the “dark side” in an unprecedented war on terror.Within months of 9/11, while the CIA was winning praise for dismantling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the agency pursued a course of action that would lead to one of its greatest moral and ethical failures – the detention and interrogation program. More specifically, the CIA embraced so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques that not only violated our own laws and professed values, but simply did not work. 

We discuss two films with decidedly different takes on the CIA after 9/11 – Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Scott Burns’s 2019 The Report. Bigelow’s exciting depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden valorizes individual CIA officers while, perhaps unintentionally, leaving the audience with the impression that torture provided critical information leading to the 2011 raid on bin Laden. The Report is a methodical reconstruction of the investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, culminating in the 2014 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s unsparing report detailing a decade of CIA abuses. As you’ll see, these films go together well. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty was so effective in implanting a false narrative in the minds of moviegoers that the Senate investigators of The Report felt the need to challenge it directly and correct the record. 

Mike Pompeo Slams 'The Report,' Scott Z. Burns Responds | IndieWire

So, what are our Lies Agreed Upon?

  1. First there was the lie that we were somehow ‘surprised’ by the attacks. It was an ‘ambush’ a ‘knife in the back’, or whatever Toby Keith lyric you prefer.
  2. The second lie seems to contradict this, but these lies are along a continuum. For those who DID pay attention to the 9/11 report, what was then required was a new lie that could erase that shame. The new lie was that, while our intelligence agencies had indeed been unprepared, bumbling, and more focused on their bureaucratic rivals than the threats in front of them, suddenly, after 9/11 they turned into a lean, hyper-disciplined force for justice and retribution. They brought the war to Al-Qaeda and the CIA finished the job in 2011, bagging bin Laden in heroic fashion. Why does this myth persist? Both Hollywood and a very effective PR campaign composed of Bush AND Obama veterans are the reason why.
  3. And this lie is in turn connected to our final lie – that torture is effective and justified because it gets results. Thanks to the same combination of bipartisan government officials, CIA employees, and Hollywood, America kept trying to rewrite the historical narrative on torture even as it was still being used, just renamed as “enhanced interrogation” – and this goes on. It might be unseemly and maybe not as effective as we were told, but ultimately a forgivable offense. 


As always, we begin with a recap. For the first time, we’re going to be talking about a miniseries – the excellent 10-episode Hulu production. Created by Dan Futterman, an actor and director, Alex Gibney, known for some edgy documentaries about Enron and Scientology for example, and Lawrence Wright, who wrote the award-winning book, the Looming Tower takes inside the CIA and FBI and their fraught relationship between 1998 and September 11, 2001. It stars Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Wrenn Schmidt, Bill Camp, and many other fine actors you’ll likely recognize on some of your favorite quality TV shows. 

Looming Tower is a docu-drama and every notable character is based on, or a composite, of real people, including the Al-Qaeda operatives who, refreshingly, are actually given backstories, motivation, and rich internal lives. But the heart of the story pits the FBI’s Counterterrorism office led by John O’Neill, played by Daniels, and the CIA’s Alec Station, the small analytical unit dedicated to Al-Qaeda. This was led by a controversial figure named Michael Scheuer, who currently posts Q-Anon nonsense on his blog. His name is changed to Martin Schmidt and played by Sarsgaard. Schmidt’s unit is comprised exclusively of young women analysts, one of whom, Diane Marsh, is his wife in real life. Marsh, by the way, is a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, which we’ll be discussing later. 

The Looming Tower (TV Mini-Series 2018) - IMDb

These offices despise each other and it is deeply personal. O’Neill calls Alec Station “The Manson Family” and Schmidt and Marsh dismiss the two FBI agents embedded with them as “The Retarded Twins.” Both units are on Al-Qaeda’s trail, but their real war is with each other.

Let’s play this clip introducing the series. It features the three creators, Jeff Daniels, and Tahar Rahim.

If you can identify protagonists in The Looming Tower they are John O’Neill and his young, Muslim protege Ali Soufan  – who was one of just eight Arab speakers in the FBI at the time. Soufan also plays a crucial role in The Report – which we will be talking about later – as a fierce opponent of the CIA’s torture program. Soufan and O’Neill approach Al-Qaeda as criminals to be investigated, arrested, and tried in a US court. Alec Station views them as terrorists to be neutralized, no matter the cost or collateral damage. Both perspectives have merit, but the point of the series is to dramatize how this personal and professional animus prevented crucial intelligence sharing that ultimately led to the hijackers slipping into the country unnoticed. We know this because the series also recreates the relevant testimony given before the 9/11 Commission from Soufan, Schmidt (or Scheuer), Richard Clarke, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and Condoleezza Rice among others.

Looming Tower builds around crucial moments between 1998 and 2001 – the August 1998 African embassy bombings, which was the declaration of war by Al-Qaeda, the failed millenium plot in 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in August 2000, and 9/11. The closer we get to the “flashing red light” the worse the national security bureaucracy performs. 

Lawrence Wright, who is a staff writer at the New Yorker, covers an even longer period of time in his book, but even though the miniseries starts later in the narrative, it’s still striking how much goes on before 9/11. The meticulous gumshoe work reinforces that, at the end of the day, terrorists are indeed just another form of criminal, to be wiretapped, followed, interrogated and apprehended. Cheney and others tried to make them out as some modern day bogeymen, warranting a new level of ruthless response. 

The Looming Tower': Wrenn Schmidt on Monologue's Foreshadowing

Over the years of investigation and multiple episodes of The Looming Tower, we get to know our characters in ways not possible in the feature length Zero Dark Thirty and Report. In particular,  Jeff Daniels is great as the smart, resourceful, but deeply flawed FBI agent John O’Neill, who juggles multiple women, spends himself into debt, and refuses to play nice with his increasingly annoyed superiors. Facing dismissal and clearly on the losing side of the war with Alec Station, O’Neill takes a lucrative job as director for security at the World Trade Center just before the attack. This sad irony plays out in the final episode as we watch characters react in all the ways we come to expect from each of them, because we’ve gotten to know them intimately – regret, rage, shame, self-preservation, and in the case of some, contrition. 

The most famous articulation of contrition, perhaps, came from National Security Advisor Richard Clarke. Let’s end with the actual testimony by Richard Clarke, which is recreated in the Looming Tower. In fact they are the series closing words. 

It can’t be overstated how electrifying this testimony was at the time. The entire governmental response to 9/11 had been so mendacious up to this moment, that when Clarke testified, it was declared by many media critics as the most riveting day of television ever. 

Now, let’s flash forward to the action-packed and cathartic revenge tale that is Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by Kathyrn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the same team that brought you the Academy Award Winning The Hurt Locker in 2008, Zero Dark Thirty methodically reconstructs the hunt for Bin Laden and the successful raid killing him inside his Pakistani compound in May 2011. Originally titled “Kill Bin Laden,” the film was still in production when news broke about the raid, allowing Bigelow to change tack and recreate Seal Team Six’s mission. Zero Dark Thirty stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini in one of his last roles as CIA director Leon Panetta, and a number of other great character actors rounding out the cast. 

Teen Critic: 'Zero Dark Thirty' | KPBS

The film begins with the anguished recordings of 9/11 victims calling their families from the World Trade Center before abruptly shifting to a burly Jason Clarke brutalizing an Al-Qaeda detainee at a CIA black site. The association between 9/11 tragedy and the righteous anger responsible for enhanced interrogation could not be more clear. The marathon sessions with the detainee supposedly leads to a kernel of information that will prove vital to Maya’s relentless hunt for Bin Laden, although it is revealed this information was in the CIA’s possession all along. The Report is more explicit about making this point. 

Let’s play a clip of Jason Clarke’s character torturing a member of the Saudi Group, a money man supposedly instrumental in the hunt. Maya is a bystander here. It’s brutal:

“This is what defeat looks like.” We are meant to wince at this scene, but like Maya, who is visibly uncomfortable, we want to hear his answers because the film has set us to believe that they matter.

At the center of it all is our guide through nearly a decade of counterrorism strategy – Maya – a character with only one dimension to her, the single-minded determination to find and kill Bin Laden. She has no life outside of this mission, no loved ones, no personal history, no rich, interior life. Neither do any other characters exhibit complexity beyond the furtherance of the hunt. Consequently, there is no interrogating the question of why killing Bin Laden matters.  The film is thrilling and we reflexively root for Maya as the only woman in the room. Here she is in a room as her superiors, all men, hem and haw over whether to commit to raiding the Abbottabad compound. Leon Pannetta, played by Gandolfini, is sounding out opinions:

I love that line. “We’re all smart.”  The dramatic conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow at her best. We are embedded with Seal Team Six as they sneak into Pakistan, recover from one helicopter crash, shoot and kill guards and family members inside the compound, and ultimately return with the body of #1 himself. The film ends with a note of pathos and ambiguity as Maya’s final act is to identify the body, almost as if she’s the nearest kin. When its over, what is left for Maya?  We don’t know because we don’t know her. Boarding an empty plane reserved just for Maya, the pilot asks her where she wants to go. All she can do is break down. Bigelow is asking all Americans in 2012, what’s next?

The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, specifically the notion that torture led to the intelligence breakthrough responsible for the successful raid, was rolled into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into the detainee program. Senators opposed to the program were appalled by the film and the perception it created in viewers. That investigation is the subject of the 2019 film The Report. Written and directed by Scott Burns, The Report stars Adam Driver as lead investigator Daniel Jones and Annette Benning as committee leader Senator Dianne Feinstein. It also stars John Hamm, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, and Cory Stoll, Mathew Rhys, and Ted Levine.   

The film begins in 2003 with the young and idealistic Jones applying for a job in Feinstein’s office, but he is encouraged to get national security experience. In 2007, now working for FBI counterterrorism, Jones begins working for the intelligence committee and leads an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes in 2009. This snowballs into what will be a more expansive investigation into the entire history of the detention and interrogation program – the black sites, torture, at least one death, and failure to inform Congress over many years. Jones is the primary author of the 2013 final report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and the film is as much about how insanely difficult it was to release the report as it is about its content.

Review: Adam Driver and Annette Bening fuel 'The Report' - Los Angeles Times

Jones is a lot like Maya, single-minded, inclined to clash with authority, and devoted to what he believes is right. They seem to face similar roadblocks when it comes to their respective missions, political equations and aversion to risk. Here’s a clip of Jones briefing Feinstein about the death of detainee Gul Rachman after repeated waterboardings in 2002.

Jones becomes a CIA target by being so good at his job and circumventing their deliberate efforts to sabotage the report. Then CIA director John Brennan, played wonderfully by Ted Levine, is proof that this is not a Bush=Bad, Obama=Good narrative. The CIA takes care of its own regardless of who’s in charge and the Obama administration had no interest in tarring the CIA after they killed Bin Laden and, as Feinstein’s chief of state tells Jones, “they just won the president re-election.” 

The ridiculous incompetence on display is very important. Often, in films, institutions are portrayed as failing despite an almost uncanny and thrilling competency that audiences love to watch. In The Report, we’re witness to one of the most bizarre subplots of the entire story, the elevation of a couple of dubiously credentialed psychologists who play the security community like long-con grifters. Douglass Hodge, as always, is great, Dr. James Mitchell, who claimed expertise in how to make detainees comply and talk, methods that are now repudiated.

Psychologists are facing consequences for helping with torture. It's not  enough. - The Washington Post

Years go by and Jones diligently continues to uncover what happened. We feel Jones’ frustration and understand why he comes so tantalizingly close to releasing the report to the press, but ultimately pulls back from being the next Edward Snowden. 

He is rewarded when Dianne Feinstein and Senator John McCain, who of course was tortured for years in captivity, release the entire report just before the Senate leadership changed hands in 2014. The film ends with the real floor speech by McCain as Jones, like Maya, wonders what to do next:

You’ll notice that with all of the titles we’re discussing today, there’s a lot of slippage between the dramatizations on the screen, the ‘characters’ played by actors, and the real life events and people that all of it is drawing from. In many ways, this episode isn’t so much about how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. It’s also about how Hollywood versions of events tell the public how to think about our past and, therefore, who we are today. 

What’s interesting about these productions is how much (or how little) time passed between the events they depict and their release dates. The Looming Tower takes place in 1998 through 2001, but Hulu releases it in 2017. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that it took a lean and hungry upstart like Hulu to take a chance on a 10-hour production that forced viewers to critically reexamine our first lie today – that we were so shocked that 9/11 happened. 

By coincidence, American audiences were provided almost immediately with a fairly high quality depiction of the moment of American fist-pumping victory. if Kathryn Bigelow didn’t already have the hunt for Bin Laden film in production, we would very likely have been subjected to an even less critical and more jingoistic version of events made by someone else. The film picks up months after 9/11 but it’s forward facing – not interested in how 9/11 happened but, rather, what will be done about it – not on the institutional level, or the policy level, but on the level of revenge masquerading as national security. 

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The Report also begins the same time as Zero Dark Thirty but ends a few years after Bigelow’s film reinvigorated the torture debate. And it asked what should be done about what was done. And yet, even though it was very relevant as one of the major architects of the detainee program, Gina Haspel, had recently been made director of the CIA, and Donald Trump made it clear as both a candidate and president that torture was awesome, The Report barely made a ripple. Perhaps the audience for it was too concerned by outrages being perpetrated at home by the current administration to expend much energy on outrages committed abroad and whitewashing conducted at home by past administrations. The long shadow of 9/11 most certainly extends to Trump’s America, but by 2019 there were so many other things to be disgusted by.

Zero Dark Thirty fed our second and third lies: The systemic and moral failures of the intelligence community laid bare by the 9/11 commission and dramatized in The Looming Tower were solved and redeemed. The daring and dramatically successful raid on bin Laden’s compound, the perfect marriage of intelligence work and special forces execution, is proof. Any excesses along the way can be forgiven because the end result is so satisfying. The Report tried to refute both those lies. Few wanted to listen. 

And who could be surprised? The rebuilding of the intelligence community’s reputation in fact began during the 9/11 commission. Let’s listen to CIA director George Tenet testify before the commission in April 2004.

He’s not only saying “we did most things right,” he’s basically asking for more money to get the rest of it right. Popular culture did a lot of heavy lifting as well, and not in the sort of productions we cover on Lies Agreed Upon, but the Jack Bauers of the screen. The avenging elite warrior-spy hybrids that made the job sexy again.  Torture? It works every time.  The TV show, 24, actually began in 2000 and was already considered “the best new show of the season.” But it exploded in popularity after 9/11, and became must-see revenge torture porn for many Americans.

How '24' And Kiefer Sutherland's Morally Compromised Hero Jack Bauer  Changed TV Forever | HuffPost UK

Here’s Jack barging into the president’s quarters and torturing the chief of staff under the approving eye of the secret service. Why, because, “I’m Jack Bauer.”  And by the way, finding this clip was revealing because every comment on Youtube exudes glorious patriotic fervor for torture. This pop culture icon has replaced reality for some people. 

While not as over the top, many critics accused Zero Dark Thirty of doing the same thing. Jason Clarke’s character had a lot of Jack Bauer swagger to him.

This is the complicated pop culture legacy of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Zero Dark Thirty made a lot of people feel better about torture – the real world for it –  by implying torture led to the biggest prize of all – Osama Bin Laden. But we can’t lay it all at the feet of Bigelow. Scores of TV shows and movies since 9/11 have portrayed torture as the method of real men, real patriots, and those who protest against torture’s immorality, or even just ineffectiveness, are characterized as weak and anti-American. We’re expected to somehow forgiven those responsible because they had our best interests at heart, and this then makes it easier to forgive ourselves for tolerating all manner of executive overreach in the name of national security. 

Rather than try to describe the layers of controversy generated by the film, which happened to coincide with the final stage of the Senate investigation at the heart the 2019 film The Report, let’s play an interview with the screenwriter Mark Boal and journalist Mark Bowden, whose book The Finish, details the same events.  The interviewer is ABC News Global Affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz:

There’s so much to unpack here, starting with one of the issues that helped launch this podcast – the uneasy relationship between truth and fiction. What is Hollywood’s responsibility for “getting it right”?  From what you heard, the Senate committee, specifically Feinstein and McCain, thinks the obligation is very real. On the other side, Leon Panetta is tickled pink by any positive depiction of the CIA. He laughs off any embellishments to the story behind the raid because they only make the CIA look intrepid and competent. But it’s Mark Bowden there at the end who I think summarizes our lie agreed upon – The US embraced “stern, very cruel methods in the beginning” that ultimately contributed to this victory. Americans are really good at cognitive dissonance, and we simultaneously think torture is not good policy, and maybe a plurality of us think it is wrong, but we also believe it was forgivable in the wake of 9/11 and wish it was effective., that was just ..like it is in the movies. 

Jason Clarke | Highland Fidelity

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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