February 22, 2020

‘Zero Dark’ writer faces the controversy

The time: 2003. The place: Black Site — Undisclosed Location. A battered man strung up by his wrists is being questioned by an interrogator. When he refuses to answer, he is forced to the ground and held down by three men wearing ski masks. A black towel is wrapped around his face, and the interrogator pours water from a pitcher over the towel while shouting questions at his prisoner: “Who is in the Saudi group? What’s the target? When is the last time you saw bin Laden?”  

This is the act of torture that is known as water boarding. And in an Oscar season filled with controversies, it is this scene — which takes place early in the multiple-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden — that has created the most heated debates and angry protests, from the halls of the motion picture academy in Beverly Hills to the chambers of Congress in Washington, D.C. At the center of the controversy stands the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its screenwriter, Mark Boal, the same creative team who produced the 2009 Academy Award winner for best picture, “The Hurt Locker.”  

Boal, who also won the best original screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” is nominated again this year for his “Zero Dark Thirty” script, while Bigelow was snubbed in the best-director category. The omission, many believe, may be at least in part due to the film’s appearance of supporting the efficacy of torture.  

Boal, who worked as a journalist for 20 years, moved into the film business when an article he wrote became the basis of the 2007 Iraq War-related film “In the Valley of Elah.” During his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq, he said, he also gained firsthand insights for his work on “The Hurt Locker.” For “Zero Dark Thirty,” however, Boal relied on information from people closely involved in the bin Laden operation, who supplied him with “firsthand accounts of actual events,” as stated at the opening of the film.

A scene from “Zero Dark Thirty.”  Photo by Jonathan Olley/©2012 Zero Dark Thirty

When he began the project, Boal’s script was about the failed hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but that version was shelved when the terrorist leader was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. As a result of the news, Boal started fresh, telling the story that led up to that day.  

As with all feature films based on fact, Boal struggled with the delicate balancing act of staying true to the story while having to create a workable screenplay. “Storytelling is kind of universal, but screenwriting is its own craft,” he explained. “ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was based on some research that I did, but it’s also a written document; it’s not a documentary, it’s a screenplay. I talked to a lot of people who were involved in the mission and double-sourced information, but I approached it as a screenwriter. There’s homework and research to do, but I’m writing parts for actors, and, in this case, a story that follows one main character over 10 years.

“There are over 100 speaking parts in the film,” he added. “But, at the same time, it’s doubly challenging because it has to be honest and faithful to what actually happened. In some ways, this story would probably be easier to tell if it was pure fiction.”

Even so, Boal said, “I found it an exciting story to work on because of the dedication and the complexity and the morality and immorality and the excitement of the hunt. All that makes for good drama.” 

The torture scenes depicted in the film have been aggressively attacked from two sides: Some claim the film endorses the efficacy of torture, while others complain that the scenes are presented as more brutal than what actually occurred. 

But Boal thinks both miss the point. “The political point is that this work was carried out by people without regard to politics one way or another. It was carried out by civil servants, not by Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “But of course that’s the last thing they want to talk about in Washington. And the real point is that the country and Washington have to face that they’re culpable for what they did. Rather than bash the movie for depicting the policies that they implemented, they should have a frank discussion about it. The torture that’s in the film is still relevant. To see that these kinds of harsh punishments are still going on — not in the exact same way, but it’s always convenient to bash Hollywood instead of actually doing the hard policy work of going down the hall and seeing what could be done, for example, to stop doing business with countries that torture people.”

The fact that “Zero Dark Thirty” has been the subject of both public and secret investigations by Congress does not surprise Boal, who also believes the attention has helped bring audiences out to see the film. “That’s what they do in Washington. They use things to create publicity platforms for themselves. They’re politicians,” Boal said. “I think at the end of the day I find it gratifying that people go out and see the movie and have a solid or moving movie experience. I can’t change Washington, and I wouldn’t ever begin to try.” 

So far, Boal’s three films — “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — all have focused on events surrounding the war on terror. And though he said he has no definite plans to continue exploring that subject matter, he hopes others will continue down that road. 

“I think all three of these movies are important subjects for Hollywood to explore, and I hope there are other movies about them. But what movies can do that other mediums cannot do, is reach a broad public audience, and Hollywood has a responsibility to make films about tough subjects and not just superheroes.”