'Zero Dark Thirty' writer Mark Boal says U.S. torture was 'dead wrong'

Mark-Boal-ZDT

Image Credit: Director/producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal on set of 'Zero Dark Thirty'(Jonathan Olley)

prize_fighter1_banner“Disruptive filmmaking.”

That’s a new term coined by Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal, who gave a speech this week about the criticism the Osama bin Laden takedown drama has endured from both sides of the political divide in America.

Conservatives complained long before the film was seen by anyone that it was a propaganda designed to highlight the anti-terror accomplishments of President Barack Obama, while some liberals were rankled by what they perceived to be an endorsement of torture interrogations (erroneously, as Michael Moore points out in this essay debunking those accusations.)

Director Kathryn Bigelow has already said numerous times that “depiction is not endorsement,” and now Boal — who is nominated in the Original Screenplay category at the Oscars, and won for penning 2009’s The Hurt Locker — is speaking out about why he wanted Zero Dark Thirty to strike a nerve as a film, rather than as a piece of traditional reporting.

An excerpt from his remarks as keynote speaker at this year’s First Amendment Week at Loyola Marymount University:

For me, right now, the real power of filmmaking is found at the intersection of investigation and imagination. Where reporting and creativity combine to offer something new – an ability to command attention and capture imagination that reaches further and pushes harder than traditional reporting or purely fictional storytelling on their own. …

People talk about “disruptive technology” – innovations or developments that change the way the world works. Disruptive sounds like a bad thing, but disruptive technology isn’t good or bad; it’s what our society and our culture makes of it that matters. And from the wheel to the automobile, the signal fire to the iPhone, society has generally, if often slowly, found a way to bend disruptive innovation toward the greater good.

That’s really what we hoped to do with the disruptive filmmaking of Zero Dark Thirty. To use this relatively new blend of current events and creativity to make the news behind the news more accessible, more visceral, more real. We wanted to transform the firsthand accounts we gathered into a firsthand experience for viewers, and share this important, history-changing story in the most compelling way we knew how.

Unlike newspaper reports or books or paintings, movies have a special power to put audiences right there – in the scene, in the center of the action, in interrogation cells, in the Pakistani hills. And by giving people a chance to virtually experience these events for themselves, we have a chance to do exactly what the First Amendment creates the space to do: to challenge people to be citizens, to understand and confront the issues of our day, in our hearts and in our minds.

He defended the film’s fusion of drama and journalism, saying:

Much has been made of the card at the beginning of the film that says, “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” To be honest, of all the controversy, that’s the one I get the least. That’s exactly what Zero Dark Thirty is – a film that is based on firsthand accounts of actual events. I know – I talked to the people who experienced those events. But the card didn’t say Zero Dark Thirty is an exact rendition (no pun intended) of actual events, and we certainly don’t pretend that it is. It’s not a videotaped transcription of a 6 volume Senate report – that’s probably a good thing.

At the end of the day, merging film and news is a balancing act between fact-finding and storytelling. …

Without the freedom of fiction, we couldn’t share this story with millions who deserve to understand it, question it, and debate it. Without the authority of fact, we wouldn’t have a story to share, issues to understand, questions to ask, or controversies to debate.

Now, as I’ve suggested, I believe any artist blending fact and fiction has a special responsibility to set expectations about that blend, to be open and honest about the mix, and stay true to the essential story being told.

As for the film’s depiction of torture, Boal made his feelings clear:

The United States tortured people as a matter of national policy, authorized by the White House, approved by the Department of Justice, and disclosed to the Congress. There was never a question of leaving these acts, as reprehensible as they are, out of the story of the hunt for bin Laden, or it wouldn’t be an honest story.

The brutality and inhumanity of rough interrogations are clear as day in the film. I don’t see how you can watch those scenes and not feel the suffering of the person being interrogated. At the same time, the scenes accurately depict the role that rough interrogations played in the hunt. Sometimes they produced bad information, sometimes they produced nothing, and sometimes they produced a useful scrap.

Torture is in the movie, because torture is part of the story. It is part of the history.

Was the torture effective? Was it necessary? Was it terrible? Was it wrong?

I have my view – I think it was dead wrong. Some people I respect come to the opposite conclusion.  But in the end, you have to decide for yourself.

The film has earned about $78.6 million at the box office so far. It’s up for five Oscars on Feb. 24, including Best Picture (a nomination Boal shares with Bigelow) and Best Actress for Jessica Chastain.

Read more:
Special coverage: Oscars 2013
Oscars 2013: Get to Know the Nominees
Oscars 2013 Profiles: Best Picture

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