By Steven Zeitchik
8:30 AM CST, February 6, 2013
In some of his most expansive comments since his movie touched off a Washington firestorm, the screenwriter of "Zero Dark Thirty" defended his film as depicting torture accurately and said that a pending Senate investigation brought him "a chill."
"We’ve been accused of defending torture because there are disagreements in some quarters as to exactly which detainee undergoing exactly which form of interrogation first produced the lead that led to [Osama] Bin Laden and thus ... we shouldn’t have included it," Mark Boal said. "I can’t understand the logic to that. If we left the torture out, we’d be whitewashing history. Interrogations were clearly part of how this lead developed."
Speaking Tuesday night to an audience at a Loyola Marymount University event about the 1st Amendment, Boal said he was frightened by the reaction on Capitol Hill, which for him conjured the dark specter of McCarthyism.
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“You know, it’s fine for some senators to say they think I’m wrong about some of the scenes depicted in the movie. It’s an entirely different matter for them to launch an investigation over it,” he said, "When the Senate intelligence committee launches a secret investigation I certainly feel a chill."
He added, “As far as I know, Congress hasn’t launched a formal investigation of filmmaking since the House UnAmerican Activities Committee did so in the late 1940s. I really don’t think we need a remake of that.”
"Zero Dark Thirty" portrays the CIA's pursuit of Bin Laden over nearly a decade, and begins with a form of harsh interrogation that ultimately led to one of the breakthroughs in the manhunt.
Critics and awards voters have largely embraced the movie -- the film has garnered five Oscar nominations including best picture -- but Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers from the Senate Intelligence Committee have criticized the movie for its depiction of torture as helping the CIA locate Bin Laden. They have called for CIA officials to disclose the nature and extent of their contact with "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmakers in the development and production process.
Boal has also been hit by pundits and critics who say his movie seeks to have it both ways; at the talk, the writer cited a New Yorker review that said the film wanted “to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction.”
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Drawing comparisons with films that have faced criticism or negative reviews, Boal said he felt like he was in good company.
“Like other movies that have blended real events with created ones, in very different ratios -- from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ to ‘The French Connection’ to ‘JFK’ -- we’ve managed to stir the pot a bit,” Boal said. “When it came out, ‘A Clockwork Orange -- banned in the U.K. -- was jumped on too. So was ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ [and] ‘The Deer Hunter.' ... However unintentionally, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has joined a club of films that have come under fierce attack in their time.”
Boal said the immediacy of the movie was, in his view, responsible for the heated reaction, "Imagine if 'All the President’s Men' had come out while Nixon was still in office," said Boal, who described “Zero Dark Thirty” as “front-page art." Though there have been a number of long-form print explorations of the raid, Boal said his film broke ground other media hadn't.
“Despite the overwhelming coverage through the media of the mission in Abbottabad," he said, "the central role of the team that hunted Bin Laden for 10 years was told for the first time not in a newspaper or a book, or even online. It was told at the movies. That may be a first.”
Boal had previously offered some reaction to the controversy, notably at a New York Film Critics Circle event last month, but has mostly kept his comments to prepared statements. With the film now in wide release -- it has grossed $78 million through this past weekend -- and Oscar balloting set to begin this week, the filmmakers appear to be relaxing their self-imposed media silence. As Boal was giving his address at Loyola Marymount, "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow was recording an appearance on “The Tonight Show,” after providing an extended statement to The Times several weeks ago.
On Tuesday, Boal also laid out a plan -- a “disruptive technology,” he called it -- for what he said would give movies added heft by blending journalism and storytelling.
“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,” said the filmmaker, who has also set up a production company with the same purpose. “That’s what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do ... millions of people who might not otherwise pay as much -- or any -- attention to politics are dialed into political dialogue as a result."
Boal said he was personally opposed to torture, but that "Zero Dark Thirty" was trying to provoke thought more than offer a clear judgment -- a point some of the movie's naysayers he believes have failed to fully understand.
"Was [torture] morally correct? Was it wrong? I have my view. I happen to think it was dead wrong," he said. But "'Zero Dark Thirty' doesn’t try to tell you what to think. It simply encourages you to think, and therein catch the conscience of the country.”