Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter-producer Mark Boal spoke last night at L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University in concert with a program called “First Amendment Week.” The talk happened at 6 pm at Burns Back Court. At one point Boal addressed the torture issue. Here’s an excerpt with very minor edits:
Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter-producer Mark Boal.
“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 controversial topics, that’s the one I get the least. Because 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 six-volume Senate report — [and] 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. It comes with a distinct set of responsibilities to the subjects, the audience, and history. Movies from All the President’s Men to Black Hawk Down to The Social Network have all [done this].
“Because I was a reporter before I was a filmmaker, I think I have a decent grasp on how to blend fact and fiction into drama that reveals the essential truth of the story I’m trying to tell. But not everyone appreciates the value in mixing fact and fiction.
“While New Yorker critic David Denby wrote a generally positive review, which I appreciate, he criticized us for wanting ‘to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time.’ And there, Mr. Denby got it exactly wrong by being exactly right.
“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.
“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.
“I think we’ve done that, and I think we got the balance right. Certainly, it seems like the public feels that way. We’ve been gratified by audience reactions and reviews and, well, great box-office business.
“But 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.
“Most of the conversation around Zero Dark Thirty surrounds the fact that this film was the first to graphically depict very realistic scenes involving enhanced interrogation — torture — and their relationship to the ultimate discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad. And we’ve been criticized from pretty much every direction about that.
“From the left, 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 bin Laden. And thus, their argument goes, if it’s not crystal clear that enhanced interrogation produced the lead, we shouldn’t have included it, because it gives the impression we’re endorsing its effectiveness.
“I can’t understand the logic to that. If we left the torture out, we’d be whitewashing history.
“And of course, as Kathryn has said, ‘depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.’ Or to put it in very 2013 terms: retweets don’t equal endorsement. Depiction — and retweets — are about exposing ideas to people and letting them make their own judgments.
“From the right, we’ve been criticized for depicting the interrogation scenes as more brutal than they actually were, or because we show some torture practices being performed by Americans working for the CIA when they were actually performed by Americans working for the military. Or by the CIA working with the military at Abu Ghraib.
“But every interrogation technique portrayed in the film was performed by Americans, some lawfully, some not, in the war on terror. They are part of this story. As one commentator put it, ‘Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.’
“No less an authority than Leon Panetta said publicly, ‘The whole effort in going after bin Laden involved ten years of work, in piecing together various pieces of intelligence that were gathered. And there’s no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of some of these methods.”
“We used to say you know you did a good job when you pissed off both sides of the aisle. But both of criticism, from the left and from the right, squarely miss the point.
“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. As the Bard wrote, ‘the play’s the thing.’ So is the film. 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.”