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Arts & Entertainment

'Zero Dark Thirty' writer Mark Boal on the film's torture controversy

Still from the film
Still from the film "Zero Dark Thirty" starring Jessica Chastain.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Still from the film
Writer/producer Mark Boal poses for a portrait during the 85th Academy Awards Nominations Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 4, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Still from the film
Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow attend the 85th Academy Awards Nominations Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 4, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

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The controversial and highly reviewed "Zero Dark Thirty" follows the life of CIA officer Maya for ten years as she tracks data and learns torturous interrogation techniques in search of Osama Bin Laden. Many film critics have praised this movie, and it has been nominated for and won an impressive resume of awards.

However, angry protesters in the film industry and in Washington D.C. have serious issues with "Zero Dark Thirty" portraying torture as government’s effective way to obtain information.

The film's journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal joins Larry to talk about the research involved in creating this movie and responds to attacks of being pro-torture. Also, perhaps Boal can relate to his character, young CIA officer Maya, in working on something for years and in moments, wondering if all that time was wasted.

Initially Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow worked for two years on a film about the unsuccessful capture of Bin Laden. When Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, Boal and Bigelow needed to scrap their movie and begin again on an up-to-date script.

However, like Maya, that time was not wasted and much of his research and interviews led to the creation of "Zero Dark Thirty." In addition to firsthand accounts of the manhunt, Boal also relied on his own experience as a journalist in Iraq.

Where does fact meet fiction? As a journalist and screenwriter, did Boal have a hard time mixing the two together? What does Boal want you to take away from his movie? How does Boal respond to accusations of being pro-torture?

Interview Highlights:


On the issues that come with making a film about current events:
"The filmmaking was a pleasure, the politics that accompany making a movie like this, regardless of what you do, that's where it becomes less fun and a little more of a job. I think anyone who's made a topical film has had these issues. I know Michael Mann had them on "The Insider," and Steven Spielberg faced them when he made "Munich," but from the very beginning the film was a political football. Before I even started writing the screenplay we were being characterized by the right wing as an Obama campaign commercial. This was before I'd even written a word, I didn't even know what the story was going to be… Some of that comes with the territory, that's what happens when you make a movie about current events."

On the criticism that "Zero Dark Thirty" shows torture as leading to Osama Bin Laden's death:
"The film has been mischaracterized, those scenes don't show torture as producing valuable information. If anyone has seen the film and comes to that conclusion I think that's a political misreading of the film, completely. If you see the film and say 'torture is part of this story,' that's because it's historically true. I think we did a good job capturing the essence of its role in the hunt. We certainly didn't show every incidence of people being abused. The CIA, let's face it, a man was beaten with a flashlight, we didn't show that in the movie because even though it's a horrible tragedy, it didn't have anything directly to do with the hunt for bin Laden."

On defending the depiction of torture in "Zero Dark Thirty":
"Is there anybody on this planet who thinks that Abu Ghraib was a figment of our imagination? Or that thinks black sites weren't part of this history? That happened, and the fact that we came under political attack for depicting it, that's politics. But the movie is depicting a slice of American history and I think it's depicting it in a way that captures the essence of what happened honestly…I think some of the criticism is misguided because we don't advocate these policies, we don't approve of them, but we're storytellers. It's our responsibility, just like Steven Spielberg did a story about the Holocaust, it was his responsibility to depict the horrors of that."

On how he and Katherine Bigelow made sure to be as truthful as possible:
"Of course we tried to be as honest as we could. Who would go into a movie like this knowing there's going to be the scrutiny there is, knowing the importance, knowing the deep underlying fissures in our political system on the policy issues and try to play fast and loose? You'd have to be out of your mind to do that."

On the multiple channels that led to Osama bin Laden's death:
"I think that what led to Osama Bin Laden's death is the work of thousands of people over the course of 10 years. We depict some of them. There were many different places that the information came from. Some of it came from the detainee program. A lot of it came out of good old fashioned sleuthing, detective work, some of it came out of electronic surveillance. There's a whole host of methods, but at the end of the day what the movie is really about that there's a cerebral cortex involved here. It's about human beings who took all this information, coming from many different sources, piecing it together and eventually tracking down Osama Bin Laden's compound. I don't think you can say that torture led to Osama Bin Laden, I don't think that's true. There's no really one thing that did it."

Mark Boal, Writer and Producer of Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty;” Writer and Producer of Oscar-winning, “The Hurt Locker”