‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Writer-Producer Boal Defends Film in ‘First Amendment Week’ Keynote
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow
Celebrating "First Amendment Week" at Loyola Marymount University, Oscar-nominated "Zero Dark Thirty" writer-producer Mark Boal (who won a writing Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," his first collaboration with director Kathryn Bigelow) gave the keynote address.
He applauds his first amendment rights to free political speech. He makes the distinction between documentary and art. He compares and contrasts "Zero Dark Thirty" to past historic controversies and other historic recreations such as "All the President's Men" and "Argo," and the timely day-to-day commentary of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He wants to continue to work at the nexus between timely journalism and film. He suspects that "Zero Dark Thirty" will become less controversial over time. I suspect that he is right.
Controversy helped to fuel interest in the movie at the box office and as he suggests, spurred debate and discussion of significant current events. What he doesn't talk about–and what he is trying to counteract– is the negative impact that selling "Zero Dark Thirty" as fact-based truth had on its chances to win multiple Academy Awards.
Highlights from the keynote follow.
On the First Amendment:
It says nothing more than that everything can be said. It’s an idea that protects ideas. I’ve had a First Amendment career. First, as a journalist, and now as a filmmaker.
On "Zero Dark Thirty":
Oh-dark-thirty is military jargon for the dark hours of the night, after midnight and well before sunrise, when most people are sleeping. But thousands of men and women, unseen by the rest of us, are working, often risking their lives to keep chaos at bay.
Our film tells the story of that unseen work by thousands of Americans, in the intelligence services and the military, to find and kill Osama bin Laden, culminating, of course, in an oh-dark thirty raid on an anonymous-looking compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. More than anything else, we hope it’s an honest telling – without pulling punches or glorifying success.
But we didn’t call the movie Oh-Dark-Thirty – we called it Zero Dark Thirty. That was an artistic choice.
By the same token, even though the real hunt for bin Laden involved thousands of people, we don’t have thousands of actors in the film; we have a few hundred. We followed the contributions of a critical handful, and focused on a woman we called Maya, who is based on a real life CIA officer. She played a key role but she wasn’t the only one. Like the title, focusing on her was a creative choice – good choice or bad choice, that’s not the point. But it was a choice. Because Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a documentary, it’s not a report on the six o’clock news, although it has elements of both, at the end of the day, it’s something else entirely.
On the politics of speech:
And art, of course, as far as the First Amendment is concerned, is speech. I know, the Mona Lisa isn’t really known as much of a conversationalist. But, as you all know, the First Amendment doesn’t just protect speech in the strict sense – it protects all kinds of expression. Which is why there are Supreme Court cases making it clear that flag burning and campaign contributions and petition signing are all speech. And, Zero Dark Thirty, because of the subject matter – just like some of the most powerful works of art in history – is political speech.
As you also know, in the constitutional sense, political speech is a term of art – it’s expression that comments on government activity or advocates political change.
In a democracy, political speech is essential speech, It gets the very highest level of protection. Without the freedom to share information, to debate, argue and rally, you might as well just roll the credits on the whole democracy thing.
And Zero Dark Thirty is very much political speech – it’s a story about our time, and our nation, and our role in the world. In our case, it isn’t partisan; it doesn’t serve Republicans or Democrats, but by bringing recent events and policy decisions and politics to the screen, it contributes to public dialogue about our government and its actions. The timeliness of it may be responsible for at least some of the conversation and controversy surrounding the film – both the praise from critics and the grumbling from some politicians and that other species native to political quarters, the pundit.
On the timeliness factor:
…the story of Zero Dark Thirty is a story of today, of right now. That’s different. Even All the President’s Men, which came out four years after Watergate break-in, was in theaters after many articles had been written, books had been published, and the nation had digested events. Imagine if All the President’s Men had come out while Nixon was still in office. James Gandolfini was playing Leon Panetta on screen while Leon Panetta was still playing Leon Panetta in the Cabinet as Secretary of Defense. [Thank God we cast an Italian.]
That timeliness makes Zero Dark Thirty something new – it’s front-page art. As Kathryn Bigelow said, it’s the “first rough cut of history.” It was researched and written and produced almost in real time. And despite the overwhelming coverage through the media of the mission in Abbottabad, the central role of the team that hunted bin Laden for ten 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. I hope it’s not the last.
Now, just because a movie makes waves doesn’t make it an enduring piece of work….but in general nobody attacks failure, and however unintentionally, Zero Dark Thirty has joined a club of films that have come under fierce attack in their time.
As the years went on, much of the criticism of many of those films softened or disappeared entirely, as people understood that some of what they were experiencing was the natural, unsettled reaction we often have to the new….
I can only hope the same thing happens for our film… But I do hope the film endures. Because this is the kind of movie I want to keep making.
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.
On disruptive technology:
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.
On merging film and news:
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 confronted this challenge.
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.
Forty-five years after Pauline Kael wrote about Bonnie and Clyde in The New Yorker, David Denby reviewed Zero Dark Thirty in the same magazine. And while he 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.
On criticism from the Left and Right:
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 10 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 angles 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.
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?
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.