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Declassified Documents Reveal How The CIA Influenced The Script & Story Of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

by Charlie Schmidlin
May 7, 2013 9:39 AM
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Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Mark Strong

Just when Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal might have thought it appropriate to move on from “Zero Dark Thirty” to whatever tense nail-biter comes next, the acclaimed actioner-drama's much-publicized production has resurfaced yet again - this time going back to the film's beginnings, as Boal was in conversation with the CIA over crucial details.

It's well known that the filmmakers' exchanges with CIA officials were mostly cordial -- even somewhat star-struck - and to do with specifics for the film's timeline, such as floor schematics accurate to Osama Bin Laden's hideout. But a new series of declassified memos (via Gawker) have revealed some sway on Boal's part, as he bowed to CIA requests to remove objectionable portions of the screenplay. Revealed in a bundle of information just released under a Freedom of Information Act request, the 2012 memo summarizes five conference calls between Boal and the CIA's Office of Public Affairs at the tail end of 2011, calls intended to “help promote an appropriate portrayal of the Agency and the Bin Laden operation."

These include the opening scene of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which finds Maya (Jessica Chastain) coming into a CIA black site interrogation run by Jason Clarke's character. From the memo, apparently Maya was initially involved in the torture rather than just observing - a point which the CIA felt to be untrue. The memo reads, "For this scene we emphasized that substantive debriefers [i.e. Maya] did not administer [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques],” and then later reads, “Boal said he would fix this.”

Other examples of original scenes taken out include interrogation tactics with dogs and a massive party scene set in Islamabad, but there are some, like Maya's analysis of detainee interviews to track down Osama bin Laden's courier, that remained under pressure. Boal replied to the memo's release shortly after the article was published, saying, “We honored certain requests to keep operational details and the identity of the participants confidential. But as with any publication or work of art, the final decisions as to the content were made by the filmmakers.”

So nothing nefarious in the CIA dealings or the within the ranks of Bigelow and Boal - simply a record of the reciprocal exchange of information that resulted in Bigelow's award-winning film. The director has laid down the cinematic interpretation of these events that many will follow to be true; as these memos continue to show, it must be considered as a work of art first and foremost.

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More: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

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  • Bob Roberts | May 7, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    If it were revealed even by CNN that Leon Panetta, John Brennan and David Patreus had written the screenplay with Boal, the many "esteemed" movie critics would still slober over Boal and the CIA chanting art like a religion. I guess some people are just authoritarins at heart. Oh well...

  • MJ | May 7, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    I still don't understand some of the license he took with events that are much more in the public record, there's shaping the events to a film narrative and then there's things like using not directly related events like the bombing of the Islamabad Marriot and the attack on the CIA officers at the airbase as perfunctory elements to motivate Maya when she's already motivated like hell. It's an impeccably crafted movie and an impressive screenplay job given the timeframe in which it was written, but those a just a few of the liberties taken and sad as it is Hollywood films are going to influence people's views of what happened in real life more than the facts, especially when a film depicts such world-shaking event in a verite style with a prologue text saying it's taken from first hand accounts and comes out a mere 18 months after the event. As such the filmmakers bear a big responsibility with that influence over people even if it isn't there intent, they have to execute it with care.

  • Juvenile Cinephile | May 7, 2013 9:33 PM

    I didn't see the Marriott bombing as motivation but a lingering threat. The Camp Chapman incident may be part of Maya's motivation but Jessica's end in that story-line shows the danger of certainty and obsession and how it took down more than just herself. Honestly, the bigger blow to Maya is the initial report that the courier is dead shortly after dealing with Jessica's death. But Camp Chapman for Jessica is no different than Bradley's exit by the reveal of the drone strike. His certainty on being untouchable in signing off on those strikes was taken away and his career in Pakistan is over.

  • Bob Roberts | May 7, 2013 3:27 PM

    Very well stated MJ. (esp. your point about the verite-style). It's unfortunate too few people come to this very rational conclusion.

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