Mark Boal Compares Storytelling Of 'Zero Dark Thirty' To 'All The President's Men,' 'Black Hawk Down' & 'The Social Network'

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by India Ross
February 7, 2013 5:49 PM
13 Comments
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Whoever orchestrated a talk on "Zero Dark Thirty" to coincide with “First Amendment Week” at L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University must have been a switched-on and frankly audacious organiser indeed. The film, described with telling accuracy by Kathryn Bigelow as “journalistic,” post-mortemed the hunt for Bin Laden with such haste that the proverbial body wasn’t even cold yet. The often-vitriolic debate which ensued over its factual accuracy and ethical stance (a card declaring its source material to be “firsthand accounts of actual events” did little to dodge the brimstone from foreign affairs pundits) pointed to a wider discussion of freedom of expression.

This week, screenwriter and producer Mark Boal spoke to students in California to set the record straight, and cited some precedent for his and Bigelow's approach. "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]," he said, adding that it's crucial “getting the balance right” between art and truth, but it's something he feels they've achieved. Responding to New Yorker critic David Denby’s complaint that "Zero Dark Thirty" “claims the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time”, he gave the riposte, “Mr. Denby got it exactly wrong by being exactly right”.

On the dreaded waterboarding subject, he was unequivocal. “I think [torture] was dead wrong”, he asserted, but in regard to its function in the film, he quoted Bigelow: “Depiction is not endorsement”. In addition to the picture’s ideological angle on interrogation methods, concerns have been expressed over the possible exaggeration of specific incidents of prisoner interrogation. Boal stood firm on his account, arguing that “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.”

There is no doubt that what Mr. Boal describes as “stirring the pot” of factual accuracy has resulted in a gripping picture which has re-kindled the kind of debate which is healthy and necessary in society. But with subject matter so raw in the American memory, venturing into this kitchen involves taking a hell of a lot of heat. [via Hollywood Elsewhere]

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13 Comments

  • Smyth E. Alan | February 8, 2013 8:37 AMReply

    Additionally for film comps I'd add Zodiac, in terms of both the relationship between the story itself and 'story'telling; and the film's approach and structure.

  • pol | February 7, 2013 8:32 PMReply

    That's funny, people who aren't Mark Boal are comparing him and Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl. I guess it's Triumph of the Lying CIA Dupes around here 24/7. It IS a scandal: http://wp.me/pwAWe-YR

  • POLSUCKS | February 7, 2013 8:38 PM

    Dude, for the last time, nobody cares about that shitty blog. Stop posting links to it.

  • Rick | February 7, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Yes, Black Hawk Down... another film that glorifies militarism.

  • zatopek | February 7, 2013 6:03 PMReply

    They took the easy way by that "we're just depicting" routine, not daring to really tackle the subject, not giving it a real viewpoint. The script was pretty bad with that audience substitute lead and all. Bigelow's and DoP's visuality salvaged some of it, but still a weak movie.

  • Alan B | February 8, 2013 5:29 AM

    @zatopek "The movie didn't tell that it's bad or that it's good." In the second torture sequence and especially the later scene in which the victim is eating food, the Clarke character is often depicted in Rembrandt lighting, whilst the victim is given mid and high-key lighting, meaning that his face (and, in particular, his eyes) are far more readable than that of Clarke's. So, no the film doesn't TELL you what to feel or who to empathize with in the sequence: it SHOWS instead.

  • Brad | February 8, 2013 1:03 AM

    No. But America does seem to stand alone in the sense that it has the audacity to paint its atrocities as "the spreading of democracy and freedom." Few countries are as delusional about their own self-serving hypocrisy as the US is. It all comes down to the myth of "American exceptionalism" (a fantasy which is, obviously, uniquely American).

  • Tim | February 7, 2013 10:30 PM

    Yes, Brad, because American culture is the only one that celebrates members of the military as heroes. That just doesn't happen anywhere else in the world.

  • Brad | February 7, 2013 8:46 PM

    Do films and shows like Argo, ZDT and Homeland, which idolize CIA agents, mark a disturbing trend in Hollywood? Do Americans actually believe that the CIA is motivated by a desire to "protect the homeland" (which Bigelow and Boal both posit)? Do films like ZDT (which demonize and vilify Muslims) have an negative impact on the American psyche? What does the fact that we prop up members of the US military as "heroic" say about American values? I think these are all conversations that ZDT should've sparked, but didn't.

  • zatopek | February 7, 2013 7:29 PM

    Name some? I thought it was pretty simplistic movie. Of course you can debate about 9/11, Bin Laden etc. but you've been able to do it without the movie anyhow. I don't think the movie brings anything new or interesting to the table.

  • Brad | February 7, 2013 7:02 PM

    Whether or not the film depicts torture as a good or bad method is a pointless and irrelevant conversation. Which is sad, since there are so many more important debates that the film should have sparked, but didn't.

  • zatopek | February 7, 2013 6:50 PM

    Well, that's just the thing. The movie didn't tell that it's bad or that it's good. It was just a depiction of torture. If you remember the scene with Obama talking about torture in TV and every character watching it expressionless. That's the way the movie handles the subject. It's indifferent to it.

  • Alan B | February 7, 2013 6:35 PM

    If you saw that scene - in which the prisoner screams different days of the week to prevent himself from being placed in the coffin-like box - and you need the filmmakers to TELL you torture is bad, then there's really not a lot that anyone can say to you, is there?

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