Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal: “I don’t think this will be the last word, but it’s our story”

"There are people in the CIA who have come forward and said we messed up and over-sensationalised the torture. That’s also okay to hear. There’s a range of opinions"

As a former journalist Mark Boal is fundamentally concerned with getting at the truth. His Oscar-nominated screenplay for Iraq drama The Hurt Locker was praised for its realism, but working again with director Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty (also nominated) was a much trickier prospect, because it focuses on a specific and highly-publicised mission – the CIA hunt to capture Osama bin Laden.


Boal has been vilified by some for depicting the torture of prisoners – including Republican politicians, like 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, who deny that torture was sanctioned by the Bush administration – and by commentators who denounce the film as propaganda validating the use of torture. found this young writer looking weary after the announcement of a Senate investigation, to find out whether he was given information held classified by the CIA, by anonymous sources within the agency. He treads carefully with the key issues: How accurate is the portrayal? How much cooperation did he have from insiders? And what is his position on the use of torture?

Why did you decide to tackle this subject?

We started working on it after we finished The Hurt Locker. It just seemed to be, probably, one of the greatest manhunts I can remember and I’d always been curious about how the intelligence world, or the spy world, was trying to find bin Laden, so there was a lot of mystery to it. I considered it an important story, too.

Why is it important?

So many people’s lives were touched by this, by 9/11, by all of the attacks that happened after that. Who wasn’t changed by that? So, to shine a light on some of the counter-terrorism response, I think, is important.

Was it easy to get financed, or were people wary of the subject?

Well, the movie had so many iterations and at one point it was very difficult. For years it was difficult and then it was easier after the story had a definitive ending, when bin Laden was killed.

You didn’t have an ending when you started?

It had one ending for a number of years in which bin Laden wasn’t found, or caught, or killed, then he was killed, so the ending changed.

In the development stages, were you having to dance around the military for their cooperation?

We worked through some official channels, but we didn’t have a deal with the military, we never had that sort of collaboration which they do with Hollywood a lot of the time, so… It was, um, a mix of some official channels and some independent research.

Did you feel like you might have a lot more people looking over your shoulder on this one?

No, because the only people who knew that we were filming— there was no government vetting of the material. But there are a lot of people talking about it nonetheless!

You interviewed CIA operatives. Were they keen to talk, or did you have to convince them?

Well…some of them were, because I guess when you work and can’t talk about it, it’s nice to finally be able to share your experiences, but some of them weren’t. It was just such a mix. And you just try to be persistent, and try to be a nag, and hopefully sooner or later, somebody opens up to you.

Obviously, names have been changed. What about your female lead, was she forthcoming?

Well, just given some of the controversy around the movie, I’m probably not going to get into specifics of who I talked to, otherwise I’m going to end up having to explain this to a Senate committee, which I really don’t want to do.

What if you are called to Washington and told to give up your sources. What will you do?

I have no idea. I have to talk to a lawyer about that.

Obviously, as a former journalist, that would be something you’re loath to do…

Yes, it would be.

What assurances did you give your sources to get them to talk to you?

The usual one. To make sure their identities weren’t compromised.

How do you feel about the possibility of having to go back on that if there’s a Senate hearing?

I don’t think I’ll have to go back on that. Again, I don’t know the legal landscape well enough, but I hope that they would respect the privacy of these people and also, they have the first amendment issue, which should come into play as well.

The depiction of torture is the hot-button issue. You’ve been criticised for implying that the end justifies the means. Was your intention, actually, just to reconstruct the events without imposing a view?

I think the film says a lot about it. As I wrote the screenplay there was certainly a lot I was trying to say, but I’m reluctant to characterise that, because I don’t think that’s my job. I think my job is to write the screenplay and have the audience have the reaction that they have. We don’t really ask, for example, novelists to explain the intention behind every scene in their work, or why every scene is in there. This is a movie and I hope it creates a response that’s emotional, and intellectual and dynamic, and whatever else, but I don’t like to explain what I was trying to do, because that’s the job of the critic, maybe, or the observer.

Were you reluctant to moralise on what happened? Is that the audience’s job?

I think it’s a very moral film. I really do. I think you’d have to be kind of out-to-lunch not to see that, but that’s my opinion. Other people have different opinions. Just because characters don’t articulate a moral position, doesn’t mean— that’s a very simplistic way of… You know what I mean. It’s not the only way a moral issue is dealt with in a film. Part of it can be through dialogue but a lot of it can be through the experience the film has on the audience. Just having somebody stand up and say something, doesn’t necessarily make a work moral or not. It’s just somebody uttering words.

The final raid on bin Laden’s compound would have been a high-tension moment for the soldiers involved. The rush of adrenalin clouds the memory. You must have had conflicting accounts?

Sure. You had nearly two dozen people on the military side in Abottabad and they all had slightly different accounts, but in any event, people will have slightly different versions, so it comes with the territory. But, you know, we tried to get it right. I hope we did. But there’ll be other accounts, I’m sure, that will have different versions of it.

So, it’s on you, having to judge what’s true and what isn’t…

Yeah, that’s what you’re doing. You’re looking at the material and— by the way, there’s only been one first-hand account written about the raid by someone who was there. Just one. And it came out after we finished the movie and we actually track pretty close to it, so we’re gratified that we came close to his version, but that doesn’t mean another soldier couldn’t come out five years from now, or two weeks, or two days from now, with a whole different version. But that’s okay, you know? That’s part of the process of the culture, of going through these events and coming to terms with them. I don’t think this will be the last word, but it’s our story. It’s our interpretation. It’s how we wanted to tell it. I think we came to some pretty reasonable conclusions. Others will come to different conclusions. That’s part of the deal.

To make a year-long story work as a film, you also have to take dramatic licence, surely?

Sure, of course. I don’t need to ‘take’ dramatic licence, the dramatic licence is given to me when I write a screenplay. It’s inherent in the art-form. It’s a two-and-a-half hour movie. It’s not a documentary. It’s not a literal transcription of a Senate report. It’s a movie, it’s a motion picture, and I’m a screenwriter. The fact that I also have a background in journalism helps the movie be informed, it helps the movie be accurate in the way movies can be accurate, but I’m not asking the film to be held to a journalistic standard, the same way it would if it was an article. I have literally ten years in a document that, if you counted the number of words, would be the length of a normal magazine article. So, it’s sort of insane to apply the same standards of accuracy. But, I hope, I hope we captured the essence, and what films can do is evoke a truth, evoke an essence, evoke an underlying moment— they can create a moment that corresponds to an underlying truth. That’s the function, in some ways, of a drama.

What’s the reaction of your sources to the finished film? Their opinion must be of utmost importance to you.

Um, you know, it’s… You make the film for a general audience, so it’s like if you’re making a film about brain surgery, you’re making it for a general audience, not brain surgeons who know everything about the subject matter.

But you have a responsibility to those people, don’t you?

My responsibility is to the audience. I have a responsibility to give them a good story, to give them their money’s worth. To not mislead them about the underlying facts. I have other responsibilities to the people I talked to, in terms of protecting their identities and so forth, but…the audience reaction has been great.

It sounds suspiciously like you’ve had some critical feedback from your sources—

No, actually, I’ve had some tremendous feedback, but that’s just not the point. You know what I mean? I’ve had some really positive feedback from people, but it’s… I wasn’t trying to say I didn’t. It’s just— It’s just not—

It’s okay to say that your sources liked the film, isn’t it?

Yeah, but it would also be okay with me if they didn’t like the film. Do you know what I mean? Because, it’s, like, that’s not… The people in the CIA, for example, that have come forward and said that we did a really praiseworthy job of capturing the essence of their experience; that’s really great to hear. There are also people in the CIA who have come forward and said we messed up and over-sensationalised the torture. That’s also okay to hear. There’s a range of opinions, but it’s not… Because, again, you’re trying to make something that speaks to a wide swathe of people, not to a narrow band of experts.

What’s the conversation you’re hoping that people will have after seeing this film, or the debate that you want to provoke?

I’m not sure that I am trying to provoke a debate. I mean, I wouldn’t put it that way.

The events of the film are so recent and, as you said, so many peoples’ lives have been profoundly touched. You had to know there would be strong reactions, right? You can’t wash your hands of it.

I’m not washing my hands. I knew that there were strong beliefs on all sides of the issue, obviously, but that predates the film, right? These issues have been controversial for a long time, ever since – with the torture, because I assume that’s what you’re talking about – ever since they became publicly known, they were controversial within the Bush administration, they were controversial within the CIA, they were controversial within the FBI, they’ve been controversial among National Security reporters who cover this, among historians, academics, non-partisan academics, whatever. So, I was obviously aware of that, but you can’t anticipate fully how something is going to be received in the culture. There’s no way you could know that. This movie could have come and gone.

I think the volume of the conversation has surprised me – the intensity. Some of the discussion has, frankly, been intellectually dishonest, which has surprised me too. But that’s okay, I suppose. But I thought your question was about intention and the intention was not to create a conversation. The intention was to tell a story and call it like we saw it, you know? I wasn’t modelling this film, intending to be provocative. I really wasn’t.

What do you feel personally about the use of torture? Was it a necessary evil?

You know, I’m a filmmaker. I’m not an intelligence operative and I’m not a policy maker on National Security so whatever feelings I have about this – and, clearly, I have some since I’ve been thinking about it and working on it – I tried to put those in the movie. I tried to express myself through the medium that I work in and I think that’s my job… That’s the medium of expression that I chose. It’s a very, very complicated subject. It’s not something that fits in— people want it to be more black and white than it is, and it’s represented in a very complex way in the movie as well, and, you know… I don’t know beyond that… I don’t have a one-line answer on if the end justifies the means. That’s Philosophy 101 and there have been many, many important works that try to unpack that.

What I do know is that these things happened. I do know that they are part of the story and I think it would have been irresponsible to leave them out, as reprehensible as these things are, they occurred, and experts will debate – and do debate, as you pointed out – the efficacy of this or that, or at which moment in time what person said what – there’s a lot about that, quite frankly, that’s still classified. But nobody should doubt that these things happened. That would be really strange and, I think, massively counterproductive. Nobody should doubt that they were actually part of US national policy, approved by the Justice Department. Some of that has been documented and a lot of it hasn’t been. So, anyway, that’s sort of where I come down on it.


Zero Dark Thirty is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 25 January. Read our review here