Declassified Documents Reveal Extent of CIA Influence on ZERO DARK THIRTY Script

     May 7, 2013


Despite the lack of awards from the Academy (it only received one for Sound Editing), Zero Dark Thirty will go down as one of the definitive films of the 2010s (and missing out on Best Picture is almost a confirmation of this; see also: The Social Network).  The film’s awards season momentum was slowed by a nonsense controversy over torture (people who didn’t understand movies thought the film was promoting it), and one could think that screenwriter Mark Boal‘s conversations with the CIA may have “softened” the depiction of movie’s harsher scenes.  Recently revealed documents reveal that this is only marginally true.

Hit the jump for details on the CIA’s comments on the script for Zero Dark Thirty, and changes that were made in response to those comments.

zero-dark-thirty-posterIn documents released under the Freedom of Information Act [via Gawker], Boal acquiesced to some of the disputes the CIA had with the script.  Specifically, in the original draft, Maya (Jessica Chastain) was going to participate in the torture scene, but the CIA said this never happened:

“For this scene we emphasized that substantive debriefers [i.e. Maya] did not administer [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] because in this scene he had a non-interrogator, substantive debriefer assisting in a dosing technique.”

While I don’t think the CIA was trying to make Zero Dark Thirty artistically better, this change did improve the story since it helps slow Maya’s descent to the dark side.  If she had started out torturing a suspect, it would lessen the impact of a later scene where she doesn’t bat an eye at a suspect getting punched in the face in order to extract information.

Regarding the torture (I refuse to call it “Enhanced Interrogation Technique”), the CIA did manage to successfully remove threatening dogs from the screenplay.  As we know from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib, dogs were used to threaten detainees.

zero-dark-thirty-jessica-chastainFinally, Boal also removed a party scene the CIA said would never happen:

“One scene early in the film that was objected to was a rooftop party in Islamabad where an officer, after drinking fires a celebratory burst of AK-47 gunfire into the air. We insisted mixing drinking and firearms is a major violation and actions like this do not happen in real life. We requested this be taken out of the film. Boal confirmed he took this out of the film.”

When reached for comment on the CIA’s relationship to the production, Boal responded:

“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.”

I wouldn’t say this is the case with “any publication or work of art” but that’s more because of studio interference.  Obviously, Zero Dark Thirty has dramatic tweaks, but the memo shows that the film was never fundamentally compromised by the CIA.


  • Elz

    Ok Collider, I’m sorry but come on:

    “people who didn’t understand movies thought the film was promoting it…”

    I take issue with this statement. I believe movies are up to interpretation and individual point of view and no one interpretation necessarily is more valid than another as long as you have textual information to support your hypothesis. It is a completely valid viewpoint to say that “Zero Dark Thirty” promoted torture as the film has many scenes that suggest the success of the mission was because of information obtained using “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

    While I don’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with this interpretation, I don’t believe those who do “don’t under movies”!

    I also question who the author is implying people who understand movies are? Critics? The author? I refuse to think that film blog that promotes information on the industry to the masses has the right to get uppity about other peoples opinions.

    • chanandeler

      Bullshit. Iron man 2 has stark openly defying the govt- does it promote doing that? brokeback mountain deals with homosexuality. Does it promote that? fight club is violent. does it promote that? dont even get me started on the tv series. I could go on and on, but the thing is movies, series, books- they’re there to tell a story, and the artists can do it in whatever ways they choose. ZDT was a brilliant film, and it shows how pathetic the situation in hollywood is when you consider that the best picture and actress forerunner was a relatively mild, safe film dealing with bipolar than the arguably superior ZDT just because it dealt with a more sensitive issue.

      • Anonymous

        The difference is none of those aforementioned works of fiction purported to be based on fact and did not present themselves as docudramas. That’s the crux of the critiques lobbed against Zero Dark Thirty. Goldberg and other defenders of this (in my opinion) mediocre film create a straw man argument that the people critiquing it’s depiction of torture are saying that every film implicitly endorses its subject matter by representing it. This is not at all the case and is, quite frankly, a sleight of hand meant to side step the real issue. Care to counter this statement Matt? Remember, stay on point and don’t create a straw man.

  • Joseph M

    Vile ‘film’. Considering the CIA are basically world gestapo and responsible for a list of atrocities over many decades too long to list here, it disgusts me that ZD30, and its lies about Bin Laden and the nice CIA, even made it to the cinema. As for its supporters, they’re either gullible, ignorant or just fascists.

    • Chris

      Oh! Let me get my tinfoil hat before you continue, please!

  • Let’s be real

    This movie has a disclaimer that says something along the lines of these “events are taken from fact” (not an exact quote but the spirit of it). Later in the film, after torturing a captive, the ‘heroes” are put on the right track after they implicitly threaten further torture. In reality, this sequence of events did not happen and were fabricated by the filmmakers. Hence, the accusation that this film promotes torture are legitimate because the filmmakers did not have to include this scene, chose to do so, and then depicted torture leading to crucial information. Easy to understand, yes?

  • Let’s be real

    Issues of torture aside it was a poorly written film, poorly paced, poorly acted and not at all exciting. American audiences responded well to it because they wanted a snuff porno showcasing how mighty and righteous their military death squads are.

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