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.


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