Did the CIA shadow-edit Zero Dark Thirty?

May 7, 2013, at 1:00 PM

Before he became a screenwriter, Mark Boal was a journalist. When journalists work on a a complicated story involving national security, it is not uncommon for them to give the CIA or another agency a full briefing about the story beforehand, both to ensure the accuracy of certain assertions, or to test them, giving the subject of the piece a chance to push back against interpretations that are incorrect, to, of course, provide last-minute spin to make themselves look favorable, but often, to clarify complicated issues and add nuance. 

As a writer, I've done this with several stories. When I write long-form pieces about the Secret Service, I voluntarily provide them in advance with the passages that involve descriptions of protective methodology. That's because I don't want to publish anything that could make it harder for Secret Service agents to protect their charges. Most of the changes the Service suggests are minor, and when I've disagreed with them about the sensitivity of a method, or have shown it to be described elsewhere in the public domain, I stand my ground, and I make the final decision. It's common sense to me.

This newly declassified CIA document is a primer on Boal's technique as a screenwriter. Movies are different than reported articles. The stakes are much higher. The "truth" of a movie, even one based on real events, is a very complicated beast. I know that Boal talked to the CIA extensively during his research phase, but I also know that he talked to many people the CIA would rather him not have talked to. He did not rely solely on the information the CIA gave him. But the memo suggests that he was very sensitive to equities unrelated to the truth, per se. According to the CIA, Boal had several scenes in mind that depicted the CIA behaving unprofessionally, and upon their objection, he excised them. 

According to Gawker, Boal said: "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."

The CIA says that Boal took out a scene where a dog was used in an enhanced interrogation technique, a scene where a CIA officer shot a weapon in the air in celebration, changed the details about a debriefing, and took liberties with a few of the details about the videotaping of interrogation sessions. They say he speculated about how the identity of the bin Laden courier was discovered, a scene where a Kuwaiti is bribed with a new car. (We learned recently that the CIA did develop a human source that led them to the man's actual identity but we don't know before that.)






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