The five-time Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty, a movie depicting the man hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden, had some input from the CIA, who asked writer Mark Boal to edit scenes to more accurately represent the agency – or to at least make them look better. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA’s involvement in editing the script has been revealed to the public; the memo in question says that “The purpose for these discussions was for OPA officers to help promote an appropriate portrayal of the Agency and the Bin Laden operation.”
So what exactly did the CIA object to? The film, which in its depiction of water boarding raised criticism and furor as being, contradictorily, both pro-torture propaganda and also as anti-torture propaganda, initially featured a scene in which the protagonist, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, tortured a detainee. The CIA said this was not accurate, as Gawker reported: “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, substantial debriefer assisting in a dosing technique.” So Boal edited it out, making Maya abstain from torture and seem even a bit nauseated from the process. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman interpreted the scene, “Maya is … a cipher: she is shown coming close to puking when observing the torture. But she also doesn’t object to it.”
And so the vision of the art was rewritten by the pesky business of facts and details. It in fact seems to have given a different spin to critics.
Other scenes that the CIA suggested be re-scripted, and which subsequently were, include the use of dogs to scare a detainee – a practice they claim not to use — and the firing of AK-47 rounds into the sky by CIA members, after drinking at a party, which they claimed would not happen in real life, per their code on not mixing alcohol and firearms.
One scene the CIA showed ambivalence about was one in which the CIA videotaped interviews for analysis. The CIA claimed they don’t do this, though they do, but Boal said that “visually this is the only way to show research in an interesting cinematic way,” and so left it in.
In this sense, even the revamping of scenes, with touches for accuracy, didn’t undercut the artistic effect of the film, but perhaps even added to it, as Boal corrected his work in light of memos from the CIA.