Steve Pond talked exclusively to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow about the issue of whether Zero Dark Thirty advocates torture, as in, torture was used and torture worked.  But in so doing, he kind of denies that the film makes a very clear line from torture to name of courier, courier to Bin Laden:

“The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes,” said Boal. “Before we even wrote it, it was [branded] an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it’s pro-torture, which is preposterous. We haven’t really talked about that, but I want to start.”

“The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy,” added Bigelow. “Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”

Added Boal, a 39-year-old former journalist, “Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be.”

The drama about the decade-long hunt that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden is grim and tough and gripping. It’s a step-by-step procedural as tense, tightly wound and riveting in the two hours of detail work that locates bin Laden as it is in the 40-minute raid that brings him down.

But it is also a brutal piece of work in which the people who we want to succeed — the good guys, the Americans, us — do bad things: waterboarding, sleep-deprivation, rituals of humiliation designed to break detainees suspected of al Qaeda ties.

But Boal said that those who say their film makes a case for torture — many of whom had yet to see “ZDT” when they chimed in — are simply not paying attention.

“I’m not saying the film is a documentary of everything that happened, but it’s being misread,” he said. “The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there — from a number of detainees who are not being coerced. That is what’s in the film, if you actually look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.”

Allow me to correct Mr. Boal on what exactly is in his film, which I have now seen seven times.  Apparently, I know it better than he does.

1) we see the detainee be waterboarded.
2) we see that detainee brought out for a “civilized” lunch. That detainee, during that lunch, is threatened with being hung to the ceiling again.  Moreover, both Chastain and Clarke say that he has been sleep deprived and is under duress therefore he will “believe anything.” They bluff him, he gives up the name of the courier.
3) Maya (Chastain) then looks over all of their other footage of detainees “under duress” giving out that same name.
4) Maya waterboards and questions another detainee, who holds out. But during that scene of torture he refuses to give the name of Bin Laden’s courier. He protects the courier like he protects Bin Laden, confirmation #3, gotten FROM TORTURE.
5) The White House says they question their results because they were obtained from a detainee under duress, meaning, the White House questions the validity of that information because it was gotten from a detainee – as in, torture worked but the White House doubts that it produced results.

Most of the time that they talk about the name of courier, doubting Maya’s theory, they bring up that the information was obtained by a detainee under duress — they doubt it worked. It worked.

So, to me, that tells me that perhaps Boal doesn’t realize that the sequence of events in Zero Dark Thirty amount to torture was used, torture works. That Boal still doesn’t realize it makes me think he didn’t realize that what they put on film they would be held to such strict accountability for.  I don’t think you can undo that aspect of the film.

What remains in question, and what hasn’t yet been answered, is whether Boal made up the torture of that detainee or whether he is telling the truth from first hand accounts.  It’s got to be one or the other, but you can’t tell people that what they’re seeing on screen isn’t what they’re really seeing. It’s plainly obvious to anyone with eyeballs and a brain.  Still a great movie, though.

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  • Zach
  • Linc4jess

    In just 5 theaters the first few days the bloggers were saying WOW look at the box office…now it seems ZDT is losing steam at the box office, already. My point is…the torture issue or controversy won’t matter much if no one goes out and see the flick. No. Yes. Maybe….??

  • Eric

    I’m sorry, but I hate that Bigelow and Boal are being forced to explain and even apologize for the content of their film. It’s upsetting beyond words.

  • Dragon


    I’m pretty sure both Boal and Bigelow would agree with your piece and they know it. Do you think it’s possible they are just trying their best to avoid admitting it? Like a few months ago you mentioned Aaron Sorkin refused to admit that The Newsroom had ridiculous female characters.

  • jessica

    This film made me upset. No humans deserve to be tortured. This is against humanity.

  • Kane

    Let’s try not to say we know the film better than the filmmakers. Sure we can question what we see but the intent is for the filmmaker to say. And yes I agree that he probably didn’t want to admit it, thereby adding fuel to the fire.

  • Jerry

    I think you are right Sasha, you may have gotten more from the film than they intended. Jessica Chastain says the same thing as Boal in her interview. She says you are to focus on info coming from the detainee during the “nice lunch” and not see it as a product of torture.
    @YouTube video Zero Dark 30’s Jessica Chastain & Jason Clarke on The Torture”

  • Sasha Stone

    Jerry, there is really no way around it, though. Torture/reward, torture/reward – it works that way throughout. First they give him orange soda after torturing him for instance, then they put him in a box for a couple of days. The only thing they have to explain is whether this was factually based, i.e. people told them this happened, or made up. With more time they could recut the film so that it doesn’t look like such a clear line but it is fairly obvious in the movie if you watch it enough times. The only confusion comes with not knowing one name from another (dumb American).

  • Losing steam at the box office? In ten days, its lowest per-theatre average for one day has been over $17k (estimate). Most films don’t get near that in a weekend, many not even in a week. Losing steam my arse.

  • Mohammed

    It’s a case of who you’re gonna believe; The filmmakers or your lying eyes. I question the possibility of making a movie that takes a neutral stance on torture. Boal and Bigelow have made a film that they advocate is such. I’m glad that even it’s supporters are coming out now and pointing out discrepencies.

    Hopefully this sinks any chance of this film getting anywhere near Best Picture. But you never know.

  • Reno

    ZD30 is not screening in Las Vegas. If you’re touring Vegas, you don’t go watching movies, you gamble, party, fornicate, shop, or go hotel hopping (actually walking, walking and more walking) but I would have exchanged that 3 hour trip to Hoover Dam for a screening of ZD30. Vegas, the city of entertainment, and ZD30 is nowhere to be found.

  • charles

    waterboard all the animals that kill innocent civilians

  • victoria

    To the person who said Zero Dark Thirty is “losing steam.” Huh? What are you talking about? Go to Box Office Mojo. It’s only playing in a few theaters and it has a $17,000 per day average.

    Do your homework next time, pal.

  • Mcsoto

    I was under the impression from Bowden and Bergen that the name came out during a period of 40-some days of sleep deprivation and that other things like being stripped and loud music and being treated like a dog were used. The government declared that waterboarding was torture but as far as I’m aware some of the other stuff is still in play. Sleep deprivation was always used and will continue to be. You and I may believe that it constitutes torture but I don’t think your government does considering even local police use it.

    So I think your issue w/ Boal is your definition of torture. Also, with your timeline, it seems like once someone is tortured they can never provide information that didn’t stem from the water boarding, etc. I believe when he gives the name up over lunch it is 6 months from the torture we see. Yes he is being sleep deprived, but again that isn’t torture. Legally at least.

    If only PaulH would weigh in and set everyone straight.

  • Vegas, the city of entertainment, and ZD30 is nowhere to be found.

    Alas, five theatres in the whole country. That’s limited release for you, and it’s working wonders considering the current numbers coming in. You’ll get it before us Brits, anyways.

    Mohammed, I’m not going to get into another debate with you because it’d be exactly the same thing as last time. But none of this appears to be sinking Zero Dark Thirty’s Best Picture chances. It’s been around for days now and hasn’t had a lot of effect (it’s had a little, I think). Bigelow, Boal, Chastain and Clarke are lending it support by chiming in in defence, so this is likely only going to help its chances.

    Oh, I know, Mcsoto. I miss PaulH. I’ve got no-one around any more to make me feel better about not being PaulH.

  • Sasha Stone

    Mcsoto – you bring up a good point, what defines torture. But as you can see, even if you bypass the first incident you also then have to explain Maya’s conclusion that the other guy they water boarded protected the name of the courier – they couldn’t break him but that in itself proved as confirmation. Dan says “we can always tie you to the ceiling again” … and the guy gives up the names. Seems pretty clear cut to me. They didn’t just waterboard him, though, they put him in a box “for days” — I am not up on what constitutes torture in the eyes of our government but those who are up on it have agreed so you tell me.

  • Sasha Stone

    One last point, an easier fix to that would have been not to show that scene so close to the other torture scenes. But since they were rushed for time and apparently neither Bigelow nor Boal had any idea this would blow up like this they didn’t.

  • Mike

    I’m sorry, but I hate that Bigelow and Boal are being forced to explain and even apologize for the content of their film. It’s upsetting beyond words.

    Note how in US media good faith motivation is always taken for granted. For example to explain the descent into torture some journalists will put forth theories like the CIA may have been too consumed with their desire to keep us safe from terrorist attacks. When someone suggests that the torture program was implemented for ulterior reasons then that is a bridge too far.

    Evidently Eric (quoted above) is distraught over the notion that filmmakers should be held responsible for their torture apologist film. As if one is outsides the bounds of reasonable discourse by criticizing the heroes of Hollywood. Who are we to question their artistic license? Hilarious. How dare anyone question Oscar winners! They are above the fray. Anyone who has an issue with ZD30 is obviously too stupid to get the sophisticated narrative. Or maybe they just hate America.

    What is remarkable (and truly sad) is the boast that increased access to the CIA enhanced the journalistic integrity of the film. CIA personnel who oversaw the obstruction of al Qaeda investigations before 9/11 were advocates of the torture policy. For Bigelow and Boal to ignore this and then play the “journalistic accuracy” card is nauseating. How do you make the decision to include desperate 9/11 phone calls at the beginning of the movie while ignoring the fact that the CIA knew al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the US planning for a massive attack and then deliberately withheld that information?

  • I say who gives a shit? This movie was great. The fact that there was torture in the movie that helped to find Bin Laden doesn’t make the craft of the film any less stellar or the story any less compelling. Stuff is invented for story purposes all the time, but nothing in the film I saw was outside the realm of plausibility. I totally believe that everything that happens in the movie could have happened exactly the way its presented. Isn’t it possible that the government officials and CIA people who dispute the events in the movie are the ones trying to cover certain things up, possibly to save face or to protect classified info? Either way I really, really don’t care at all when the movie is as good as it is.

  • Mike, I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you upset at Bigelow/Boal for not delving into things that happened before 9/11? This is a movie about events that take place AFTER that attack, so it sounds like you’re mad at a movie for not being an entirely different movie.

  • Jerry

    What is losing steam? ZD30 is still kicking butt and taking names at the Boxoffice. It made over 1 Million in its first week from only 5 theaters. This torture issue is not hurting it at all and might be helping.

  • Nic V

    I suggest if you want a better idea of what Mark Boal might have intended you might want to take a quick look at his first writing effort. Personally after watching In The Valley of Elah last night and then reading this today Mark Boal is full of shit.

  • Mike

    Chris the film is all about the dedication of CIA agents and specifically Maya’s incredible resolve. My point is that the context of the entire Bin Laden search and kill effort is distorted by Boal’s strange brand of incurious journalism.

    The composite character of Maya consists in part of a CIA agent named Alfreda Bikowsky. She was one of the people named by CIA IG Helgerson in his 9/11 internal review. She was involved in the withholding of information about al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar from the FBI Cole investigators before 9/11. Maya’s incredible commitment to finding Bin Laden would come across differently if we knew she had obstructed the Cole investigation would it not? I know this detracts from the hero worship and feel good vibe of the movie but when Boal and Bigelow starting throwing around phases like “journalistic accuracy” they opened the door for criticism.

    For years we were lectured by the superpatriots as to the necessity of torture. We were told it was a last resort but was required to prevent future attacks. The blend of fearmongering, sickness and outright deceit employed to justify the torture program is not something that sits well with many people around the world. There is no reason to give filmmakers a pass simply because they are likable people.

  • Kenny

    The issue really shouldn’t be that the film shows how effective torture is or isn’t, but there are articles about how Bigelow condones it, which isn’t the case. It can work, but there’s a moral cost that is explored in ZD30 that leaves one feeling not at all jingoistic like other films of the kind try to do.

  • Mohammed

    Paddy: I didn’t mention the box office take of the movie now did I? I’m sure that in some circles the movie plays like pro-america film. More so than was expected considering that the earlier hype made it seem as a pro-Obama film. Even the lunatics on are embracing the movie now as a pro-torture movie. Even the supporters like Sasha are coming around to it now, and admitting that it IS pro-torture, and it clearly sends a message that it does work.

    You are free to believe that it’s praiseworthy to make movies that future torture and slavery ( both immoral) but take neutral stance. I don’t think it’s neither praiseworthy nor a brave thing to do. I also think embracing such products makes one complicit.

  • steve50

    “I also think embracing such products makes one complicit.”

    Oh, please. Ever enjoy a horror flick or murder mystery? Ever actually enjoy watching a villain do his/her thing? It doesn’t make one complicit any more than watching the news does.

  • Unlikely hood

    I would love it if ZDT was the movie that Boal says it is. But it isn’t. We are never invited to see how Maya has soiled herself, except perhaps in the highly ambiguous final shot. Torture is no more regretted by the film’s principals than Woodward and Bernstein regretted using Deep Throat (in another docudrama focused on then-recent events). The problem is the film’s perspective, and the fact that the opening title card contradicts some of Boal and Bigelow’s more recent statements. Can’t have it both ways, guys. It’s a great film, yes, but it can’t be amoral on its own plot engine.

  • Agnes Moorehead

    Who cares if Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was waterboarded?

    The man in a true monster. The operational commander and mastermind of 9/11 that killed 3000 Americans(and if it succeeded 100% and 93 hadn’t gone down would have taken out all of Congress as well, don’t forget that). He was also behind attempted assassinations of Pope John Paul II and President Clinton. He was involved in the Bojinka plot that would have blown up 10 planes in midair. He was the one who filmed himself slicing off Daniel Pearl’s head with a rusty knife, paraded it for the camera, and then cut up his body in multiple pieces. And then boasted about it to the FBI

    Bigelow should have put a clip of the Pearl video in the film just to remind people who we’re dealing with here.

    And I’m supposed to feel even one shred of sympathy for him or some of these other Al Qaeda operatives and leaders??? I’m supposed to get worked up if he was tortured?

    It’s amazing to me how no one seems to have any problems with us blowing away OBL, OBL’s son, the courier, the courier’s brother, the courier’s wife, no one finds any moral outrage with that.

    Yet…Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being waterboarded or some other guy being put in a box or forced to listen to Tool or Rage Against the Machine at loud volume or stripped and made to stand up or have some woman taunt him or dogs bark at him or whatever, well that puts the US on par with the Khmer Rouge or Stalin or makes Guantanamo or some of these other sites into 21st century Treblinkas. Please.

    I bet the kids who lost their parents on 9/11 would give anything to have them back if it meant they’d have to listen to loud music or some of the things that went on.

    KSM is perfectly healthy today, He nor anyone else who was waterboarded was ever in any life threatening danger and none of them suffered any lasting or even significant damage to their health or well-being. Which is more than you can say for the thousands of peopel who died at his hands.

    All this caterwauling really astounds me.

    As for the film, by all accounts Maya is not a composite character, but an actual person, and I don’t think she had anything to do with the Cole investigation as that happened before 9/11 and she wasn’t even recruited into the CIA after 9/11. Mark Owen talks about her in his book(she’s called Jen in his book, but it’s the same person) and mentions she’s been after OBL for around a half a decade which would put her in the mid 2000s, long after the Cole.

    The truth is we’ll never really know just what went down and what happened. There will always be obfuscation involved in the interrogations and what they said and how they said it and what led to it. For instance, Mark Bowden’s book states that they got Abu Ahmed’s real name from a foreign country’s intel service in 2007.

  • Insider

    Torture is used and has been used for centuries. Of course it works and is a must to eliminate it. It is something horrible but effective. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but depicting this in the movie, only talks it was useful for a specific objective, not an ethical perspective. Perhaps the movie is working if it makes people think.

  • Unlikely hood

    Agnes Moorhead I kinda like your style even though I disagree. You’re like, hey fuck, Cheney is right, cry me a river. Points for consistency.

    Every other defender of the film needs to think about precedents. We’ve had dozens of controversies in our decade on this site, but I can’t say I remember one where one side was this slow to compare. You should be saying “it’s like…” but you’re not, because there really hasn’t been a film based on current events that asked us to accept something like this. As an admirer of the film, I’d like to think Bigelow and Boal broke the mold and showed us the way forward – but I’m not so sure. If, as Sasha rightly pointed out, they’re using interviews to fudge what the film says, well…why?

  • Eric

    Mike, a block quote to support your point. How grand.

  • Mike

    Agnes leaves out some key points:

    1)Innocent people were tortured.

    2)FBI interrogators were having success with high level detainee interrogations until they were ordered to give way to the CIA. Why were they replaced? This is the key question. There really haven’t been any valid explanations put forth.

    3)Many torture advocates willingly overlook contradictions in the war on terror. One example I already mentioned is the CIA’s bizarre pre-9/11 conduct in which they obstructed the Cole investigation and the search for al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. We were told by Tenet and Black (head of the CTC before 9/11) that the system was blinking red and the CIA was on full alert in the months leading up to 9/11. Anyone want to explain this contradiction? How about the kid gloves treatment of Saudis? We have credible allegations (i.e. former Senator Bob Graham) that Saudi government officials supported the hijackers. The Bush administration (and the Obama administration) covered this up.

    It takes a lot of nerve to accuse people of being “soft on terror” or lacking compassion for the victims when the real “crime” is an unwillingness to be suckered by very skilled propaganda.

  • This whole thing is ridiculous. Recommended viewings: Michael Winterbottom’s “The Shock Doctrine” and Best Picture 1982 nominee, Costa-Gavras’ “Missing”. Plus, the discussion should focus on if these events even happened and what a failure is, Osama Ben Laden hasn’t gone through a trial.

    But then, I’m not easily manipulated by background noise, you know.

  • DexterM

    I love how people are crying about torture like it’s this awful thing, but they have no problem shooting people in the head with drones.

  • Unlikely hood

    Jesus Alonso – if you’re trying to refute me you couldn’t have chosen 2 worse films, one a very leftist documentary and the other a drama where we’re rooting for Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek all the way.

    In Cold Blood (1967) would be a 20x better precedent for ZDT than either film you said. But even that…well, certainly the 2 killers were drawn far more humanely than in any previous Hollywood film. But still, the film never really behaves as though their atrocious acts were justified. ZDT does.

    Oh and the drone argument is nonsense. Why do you think we like Homeland? It would hardly be much of a show if Brody didn’t command some of our sympathy because of the drone that killed his favorite Arab. Have you seen ZDT? I thought not. Show me a movie that uses drones to get _____ the same way ZDT uses torture to get UBL, and I’ll show you the same level of Internet outrage.

  • I love how people are crying about torture like it’s this awful thing, but they have no problem shooting people in the head with drones.


    water up my nostrils vs having my legs blown off while I’m playing in a schoolyard?

    I’ll take the nostril water, please, thanks.

  • Unlikely Hood, you are missing my point, complete and helplessly

  • Unlikely hood

    Oh I got your point. I had to be sure no other reader thought you’d even tried to respond to mine.

  • CB

    Sasha, really glad to have read your article. You’re completely right. I’ve seen the movie once and I remember that the man eating a ‘civilized lunch’ with Maya is sleep-deprived. Also the fact that another man says, “I’ve been tortured, I’ll give you what you need”, which gives the CIA good information. So I’m really happy that you are seeing that Boal is BSing here.

    DexterM and Ryan, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – drones vs. torture. Just because liberals are getting mad about this doesn’t mean they aren’t mad about drones. This movie isn’t about drones the same way that ‘Promised Land’ isn’t about DDT. The dicey issue that ZDT confronts (and condones imo) is torture. If there were a drone movie, bringing up torture would be a non sequitor.

  • Mike

    If there is a point it is that the access granted to Boal and Bigelow was because the CIA knew they weren’t interested in an accurate account. An accurate account would delve into the murky world of “sausage making” (aka generating business opportunities) which would sicken the viewer and thus prevent proper Twizzler and buttered popcorn digestion. If you are interested in the truth you don’t get access to the CIA. Full stop.

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