Does It Matter That the CIA Script-Doctored 'Zero Dark Thirty'? - Pacific Standard

Does It Matter That the CIA Script-Doctored 'Zero Dark Thirty'?

While balancing the need for access against an intelligence agency's incentive to control the message, the movie botched the job.
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A still from Zero Dark Thirty. (COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES)

A still from Zero Dark Thirty. (COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES)

Much ado today about Gawker's Freedom of Information Act-driven look at how the Zero Dark Thirty script got written. The Gawker item argues, persuasively, that the CIA script-doctored the movie. We're interested in this because, back in January, former CIA targeting officer (and recent David Letterman sparring partner) Nada Bakos gave Pacific Standard readers her assessment of whether the movie, and its version of post-9/11 intelligence work, differed from the reality. It did, an awful lot, she said.

A first-person article like Nada's, and a Hollywood movie have different goals, of course. But also some commonalities. Like ZD30 writer Mark Boal's movie script, our story passed by a CIA review. This was because it was written by a former intelligence officer, about experiences she'd had—and original information she and her colleagues generated—under a high-level security clearance. The agency asked for one change, which was to make a specific reference more general than it was in our draft. We agreed.

We live in an era of dangerous, half-true stories convincingly told toward goals we still can't easily fathom. They're edging toward dangerous associations.

The Gawker documents suggest our process—or that of anyone writing about the CIA—was different from Boal's in one important way: it wasn't a transaction. The CIA review of our text was to determine if Nada had violated disclosure rules that could result in, among other things, pretty serious criminal prosecution. The documents Gawker FOIA'ed suggest that Boal went to the agency with a classic journalistic horse trade: secret information in exchange for access to mass media.

If Nada's right, and the outcome of that trade was significantly off-target—on both some key facts, and on the tone of the era the movie sought to capture—then one of two things happened. Either Boal got spun, or plot considerations knowingly trumped documentary impulses. While balancing the need for access against an intelligence agency's incentive to control the message, the movie botched the job.

Why did ZD30's makers push the documentary angle so hard? There is plenty of journalism about bin Laden if people want it. Even the very same story. Last week HBO aired a straight-ahead documentary about the search for Osama bin Laden, which included appearances by our contributor Nada Bakos. Months before that, several high-profile articles had been written, at least two books, and countless televised interviews with people in and around the story. Would anyone have cared so much about the CIA massage that Gawker's papers demonstrate, if the film's makers had never claimed their work to be an accurate telling of a top-secret intelligence operation? If it had only aspired to be what it was—a movie?

Clearly, there's a cost to betting all-in. As the movie's veneer of authority slips, it starts to fall toward the dreaded zone no filmmaker wants, "propaganda." A sense of cooperation turning to collaboration can be harmful to this sort of project. It's particularly dangerous for stories around 9/11, terrorism, or 21st-century U.S. intelligence. You need to steer clear from the zone where Judith Miller and "WMD" reside. If in 30 or 40 years, we recall the post 9/11 era as one where the American bullshit detector stopped working for awhile, where will ZD30 land? It's getting touchy. We live in an era of dangerous, half-true stories convincingly told toward goals we still can't easily fathom. They're edging toward dangerous associations.

One need not. Back in January, Bakos argued in these digital pages that fiction has its place in our era's key narrative. She wrote that she enjoyed Showtime's CIA soap opera, Homeland, in part because it was safely absurd. Certainly Hollywood and the U.S. security establishment work together all the time, and everyone knows the resulting stories are dramatizations. Argo (which won the Oscar ZD30 had been tipped early to win) seems like the obvious reference. But let's go more absurd: here's popcorn cinema kingpin Michael Bay talking about getting favors from the Pentagon to make his absurd Transformers films:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt0eDDFulg0

Off-putting? Maybe. Propaganda? Not remotely. Now here's ZD30 director Bigelow and writer Boal selling their movie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuOsh1iN-o8

With the passage of time, that video may yet help tell the story of our era accurately—but not as they intended. We'll see.

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