Mark Boal. (Courtesy of Flickr user 1987Porsche944. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Before Mark Boal was the award-winning screenwriter of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, he was a journalist. And not just any type of journalist, but a high-profile investigative reporter who wrote stories on important topics like post-9/11 Islamophobia, the murder of Afghan civilians by American troops and sweatshops in Appalachia used by the Pentagon. How did a man whose career was devoted to exposing injustice end up writing a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which inaccurately presents torture as beneficial and was produced with tremendous CIA cooperation?
Last week Politico reported that Boal was in the audience at a 2011 ceremony for military and intelligence officials during which then–CIA director Leon Panetta revealed the Navy SEAL unit that carried out the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Panetta says he was not aware that Boal was in attendance—which is an important detail, not only because Boal hadn’t received the proper security clearances but also because the Obama administration has insisted that senior officials were not the source of leaks on the raid. The incident raises an important question about Boal, too: as he sat in that room, did he consider himself an independent journalist with a great scoop or a government insider with access to top-secret information? Or did he retain the conceit that he could be both simultaneously?
Boal began his career with good intentions. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1995 with a degree in philosophy, an education that led him to have “a kind of intellectual skepticism,” he told the school’s newspaper. He began writing for The Village Voice in 1998, documenting concerns about the burgeoning US surveillance infrastructure. His pieces were critical of the Justice Department and the FBI for their censorship of authors and withholding of critical information. “He was a good muckraking journalist,” recalls Hillary Rosner, who edited Boal’s Voice articles.
Boal was also freelancing for Mother Jones. In a terrific 1999 cover story, he investigated a garment factory in Kentucky that qualified as a sweatshop because of its below-sustenance wages, dangerous working conditions and intimidation against union organizers. Its main client was the US government. Kerry Lauerman, who edited the article, recalls that Boal was a “diligent, serious reporter.” A piece Boal wrote for Rolling Stone in November 2001 chronicled a backlash against Muslim students across the country in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks. Will Dana, who edited Boal’s Rolling Stone articles, agrees with Lauerman’s assessment of Boal’s talents and integrity. Indeed, all the former colleagues and editors I spoke to described Boal as a capable, impressive reporter.
But Boal was more ambitious than his early articles indicated. “I think he consciously began writing pieces that could be turned into television shows and movies,” says one of Boal’s Voice colleagues. Ana Marie Cox, a former colleague at Mother Jones, believes that political reporting was a secondary concern. “He was more interested in telling a story, in a good narrative,” she says.
To that end, Boal began writing more articles with a cinematic quality. “Death and Dishonor,” a 2004 feature in Playboy, was about an Iraq veteran who was murdered upon his return to the United States. The article inspired the 2007 film In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. Haggis and Boal shared co-writing credits for the film, which did poorly at the box office.