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.
“Death and Dishonor” was the first of three pieces Boal wrote for Playboy related to Iraq, and they all had an important public-service angle. The last of the series was especially valuable, examining the government’s negligence in treating Iraqi veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Stephen Randall, who edited that article, believes that it was always Boal’s “game plan” to be a screenwriter. “I think he carefully selected stories that could be turned into bigger things,” he says.
In 2005 Boal began working on the script for The Hurt Locker with Kathryn Bigelow, a rising filmmaker who specialized in adrenalized movies like Point Break and Strange Days. He told Time magazine that the genesis came from his experiences in Iraq researching his Playboy articles: “At some point while I was over there, it occurred to me that the insanity of the war was not being expressed in the popular media and that it could make a really eye-opening, gut-wrenching movie about the horrors of war to see the war through the eyes of these guys with this gutsy job on the front lines.” Bigelow said she knew Boal was going to embed in Iraq before he went, however, so it was more likely that he was thinking of a film-friendly article long before he packed his bags.
Released in 2008, The Hurt Locker is an undeniably riveting, well-crafted film about a bomb-disposal team in Iraq. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Bigelow) and Best Original Screenplay (Boal). Critics particularly praised its alleged realism: the movie was “overflowing with crackling verisimilitude,” said prominent critic Kenneth Turan. The filmmakers hyped up this aspect of the story, as well. Bigelow told Vanity Fair that the movie was “very specific to Mark’s experience as an embedded journalist in Iraq,” making sure audiences and critics understood the quality journalism that went into the making of the film.
Many veterans, however, protested the movie’s looseness with the truth. Countering accusations of embellishment and inaccuracy, Boal responded in a way that would become familiar: the film was not a documentary, he insisted. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “We certainly made creative choices for dramatic effect.” This desire to get credit for journalistic verisimilitude while being protected from charges of erroneousness would become familiar too.
The Hurt Locker was conspicuously apolitical: Bigelow and Boal seemed to conclude that raising any questions about the war or even establishing critical distance from it would come at the cost of making an exciting movie. The US military declined to assist in the film’s production, perhaps fearing how it would be portrayed. There was no need to worry. Roger Ebert called it “arguably the most pro-Army feature to emerge from the war.”
When Boal and Bigelow approached the CIA for their next film, the agency did not repeat the Army’s mistake. Instead, the CIA decided to cooperate with the filmmakers, who were clearly desperate to have access to the highest levels of government. Originally, Boal had optioned the rights to Dalton Fury’s book Kill Bin Laden, about the failure to capture the Al Qaeda leader at Tora Bora in 2001. “Mark and Kathryn Bigelow were well into locating overseas set/shoot areas when ST6 smoked UBL,” recalls Fury, referring to the team of Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden. “After that, the story of the guys who couldn’t get the job done ten years earlier naturally gave way to the important story.”
In the months leading up to the 2012 release of Zero Dark Thirty, Boal and Bigelow emphasized the film’s journalistic credentials. “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history,” Boal told The New York Times, in an article titled “Bin Laden Film’s Focus Is Facts, Not Flash.” Bigelow said simply that it was a “reported film.” The movie opens with the claim that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” which is far more assertive than the usual Hollywood disclaimer that a movie is “based on true events.”
“I felt we had a responsibility to be faithful to the material,” Bigelow told Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker. She continued, “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.” It soon became clear that Boal and Bigelow were practicing a form of journalism all too common in Washington: receiving exclusive access from government officials who are then invariably portrayed as heroic, selfless and successful.
Boal’s publicist, Tony Angellotti, said that Boal could not speak to me because he is working on a new screenplay. But, Angellotti said by e-mail, the filmmakers “received NO support from the military or CIA.” In fact, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty received more information from the government about the raid and tracking of Osama bin Laden than any other journalist in the world.
That was not an accident on the part of the government. According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood when Boal got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently—to the surprise of some military officers—at a CIA ceremony celebrating the hero Seals.” At that ceremony, Panetta spilled his secrets. But if he was later concerned that he had released classified information to an independent journalist, he need not have been. Documents obtained by the government watchdog group Judicial Watch support the contention that the government knew Boal and Bigelow were friendly territory. In June 2011, Douglas Wilson, then assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, sent an e-mail to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, explaining how much the government had enjoyed The Hurt Locker. In addition, Wilson said, Bigelow had demonstrated her friendliness by assisting with a military charity.
In another e-mail, Wilson stressed that Bigelow and Boal alone were to be trusted to mimic the government line on the bin Laden hunt. “We need to be careful here so we don’t open the media floodgates on this,” he wrote. Similarly, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers told Wilson and two colleagues in an e-mail that the Pentagon “would like to shape the story to prevent any gross inaccuracies, but do not want to make it look like the commanders think it’s okay to talk to the media.”
Officials were confident that the filmmakers would serve them well. In one e-mail, a CIA flack promised colleagues that Boal had “agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us so we’re absolutely comfortable with what he will be showing.” Another e-mail said that “for the intelligence case, they are basically using the WH-approved talking points we used the night of the operation.” The talking points called the raid “a ‘Gutsy Decision’ by the POTUS,” adding that “WH involvement was critical.” The CIA explained its rationale for cooperating with the filmmakers: “Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, their vital mission, and the commitment to public service that defines them.”
Replying by e-mail to questions about the film, Angellotti scoffs at the notion that the CIA had undue influence over Zero Dark Thirty. “Vet? no one at CIA ever read the script, so how in the world could they have vetted it?” He says that all that occurred was good journalism: “That’s what Boal did, fact checked and double sourced his information.”
But that’s the opposite of what Boal said when confronted with the numerous inaccuracies in the film. “It’s a movie, not a documentary,” he told The New Yorker.
“The viewer should understand that it’s not journalism,” says Kerry Lauerman. “The idea of letting the government vet anything creative should make everyone uncomfortable. They marketed it as journalism.”
Somehow Boal assumed he could maintain a high level of government access while maintaining his integrity. By proclaiming to be apolitical, he and Bigelow were willfully ignorant about their film’s political implications. “It has a very pro-CIA, pro-torture narrative,” says Lauerman. “There was a fact-checking process, but the final product was so good to the CIA and [so] pro-torture that it’s fair to ask how influential the CIA was.”
Again, Angellotti disputes one of the most common critiques of the movie: that the CIA operatives are portrayed as being devoted to the “vital mission, and the commitment to public service that defines them.” In an e-mail responding to the critique, he said, “You think they look good, do you, CIA in the film? heroes were they?”
In her introduction to the published script of the film, Bigelow writes that “the material also raised deep moral questions along the lines that were crossed in the war on terror, and the nature of courage and persistence in a world where the normal rules don’t seem to apply.” She writes of the “murky deeds that were done over this dark decade in the name of national security.” But they weren’t murky; there were reprehensible. Torture is only a murky matter if one believes it is ever acceptable, a completely immoral position.
Polls show that a majority of Americans are comfortable with their government’s employing torture. CIA deputy director Michael Morell (who resigned on Wednesday) criticized the film’s suggestion that torture was the key to finding the Al Qaeda leader, which put Boal in the amazing situation of being more pro-torture than the CIA. But Morell need not have worried: his agency could not have asked for a better recruiting film than the one Boal and Bigelow delivered.
For more film commentary, read Michelle Dean’s analysis  of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.