"Zero Dark Thirty" screenwriter Mark Boal, offering a spirited defense of his movie before a gathering of Loyola Marymount University students, said that he can "certainly feel a chill" on speech from a Senate investigation into the CIA's cooperation with the project.
The Senate Intelligence Committee started an inquiry in December shortly after its chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), along with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) sent a strongly worded letter to Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton, calling for changes in the movie by claiming its depiction of the value of torture in finding Osama bin Laden was "grossly inaccurate." The lawmakers' inference is that Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow were fed the CIA's version of events, as the agency has an interest in defending its tactics used in the war on terror.
Boal, who was addressing the university's First Amendment Week on Tuesday, told the students, "It's fine for some senators to say they think I'm wrong about some of the scenes depicted in the movie. It's an entirely different matter for them to launch an investigation over it."
"It's the kind of reaction that may very well give some future filmmaker, photographer or painter, or writer, blogger or reporter, second thoughts about his or her work." Noting that constitutional law characterizes vague government action as a "chilling effect," he said, "when the Senate Intelligence Committee launches an investigation, I certainly feel a chilling effect."
He added that "as far as I know, Congress hasn't launched a formal investigation of filmmaking since the House Un-American Activities did so in the late 1940s." He was referring to the congressional inquiries that eventually led to the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist.
Boal, a former journalist, also devoted the 45-minute speech and short Q&A to defending the movie's blend of fact and fiction, as well as the way that it depicted scenes of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Some critics from the left have chided the movie for overstating the role that such interrogations had in the hunt, he defended the movie's depiction of torture, noting that "interrogations were clearly part of how this lead developed." CIA director Leon Panetta, he noted, recently acknowledged the role of enhanced interrogations.
"If we left torture out, we'd be whitewashing history," Boal said.
He said that from the right, they have been criticized for depicting interrogation scenes "as more brutal than they actually were," or that they show some torture practices performed by CIA officers when they actually were done by "Americans working for the military."
"But every interrogation technique portrayed in the film was performed by Americans, some lawfully, some not, in the war on terror," he said. The scenes in the film "accurately depict the role that interrogations played in the hunt," producing bad information, no information or "a useful scrap."
He said that "Zero Dark Thirty" "has joined a club of films that have come under fierce attack in their time," citing "Bonnie and Clyde" and "A Clockwork Orange," but that his project differs in the speed in which it is turning around its story.
"Despite the overwhelming coverage through the media of the mission in Abbottabad, the central role of the team that hunted bin Laden for ten years was told for the first time not in a newspaper or a book, or even online. It was told at the movies."
"That may be a first. I hope it's not the last."
He called the type of filmmaking "the intersection of investigation and imagination," and found parallels in the way that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have expanded the audience for political news with their satire.
"We wanted to transform the firsthand accounts we gathered into a firsthand experience for viewers, and share this important, history changing story in the most compelling way we knew how."
He added that "at the end of the day, merging film and news is a balancing act between fact-finding and storytelling," noting that the "artist blending fact and fiction has a special responsibility to set expectations about that blend, to be open and honest about the mix and stay true to the essential story being told."
At the Q&A session, he also defended the movie against claims that they were leaked classified information. A student even asked about claims that President Obama may have divulged national security secrets to them. Although Boal did not address any meeting with Obama, he said that "no one has been able to point out a single national security leak revelaed in the film."