By Isaac Butler
Over at Gawker, Adrian Chen has the scoop on the CIA's involvement with the making of Zero Dark Thirty and it turns out-- get the smelling salts ready-- that screenwriter Mark Boal ran some things in the screenplay by them to see if they were factually accurate. Propaganda! Fascism! Joseph Goebbles!
Now look, whether or not you'd trust the CIA to tell you if these moments were accurate or not is fair game, but... well... let's roll the tape:
The much-discussed opening scene of Zero Dark Thirty features the main character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, observing a detainee at a CIA black site as he is water-boarded and shoved into a tiny box during an interrogation. It appears that an early version had Maya participating in the torture. But during their conference calls, the CIA told Boal that this was not true to life. The memo reads: "For this scene we emphasized that substantive debriefers [i.e. Maya] did not administer [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] because in this scene he had a non-interrogator, substantive debriefer assisting in a dosing technique."
According to the memo, "Boal said he would fix this." Indeed, in the final film Maya doesn't touch the prisoner during this scene. The decision to have Maya abstain from the torture was as significant artistically as it was factually. Her ambivalence was a key part of her character, and critics picked over every detail of the torture scenes, including Maya's status as an observer rather than a participant, for meaning in the debate over torture that the movie sparked.
Wired's Spencer Ackerman, for example, interpreted Maya's complex relationship to on-screen torture as a sign of a complex inner life: "Maya is... a cipher: she is shown coming close to puking when observing the torture. But she also doesn’t object to it." Of course, the scene reads a bit differently if the choice was dictated by a CIA propaganda officer.
Once you strip out the register this is written in here's what you get:
The original screenplay had a scene in which two CIA officers are shown torturing a detainee. The CIA objected to this and asked that it be changed (purpotedly for accuracy reasons) to one CIA officer torturing a detainee while another looks on without registering any explicit objections ever. This lead many people (the example he uses is Spencer Ackerman, another was Andrew Sullivan) to claim that the movie was at least tacitly anti-torture. They were, in my opinion, wrong about this, but that's less relevant here.
So the claim here is that, thanks to CIA involvement, Zero Dark Thirty contains material that lead some people to think that the film (not the CIA, but the film) was less pro-torture. Sullivan, meanwhile, thinks this change makes the agency look better. But this seems, well, weird. The character who commits torture begins the film as its most compelling character and ends it at a high level desk job where he faces no punishment for his actions. The other character, played by Jessica Chastain, goes on to participate in the torture of other detainees.
There were two other major changes. In the first, a scene where a detainee was menaced by a dog was cut, as the CIA claimed it was not part of that interrogation process. This is more troubling. As Chen notes, the U.S. routinely threatened detainees with dogs at Guantanamo and Abu Graihb and since the interrogation sequence at the beginning of the film has a kind of symbolic weight to it, including dog-menacing would make some sense. At the same time, given how "journalistic" the film was attempting to be, I can see why they would cut the scene if they were told it didn't happen. The third change (cutting a party that CIA officers throw) seems like small beer.
Do I think the extent of the government's invovlement in Hollywood is creepy? Yes. But ZD30 is hardly unique on this front. What you're left with here is that a film that was trying to pride itself on being factually accurate e did some fact checking with a source and made changes to accomodate what the source told them. In order for this to really be the CIA "approving" of the film, there would have to be consequences to the film not being approved.