WGA Panel: Mark Boal Strikes Back At Politicians Seeking “Publicity Platform”

“It’s almost like it’s become a fad for politicians to use movies as a publicity platform,” screenwriter Mark Boal told Deadline of the political controversy still swirling around Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty tonight at the WGA‘s annual panel discussion with guild award nominees. Until recently the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, along with Oscar-snubbed director Bigelow, kept his feelings relatively close to his chest on the Senate critics who called for investigations into the accuracy and propriety of Zero Dark Thirty‘s account of the intelligence operations that led to bin Laden’s capture and death. With the Academy Awards less than three weeks away, he likened the Zero Dark Thirty political assault to McCarthyism: “You’re talking about an institution that has lower approval ratings than head lice and cockroaches in the American public, so I think anything they can do to, in some cases, avoid the issues that they’re voted in to do, they’ll do.”

Controversy has plagued the Best Picture contender all awards season. The film was the subject of bi-partisan Senate scrutiny in December (“We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading”, read a letter from Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin) before the Congressional concerns turned to speculation that the filmmakers had been misled by their CIA sources. “There’s a glaring contradiction that would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad”, Boal told Deadline before the panel, “because if we fictionalized things, then why investigate us?”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) moderated the chat which gathered 2013 WGA Awards nominees Boal, Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom, co-writer Wes Anderson), John Gatins (Flight), Billy McMillin (West of Memphis, co-writer Amy J. Berg), and Chris Terrio (Argo). The actual onstage discussion stayed chummy and controversy-free, as moderator Black (a past WGA winner for Milk) prompted the panelists with questions about finding and sometimes fudging truth in the name of art. With six wildly different films including fact-based dramas, fictional stories, a novel-to-screen adaptation, and a documentary, the “truths” were varied. Argo writer Terrio argued that blurring fact and fiction in the service of storytelling – in his case, compressing real events into a spiritually accurate retelling – is a writer’s tool. “The absence of information is rich ground for drama”, he said, describing how Argo’s suspenseful airport scene came together. McMillin, who edited the West Memphis Three documentary West Of Memphis and co-wrote it with Amy Berg, revealed that their film made use of strategically manipulative editing on producer Peter Jackson’s behest: “It came from him wanting us to sell the idea that these guys were guilty”.

Silver Linings Playbook writer-director David O. Russell was a no-show for the chat, but he had a good excuse. Russell was expected to join the panel but was called last minute to Washington D.C., where earlier in the day he helped announce the introduction of the Excellence in Mental Health Act to Congress. (Life Of Pi writer David Magee was also slated to attend the panel but got stuck in New York due to the weather. Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner, The Master writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, and Looper writer-director Rian Johnson were not scheduled to attend but are also nominated for WGA honors.)

Russell’s appearance in Washington seals the late-game undercurrent of the Silver Linings Oscar strategy, which evolved over the course of awards season to emphasize (after trying everything from the pic’s feelgood appeal to Robert De Niro‘s return to glory to Jennifer Lawrence‘s breakout chops) its treatment of mental health issues and bi-polar disorder. That Russell raised a son with bi-polar issues, which he’s said inspired him to make the film, has tempered the helmer’s otherwise volatile reputation this season. In an Oscar year in which American politics have played an unusually large part in the popular discussion (Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln also received flack over the disputed accuracy of a depiction of an 1865 13th Amendment vote), there’s been a silver lining for at least one Oscar hopeful.

Related: WGA Awards Nominations Announced

  1. The screenwriter was lazy with the facts surrounding the interrogations that led us to bin Laden. No actionable intel was extracted using torture. Period. This movie should’ve said that. It didn’t and is now receiving the backlash it deserves.

    1. Then why did someone who should be in the know (guaranteed at least to be more knowledgeable than you) — recent-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — say otherwise just last week? He said some of the intel used to capture Bin Laden did come from the interrogation methods used at that time. And you could conjecture Panetta might be soft-pedaling a bit so as not to offend President Obama. It amazes me how many commenters on this thread are apparently omniscient, “knowing” somehow that no useful intel was gathered that way. Sort of throws a hole in the old argument though, when the SecDef disagrees with you.

  2. Boal would better serve himself and the film if he answered those challenging him. No accurate intelligence leading to Bin Laden was attained by torture. More than politicians have pointed out this inaccuracy in the film which is a basic premise of the story. By Boal attacking congress in general and accusing politicians of “avoiding the issue”, Boal himself avoids the issue. Instead of standing up for what he wrote under direct questions prompted by his own non-fiction writing, he claims victimhood and of all things McCarthyism.

  3. They didn’t show them gaining the information that led to finding Bin Laden from torture. Just because they depicted torture doesn’t mean they condone it.

    1. The scene under question is the scene where they ask someone we have already seen tortured about the courier. He gives them the information because he does not want to be tortured again. The reason many object to this scene as a basic premise of the movie is that it gives justification to the torture we’ve just witnessed brutally for most of an hour. Without this scene, the torture we have seen would have pointless as far as finding Bin Laden. This scene gives it meaning. Already, some people are using this movie as a justification for torture. As to the defeatist comment that no one can know anything: the best art of non-fiction docu-drama filmmaking is allowing the “docu” – the documents to speak. Not the “truth” which can be subjective, but accuracy which can only be supported by documents. There are no documents that support torture led to the finding of Bin Laden. The filmmakers have not provided any documentation for their claim. This is what the armed forces committee, that is privy to documents, is challenging.

  4. The writer is being lazy with the facts? You and the others who are outraged with the movie’s depiction of torture are being lazy with logic. Does it really matter if they didn’t torture the last guy who ultimately gave up Bin Laden if they did torture 99 terror suspects before him? If they hadn’t included this part of the hunt for OBL, that would be doing an infinitely greater disservice to the facts by pretending that these horrible things done in the pursuit of justice never happened.

    I was sick to my stomach watching these scenes on the screen but I thank Boal and Bigelow for making me experience (as much as any fictional film can) these acts that are being done in our name, so that each one of us can decide if this is how we want our men and women to defend our security, and then express our opinion, if we choose, at the ballot box. In my opinion, that is a greater service of the truth.

    Too bad no of us will ever know what the real facts are since the CIA destroyed the interrogation tapes. If you think you know the facts based on what a spy agency has told you, you are either naive or willfully ignorant.

  5. I second that. This is a piece of hung-ho pro americanism, no different than The Longest Day. The skew only seems real because the obsession with current day ‘realism:’ understated performances, the hand-held immediacy, the lack of key light, the slick cutting, the slipping of news footage into an exploded dinner. Is this the triumph of reality TV over movies?

  6. Please…the movie was scrapped and rushed into production purely in an attempt to capitalize on the bin Laden execution. For Boal to point fingers at journalists who actually know someone about the facts in question for being publicity hungry is a joke. Maybe if Boal and Bigelow and Co hadn’t been in such a rush to capitalize on the subject matter’s timeliness they would have done a better job handling the facts.

  7. Defense Sec’y Leon Panetta said that enhanced interrogation helped lead to the capture of Bin Laden.

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