Mark Boal On Writing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture Sequence

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I continue to believe that Zero Dark Thirty is a much more comprehensively anti-war film than the debate about whether it suggests torture works would indicate. And so I was interested to read Mark Boal talk to Vulture about what it was like to write those sequences, and about how he wanted the emphasis to be on what it was actually like to be in the room when someone was being beaten, waterboarded, and humiliated:

The scene that has been the focal point of all the discussion has been the opening scene of the film, and it was definitely among the hardest to have in my life, let alone include in the script. I’ve had to revisit it over and over again after the film came out, and those torture scenes are incredibly painful. And they’re meant to be! I wanted to show the brutality and inhumanity of the situation, and you see the prisoner’s brain getting scrambled by the pressure and the punishment that’s being put on him. It was a dark and painful place to go as a writer, and I still don’t think I’ve totally shaken it off, to be honest with you.

The story includes scanned pages of the script, which are even more revealing than what Boal says in the interview. Maya’s reactions in that sequence aren’t an acting choice: they’re baked into the script. When she says I’m okay, the script clearly notes that “She’s not.” At one point, “she is on the verge of vomiting.” “The stress and strain on her face is enormous” as she participates in Ammar’s waterboarding—though the movie makes clear that the damage to him is more considerable than it is to her. At the end of the scene? “Dan and Maya exit. They’ve learned nothing.”

I don’t think that Kathryn Bigelow and Boal did themselves any particular favors in the way they’ve talked about Zero Dark Thirty. Describing it as a quasi-journalistic enterprise and insisting on the film’s neutrality may have seemed like a way to provide political cover to it, but refusing to stake out a position left them with essentially nothing to defend but their process as the debate over the movie heated up. Releasing the script and talking about their intentions could have opened up a debate about whether the film lived up to those intentions, a conversation that would have struck me as both politically and artistically useful.