Kathryn Bigelow Denies ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Apologizes for Torture (Exclusive)

In an exclusive interview with TheWrap, the director and screenwriter of "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, say their film doesn't advocate torture or make a hero of Obama. It simply portrays what went down

The filmmakers behind “Zero Dark Thirty” labeled as “preposterous” the idea that their dark, intense portrayal of the killing of Osama Bin Laden was an argument for torture, in a wide-ranging interview with TheWrap responding to criticisms being leveled at their film, which opens on Wednesday. 

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal said the criticisms amounted to people misreading the film. And they rejected the idea that politics influenced their filmmaking choices. They spoke with TheWrap on the afternoon of "Zero Dark Thirty’s" Los Angeles premiere.

“The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes,” said Boal. “Before we even wrote it, it was [branded] an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it’s pro-torture, which is preposterous. We haven’t really talked about that, but I want to start."

Also read: Does 'Zero Dark Thirty' Take Liberties With Waterboarding?

“The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy,” added Bigelow. “Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”

Added Boal, a 39-year-old former journalist, “Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be."

The drama about the decade-long hunt that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden is grim and tough and gripping. It’s a step-by-step procedural as tense, tightly wound and riveting in the two hours of detail work that locates bin Laden as it is in the 40-minute raid that brings him down.

But it is also a brutal piece of work in which the people who we want to succeed — the good guys, the Americans, us — do bad things: waterboarding, sleep-deprivation, rituals of humiliation designed to break detainees suspected of al Qaeda ties.

Also read: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Steps Into the Line of Fire, Answers Critics

But Boal said that those who say their film makes a case for torture — many of whom had yet to see "ZDT" when they chimed in — are simply not paying attention.

“I’m not saying the film is a documentary of everything that happened, but it’s being misread,” he said. “The film shows that the guy was waterboarded, he doesn’t say anything and there’s an attack. It shows that the same detainee gives them some information, which was new to them, over a civilized lunch. And then it shows the [Jessica Chastain] character go back to the research room, and all this information is already there — from a number of detainees who are not being coerced. That is what’s in the film, if you actually look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.”

"Zero Dark Thirty" put Bigelow and Boal under a microscope even before they started shooting it, and the controversy only intensified as the release date approached.

In New York magazine, David Edelstein named it the best movie of the year and then said it “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible” for making a case for “the efficacy of torture.” Since then, it’s been called a movie Dick Cheney would love and blasted for what some say is the factually inaccurate suggestion that waterboarding led to information about the whereabouts of a key bin Laden courier.

Also read: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Adds Washington, Boston, New York Online Honors to its Awards Haul (Updated)

Still, as the movie has screened more frequently, others on the left have come to different conclusions. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast called its scenes of torture "a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of 'enhanced interrogation' … [I]t exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheny administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule."

Added Spencer Ackerman at Wired: "'Zero Dark Thirty' does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet."

The film, Boal and Bigelow say, does have an agenda — but it’s not to bolster the image of Obama, who’s only glimpsed once on a television screen. And it’s not to be an apologist for torturers, all of whom clearly pay a huge psychological cost for their actions.

“Our agenda isn’t a partisan agenda — it’s an agenda of trying to look behind the scenes at what went down,” he said. “Hopefully art or cinema can present a point of view that’s a little above the political fray, but that doesn’t mean the political narrative doesn’t try to assert itself and pull you back in.”

Bigelow and Boal have been down this road before. Particularly in the final days of the awards season in 2009-2010, when it was clear that their tiny-grossing "The Hurt Locker" was going to take down the box-office behemoth "Avatar," the two endured varied and sometimes contradictory criticisms: The film was pro-war; it was inaccurate; it was so accurate that it borrowed too liberally from a real soldier’s life. (He sued and lost.)

Said Boal:  “How could you look at 'Hurt Locker' and think that the war was a good thing, that somebody ought to be out there defusing bombs? Here we’re trying to present all the different facets of this very long, 10-year intelligence hunt. Let’s face it: The harsh interrogation program is the most controversial facet of that. But as filmmakers we’re trying to capture the complexity of the story by showing all the different tools in the toolbox, and the different ways that information was gathered.”

Originally, the idea was to make a movie about the unsuccessful attempt to locate bin Laden in late 2001 in the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Then, in May 2010, bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Though it was hard to abandon their first take, Bigelow and Boal knew that if they wanted to tell a bin Laden story, it would have to be an entirely different one.

After a couple of months of research, Boal started to find a new story. The discovery that one of the key CIA agents in the bin Laden manhunt was a young woman gave the drama an extra kick.

“I was thrilled,” said Bigelow. “And it wasn’t just the gender aspect, though that was kind of extraordinary to me to learn that there were women pivotal in this operation. But it was the opportunity to tell this story through somebody at ground level, to put the audience in the shoes of somebody like that. The story is inherently dramatic.”

Boal cultivated CIA sources and delved into the lengthy operation, and also met with government officials. With production due to begin in an election year, and the film tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall, that made it something of a political football: A number of Republicans, beginning with congressman Peter King, demanded investigations into whether the White House had shared classified information in order to get a movie that would burnish the president’s credentials before election day.

“We talked to them, but we talked to a number of people,” says Boal, who is sparing with details of his research. “But if I was going to make the movie the White House wanted, it wouldn’t be this movie. This is not a movie about the White House, it’s a movie about the workforce.”

Billionaire producer Megan Ellison put up the $45 million budget, and Sony put the film on an accelerated production schedule. All that was left was for Bigelow to cast 120 speaking roles, build 112 sets in India and Jordan, including a full-scale replica of the compound where bin Laden lived, and make a movie about a subject that was bound to inspire a number of other treatments.

“The almost contemporaneous aspect of it was unique and sort of galvanizing,” said Bigelow. “I was shooting the raid on May 1, 2012, and realizing as I stood with the crew and the cast on this dark set that it had been exactly a year since bin Laden was killed. There was something haunting about that.”

This story is excerpted from a feature story in OscarWrap magazine, the awards season publication by TheWrap