The plot behind the plot of Zero Dark Thirty just gets better and better.
From the moment it premiered in 2012, the film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been criticized as pro-torture propaganda. According to its many detractors, the film embraced the discredited notion that torture by CIA interrogators made Al Qaeda members talk about the whereabouts of their leader. It subsequently was revealed that Bigelow and Boal had received an unusual amount of access to CIA officials who had a keen interest in peddling the virtues of waterboarding, and this spawned a cottage industry of investigations and articles.
Vice News has added to the spicy pile with a 5,000-word article by Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson that draws on more than 100 pages of internal CIA documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. According to the documents, at least 10 CIA officers met Bigelow and Boal at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as well as at hotels and restaurants in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. In addition, the CIA director at the time, Leon Panetta, met Bigelow at a dinner in Washington and, soon after that, shared a table with her and Boal at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. It also turns out that Boal read his script over the phone to CIA public affairs officials on four separate days in the fall of 2011.
But the biggest takeaway from these documents is that even as the CIA turned Bigelow and Boal into its willing propagandists, the filmmakers were turning the CIA into star-gazing dupes; the seduction went both ways. Bigelow and Boal emerge in these documents as excellent co-opters of the nation’s toughest spies — and it didn’t take much for them to do that.
Bigelow and Boal visited CIA headquarters (an officer recalled having to cover up classified material on one occasion), but the meetings soon moved off campus to “avoid jealousy” about who was getting “face time” with the famous duo, according to the CIA documents obtained by Vice. For instance, one CIA officer met Boal at his suite in the luxury Jefferson Hotel in Washington D.C. and dined with him at the hotel as well as at a nearby restaurant, Citronelle, where a slab of ribeye cost $39. Not long afterwards, Bigelow met that same officer in her accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown.
The seduction was bi-coastal. A CIA officer met Boal in Hollywood for a meal and then drove to a beach house in Malibu to talk with Bigelow. Boal gave the officer a bottle of Tequila and boasted it was worth “several hundred dollars” (although when someone at the CIA checked, the highest listed price was $169.99). The officer who had met Boal at the Jefferson Hotel also had dinner with him and Bigelow at the members-only Soho House in L.A. and later told investigators she had “developed a friendship” with the filmmakers. It had not been terribly expensive for Bigelow and Boal to develop these friendships, however — Bigelow had given the officer a set of what the director described as “black Tahitian pearl earrings” that, it turned out, were painted black and were so cheap they weren’t worth the cost of an appraisal.
The documents show that auditors at the CIA referred the matter to the Department of Justice for possible criminal action against Boal and Bigelow for bribing public officials. Prosecutors took no action. To date, Zero Dark Thirty has earned more than $130 million in worldwide ticket sales.
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Photo caption: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, by Rajnish Katyal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.