Political speech, its power and importance, was the primary topic of an hourlong presentation by Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester Feb. 5.
Boal wrote the screenplay for “Zero Dark Thirty,” an Oscar-nominated film that generated controversy before its worldwide release late last year for its explicit scenes depicting torture as well as its subject matter: the search for terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born mastermind behind the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and the killings of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
Boal’s appearance coincided with the Loyolan’s, the university student newspapaer, “First Amendment Week.”
At the beginning of his presentation, Boal made the distinction between films and other forms of speech. ‘“Zero Dark Thirty’ is not a documentary or a report on the 6 p.m. news,” he explained. “It’s a movie.”
The screenwriter pointed out the importance of allowing artists to have the freedoms guaranteed under the Bill of Rights to be able to express their points of view – whether popular or unpopular – in a free society.
“Art, as far as the First Amendment goes, is speech. In a democracy, political speech is essential and requires the highest protection,” said Boal, a former reporter.
Some members of Congress have alleged that the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and Boal were given access to classified information to create their movie, a charge they have both denied.
“No classified information was used in this movie,” Boal said at the LMU event.
LMU Senior Professor of Screenwriting Marilyn Beker said it was understandable that Boal “kept a lot of things to himself” about how much and what he was told by those who participated in the hunt for bin Laden.
She agrees with Boal that political speech, in art and in society, should be guarded and preserved. “Look at Russia and what happened with the rock band (Pussy Riot) last year,” she noted. “Look at what happens to artists in China (who speak out against government repression).
“Those societies are not free,” Beker continued. “We look to our artists in free societies to interpret historical events in real and compelling ways.”
State Sen. Ted Lieu believes “all speech is not equal” and considers political expression to be one of the most cherished.
“(Political speech) is different from commercial speech where a company can be sued if their product is marketed in a false or dangerous way or for misleading the public,” he noted.
The senator, who is a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, cited the antics of a recent brand of political operators as an example of expression that should be tolerated. “I think the Tea Party Express makes some absolutely outrageous statements, but it is political speech and should still be protected,” he said.
Boal, who won Academy Awards for best screenplay and best picture for the 2009 film “The Hurt Locker,” which was also directed by Bigelow, discussed the political controversy surrounding his movie and why he and the director felt the torture scenes were necessary.
“We included it because it would have been a whitewash not to,” he said, explaining that the movie revolved around the hunt for bin Laden and that the CIA had used torture in its treatment of prisoners during the Iraq War.
The screenwriter paraphrased a quote from Bigelow, who was asked about the torture scenes and if they were indicative of her feelings on enhanced interrogations.
“Depiction is not endorsement,” the director said.
Beker, who is the author of “The Screenwriter Activist: Writing Social Issue Movies” and “Ethics for Screenwriters,” concurs that it would have been wrong to leave torture on the cutting-room floor. “This was an account told to (Boal) on the process of finding bin Laden by people who were involved,” she said. “History tends to forget things that are not documented.”
Boal said he personally is against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which has become a lightening rod for both liberals and conservatives.
Those in the former category said the movie endorsed torture because of the scenes where agents from the Central Intelligence Agency performed the controversial interrogations on detainees, while several liberal actors called it an “endorsement” of torture, stating that it shows viewers that torture played a role in obtaining information that led to the capture and killing of bin Laden.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) and John McCain (R-Ariz) asked the CIA for concrete evidence that enhanced interrogation techniques helped to locate the terrorist leader.
Conservatives accused President Barack Obama’s administration of leaking classified information to the filmmakers prior to the film’s release, as well as a scheme of releasing “Zero Dark Thirty” to help the president’s reelection bid, even though it was first shown in limited release near the end of December.
“Was it morally correct? Was it wrong? I have my view. I happen to think it was dead wrong,” Boal told the audience.
Boal said secret congressional investigations could deter filmmakers and reporters from taking on and exposing controversial topics.
“As far as I know, Congress hasn’t launched a formal investigation of filmmaking since the House Un-American Activities Committee did so in the late 1940s,” he said. “I really don’t think we need a remake of that.”
The screenwriter was referring to an infamous period when the House of Representatives, led by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin, who conducted hearings in Congress in what he and his supporters claimed was an effort to root out alleged Communists and traitors from the government as well as the film industry.
During his presentation, Boal’s microphone malfunctioned several times. “That’s what happens when you mess with the CIA,” he quipped.
He returned to the theme of First Amendment protection many times during the discussion, citing several movies that challenged conventional wisdom and took on powerful subjects, and why they need to be protected from government scrutiny.
“Imagine if ‘All the President’s Men (which chronicled the Watergate scandal) had come out when (President Richard) Nixon was still in office,” he said.
Beker said movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” are bound to generate controversy due to their subject matter but government leaders should be careful when looking at a film solely through a political prism.
“By doing so, there’s a danger that definitions like ‘censorship’ can become looser,” she cautioned.
Boal said elements of good reporting and powerful filmmaking can make compelling expression.
“The real power of film is the intersection of investigation and creativity,” he said.