The complicated relationship between "Zero Dark Thirty" and the CIA

One reporter argues that the CIA released classified information to the filmmakers

By Prachi Gupta

Published January 9, 2013 10:15PM (EST)

Although the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating the nature of the relationship between the CIA and the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty," the 2012 movie that depicts its 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings is sure they'll find something-- but claims it won't matter.

Since bin Laden was killed, many feared the Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow thriller would promote Obama as a hero, essentially becoming propaganda. This isn't how it turned out, but Hastings argues that the film "picks up where the cheers from the Obama rallies died off," saying that it instead "lets the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency play the protagonists with the true claim to Bin Laden’s scalp." He explains:

This is not a coincidence. The CIA played a key role in shaping the film’s narrative, corresponding with the filmmakers to negotiate favorable access to a movie that one CIA official described as “get[ting] behind the winning horse” of the “first and biggest” movie about the Bin Laden raid, according to internal CIA emails obtained by Judicial Watch. The White House gave its blessing as well, calling it the most “high profile” project to date, and suggesting it get more “visibility,” as one White House official wrote. When the screenwriter, Mark Boal, met with the CIA at their headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for a meeting scheduled on Friday, 9:30 AM on May 20th, only 19 days after the assassination, he was accompanied by Michael Feldman of the Glover Park Group, a Washington consulting firm specializing in “strategic communications,” according to the CIA emails. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, also visited Langley to “meet the people Mark had been talking too,” another CIA official noted.

And this relationship is presumably why the imprisonment of John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA agent who spoke out against waterboarding and released sensitive information to a reporter, is particularly interesting to Boal, who mentioned the story during his speech at Monday night's New York Film Critics Circle Awards ceremony. But Hastings remains skeptical that Boal, Bigelow or anyone in the CIA will be held as accountable as Kiriakou. He writes, "Ironically, the information Kiriakou leaked is probably as sensitive as what the CIA gave the filmmakers for 'Zero Dark Thirty'. At this stage, contrary to the filmmakers fears, it appears unlikely that they, or anyone at Sony, will get prison time for producing a movie that endorses the worst human rights abuses of the War On Terror."

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Cia Film Kathryn Bigelow Mark Boal Movies Osama Bin Laden Zero Dark Thirty