Behind the Story: TIME’s Jessica Winter on Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty

TIME's Jessica Winter talks about the controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Zero Dark Thirty, and what this could mean for filmmakers looking to focus on controversial subjects

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Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty, LLC/Columbia Pictures

Director/Producer Kathryn Bigelow (left) and Writer/Producer Mark Boal on the set of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, has received acclaim and condemnation in almost equal measures since its first public screenings in December. Most critics have praised Bigelow’s skills as a filmmaker and have described the movie—which Bigelow has presented as a “reported film”—as deeply compelling. But some of those critics have also decried the film for suggesting that the CIA’s torture of prisoners produced information that directly led to the killing of bin Laden. Some senators, government officials, terrorism experts and human rights campaigners have leveled similar accusations at Bigelow and the film’s screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow’s Oscar-winning feature The Hurt Locker.

TIME’s Culture editor, Jessica Winter, interviewed Bigelow for this week’s magazine cover story (available to subscribers here). TIME spoke with Winter to get the story behind the story.

(MORE: Cover Story: Kathryn Bigelow’s Art of Darkness)

Kathryn Bigelow told you that someone going to see a movie, unlike someone who visits an art gallery, doesn’t need to have as much information beforehand for it to be accessible. But with a film that deals with such a complex, emotive and disputed history as the hunt for Osama bin Laden, does that really apply?
Zero Dark Thirty is certainly more accessible than, say, a Senate intelligence report, simply because it’s a riveting, beautifully made movie with excellent performances that’s likely playing at your local multiplex, if you’re in America. But applying critical-thinking skills to something like a docudrama requires a baseline of information and knowledge, and if you don’t have that, you’re more likely to take what you see at face value.

Most moviegoers understand that most or all films that are based on true events take all kinds of liberties—with facts, chronologies, composite characters—and I think that they’re smart enough to do their own homework. Just anecdotally, I know a lot of people who’ve been moved to read up on the facts behind Zero Dark Thirty so that they can have an informed take on the debate around the film. That said, I also think the sticking point with this particular movie is that the stakes are so high. We’re talking about torture and the American public’s view of its morality and efficacy—it doesn’t get more serious than that, and I understand why people might be uneasy with a Hollywood movie taking it on.

(PHOTOS: Real Photographer, Fake War: Jonathan Olley and Zero Dark Thirty)

You spoke with the former CIA director Michael Hayden about the film. How did he react to its portrayal of the role torture played in capturing Bin Laden?

I found both Michael Hayden and Bob McFadden, formerly of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, to be persuasive and thoughtful critics of the film, because both of them admired it on a technical level and took it on its own terms. But both of them had major issues with its portrayal of torture. Hayden specifically took issue not only with the brutality of the enhanced-interrogation techniques as they were portrayed in the film, but also with how and why the techniques were applied. In Zero Dark Thirty, a detainee is being asked questions under torture that the interrogator doesn’t know the answer to. In actuality, Hayden says, EITs themselves were about moving the detainee into what was called a “zone of cooperation,” and the interrogator would ask the real questions and get the real answers later. However, it’s possible that Boal’s reporting may have contradicted this.

(MOREWhy Zero Dark Thirty Is Not Your Usual Hollywood Fare)

How important do you think Zero Dark Thirty is for other filmmakers who may be looking to it as an example of how to, or how not to, make a film using journalistic reporting?

Arguably, it’s a cautionary tale about how to talk about a feature film that uses reporting. Bigelow has called it a “reported film,” thus a lot of observers—fairly or not—have held the movie to the standards of a piece of reporting, and no feature film can meet those standards. In terms of the filmmaking, Bigelow’s uninflected, even clinical style could be described as journalistic because it’s dispassionate and matter-of-fact. If other filmmakers are inspired by her style, it’s all for the good, because I think that kind of approach leaves the viewer a little more space to think than most Hollywood blockbusters do.

(MORE: Is Washington Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty?)

The CIA cooperated with Bigelow and Boal when the filmmakers were researching the hunt for bin Laden. Now the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the CIA may have misled the filmmakers. Boal has recently hired a former Los Angeles DUI lawyer in anticipation of his potentially being called before the committee to answer questions about these meetings. Could the government scrutiny have a chilling effect on filmmakers wanting to deal with similar subjects, as Christopher Dodd, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, has suggested?

It’s possible, and it’s certainly a fair point. No one can remember a movie attracting this kind of scrutiny in decades, and a Senate investigation could set a disturbing precedent. But I wonder if most of this is going to come down to money and acclaim. If Zero Dark Thirty can win a few Oscars and continues to do well at the box office—and the controversy is certainly doubling as a publicity campaign for the film—then one might guess that will only serve to make controversial subjects seem more appealing.

Why do you think Bigelow was omitted from the list of nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Director?

The instant assumption was that she didn’t make the cut because of the controversy around the film. But our background reporting indicates that Academy voters weren’t really thinking in those terms, and plus it doesn’t explain the other shoo-in directors who were left off the list: Tom Hooper, director of Les Misérables, and most surprisingly of all, Ben Affleck, director of Argo. Quentin Tarantino didn’t make the list for Django Unchained, either. The deciding factors may have been as simple as new voting deadlines and a very strong roster of contenders. It’s been a great year for movies—and for talking about movies.

MORE: Jessica Chastain: The Oscar-Nominated Star Talks About Playing the ‘Girl’ Who Got bin Laden