It may come as no great surprise that "Zero Dark Thirty," a reteaming of "The Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow with her screenwriter and partner, Mark Boal, that tracks the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, delivers the dramatic goods. Last week, it won top honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, right in time for distributor Sony to kick up its Oscar campaign. Even as that revelation has percolated weeks ahead of the movie's limited release December 19, however, the ideas at the root of "Zero Dark Thirty" remain elusive, partly because neither Bigelow or Boal will discuss them in much detail. Like the actual search for bin Laden, their creative process is privileged information.
That's not only because Boal, a journalist by training whose research for "Zero Dark Thirty" involved confidential sources from the intelligence community, avoids revealing every step of the process behind the screenplay's construction. He also can't elaborate on its implications without exacerbating a hot-button topic. "Zero Dark Thirty" deals with contentious issues that invite a wide variety of divisive political readings. The story revolves around upstart CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) learning the ropes of the interrogation process by witnessing hands-on torturing sessions with terrorist operatives in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When the United States ends its detainee program, her job gets substantially harder, leading some critics to assume the movie implies a pro-torture stance.
As a result, "Zero Dark Thirty" has drawn criticism from two different extremes: Well ahead of its release, Republicans asserted that the film was being produced during an election season to help Barack Obama clinch his victory. In January, New York Representative Peter King garnered a fair amount of press by claiming the pair had obtained classified information for the script. Now the auteurs behind "Zero Dark Thirty" must contend with accusations that their movie credits the ugly physical extremes of investigatory tactics with unearthing the initial intel necessary for finding bin Laden in 2011.
All of this is to say that "Zero Dark Thirty" invites debates that Boal and Bigelow — currently embroiled in Oscar season — would prefer to avoid. At the end of a long press day in New York last week, the bleary-eyed pair wearily sidestepped any attempt to discuss the movie in political terms. "It's the great mystery of our time," Bigelow said. "I don't think I'm alone in feeling that."
However, when asked to address the specific chronology of the film, which begins in utter darkness set to the cries of 9/11 emergency calls, she opened up. "It provides a pivot point that then anchors and informs the next 10 years," she said. "It also reminds us, as do other events in the movie, what the stakes are. That's as important for me — the stakes of every day that go by when you don't find bin Laden."
But there's a greater aspect of calculation involved in the movie's timeline, given that bin Laden was a target before 9/11. The opening minute of "Zero Dark Thirty" turns the movie into a statement of immediacy about the past decade, when bin Laden became a symbol of national fears. "For most people, it was 9/11 that brought him to the attention of people," Boal said. "The hunt started in '98, but quite frankly, the enormity of the response was because of 9/11, so it just seemed like an appropriate place to begin."
In that case, it's reasonable to consider "Zero Dark Thirty" as a definitive statement on the need for aggressive tactics to maintain the security of the country. If Boal has funneled bonafide reporting into a dramatic arc, the argument speaks for itself. That means the scene where Maya and her co-workers recoil as the president announces on national television that "America doesn't torture" should carry a certain polemical weight. Boal, however, recoiled at this assumption. "This movie doesn't have an agenda," he snapped. "You can take a political position because of a film, but to say that it's in the film — I don't know if I agree with that."
Instead, Boal characterized his script as a series of depictions. "It's a movie that you can dissect however you want, which is fair enough," he said, "but I can tell you as the author that there was no agenda here other than telling a good story and being faithful to the research." Bigelow echoed that stance. "It's not a filmmaker's position to judge," she said. "I would never do that."
Any attempt to push the duo into drawing their own conclusions about the movie — to tell us how they really feel — led to further passive-aggressive vagaries. "Hopefully, there's a political conversation over here," Boal said, gesturing with his right hand, "and a cinematic conversation over here," he added, motioning with his left. "You can bridge those conversations all day long, but they're two separate conversations in reality."
While Boal's dichotomy makes sense, "Zero Dark Thirty" manages to resurrect the sense of triumph associated with the bin Laden killing through Maya's personal connection to the journey. Even as the filmmakers sustain an ambiguous narrative, the movie presents a definitive statement on an operation driven by an unseemly mixture of anger and fear. "It's an argument that's either above, below or beside the political argument," Boal said, and then finally took a stab at interpreting his own work. "We're trying to make something that's not as temporal as the news cycle or what the Republicans are saying today," he said, "that makes larger points about — I don't know, let's say the nature of courage or dedication…" He trailed off.
"Or a glimpse inside the intelligence community," Bigelow added. "That's what I find fascinating, the great gift of the film. It's a glimpse inside a community I can only imagine most people don't know what much about."
Or, at least, a community that Boal and Bigelow now know more than most people. I asked them if former CIA head Leon Panetta, portrayed by James Gandolfini as a coarse, no-nonsense bossman, really drops the F-bomb as much Gandolfini does during crucial moments of the film ("Is he fucking there or isn't he?" Panetta demands). "Panetta is known as a guy who's pretty loose with his language," Boal said. "It's a movie, and he's loosely based on a real guy, but I hope people think we've captured him."
Boal's dominant role in enunciating the project speaks to the nature of their collaboration. Discussing this kind of minutiae was not standard for Bigelow 10 years ago, when she was still predominantly known for directing less thematically complex projects like "Point Break." She's attuned to change.
"I feel very privileged to be able to deal with these weightier themes, and that has a lot to do with my collaboration with Mark," she said. "There's a really challenging and galvanizing aspect of this material that is journalistic and timely. It's almost like making living history, but in an imagistic way."
Lest one think these guarded, meticulous responses define the couple's joint character, they presented a telling contrast later in the week, when Sony hosted a posh luncheon for the film attended by Academy members at the swanky 21 Club. While I was told, unprompted, that Bigelow would not be conducting interviews at the event, that didn't stop her from sauntering up to me at the bar with the suggestion that we do some shots. I couldn't tell if she was joking or not before a publicist whisked her away to make the rounds at various tables.
Doing his own sweep of the room, Boal passed by to say hello, fresh from an unexpectedly defensive appearance on "The Today Show" where he reiterated his "no agenda" stance in response to an unexpectedly aggressive Matt Lauer. Remarking on the challenges of being forced to answer the same thorny questions about the movie, I suggested he try writing a screenplay about a less sensitive issue — like show business.
"I should," he said, "but nobody would believe it."