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."