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'Zero Dark Thirty' Is the Best Movie of the Year, But Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow Can't Explain It

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 10, 2012 at 8:55AM

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.
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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."

'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.'

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."  

READ MORE: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Grades, Reviews And More On Criticwire

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."
 

This article is related to: Features, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Jessica Chastain, Osama Bin Laden, Matt Lauer, Leon Panetta, James Gandolfini, Point Break, Academy Awards






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