UPDATE: The Senate Intelligence Committee has begun a review of the contacts between “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal and CIA officials to determine if inappropriate access to secret information was given, following the committee chairwoman’s “outrage” over the film’s scenes that imply “enhanced interrogations.” Days after the film’s December 19 release, three U.S. Senators issued a statement decrying the depiction of torture in the film as not accurate, and CIA acting director Michael Morell stated that the film “takes significant artistic license.” Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for torture documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” laid out the reported facts of the case against the film’s fiction.
On the other hand, The Atlantic writer Mark Bowden writes that No, “Zero Dark Thirty” Is Not Pro-Torture. Bowden, himself an expert on the subject (his most recent book is “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden”), argues that “torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is right to portray that fact.” Read his very thorough argument here.
While it’s to be expected that Washington politicians and even Gibney, who has reason to have an anti-torture bias, would step up to present their version of the facts, the more damaging story inside the Hollywood beltway that could hurt the film’s Oscar chances is the one Kim Masters wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. It’s fascinating to see how reporting on their on-off romantic relationship or Boal’s supposed behavior on set comes up in casual holiday cocktail conversation. This stuff can be lethal.
Sony may have gone too far with marketing this movie as a true story, purportedly real. Yes, Boal is a bonafide journalist who reported in the trenches alongside newspaper staffers and non-fiction authors. But as he said duringhis and Bigelow’s must-see interview on the Charlie Rose show, he didn’t have to lay out his sources and back up his quotes. He is writing a fictionalized account, as many Hollywood writers have done. This one is much closer to recent history, however, and therefore carries all sorts of political baggage. As Bigelow and Boal have found out the hard way.
What’s more revealing is how much this indie duo seem to threaten the status quo in Hollywood. It was one thing to award a top-notch woman director an Oscar for a small indie film that never grossed much at the box office. Now she’s playing in the big show in more ways than one. And getting slammed.
NOV. 26: As soon as Richard Corliss posted his “Zero Dark Thirty” review in Time, the trades went ahead and posted theirs (see round-up below), and movie sites soon followed suit. (The NYT ran interviews with Bigelow and Boal.) I saw the first screening of the final 2 hour and 39 minute film Sunday afternoon at a SAG screening at the Pacific Design Center. At the Q & A afterward, an exhausted Bigelow admitted that she had signed off on the final mix just four days ago.
Bigelow collaborated again with her screenwriter partner Boal from 2010 best-picture-winner “The Hurt Locker.” He effectively reported the film in real time: the opening title card reads “based on first hand accounts.” One thing that Boal discovered about the decade-long post-9/11 pursuit to track down Osama bin Laden–the journalist was focused on the CIA’s failure to do so until real events caught up with him on May 1, 2011– was that women were key players. This makes the movie groundbreaking in more ways than one. “We started getting the idea to capture history in the context of the drama of the capture at this moment of time in American life,” said Boal. “We wanted to make something that stands up to the test of time.”
Bigelow added that having the film feel real and contempory was important; the actors had to perform “in a narrow band-width not using conventional Hollywood tropes, working within the rigorous confines of history.” The title refers to military jargon for 30 minutes past midnight, as well as the exact time–12:30 AM–when the Navy SEALs first stepped into the Bin Laden compound.
The film starts by dropping young CIA agent Maya (Chastain) into the thick of the action in Pakistan as the local CIA chief (Kyle Chandler of “Argo”) and her agent colleagues (Jason Clarke of “Lawless” and Jennifer Ehle of “Contagion”) are deep into the investigation into Bin Laden’s terrorist network. They are interrogating and torturing suspects (Bigelow does not spare us here, from pain and choke collars to waterboarding), desperate for leads. Maya arrives with a reputation: “She’s a killer.” She becomes obsessed with one courier and his link to Bin Laden. When other people get distracted, she does not. When politics intervene, she won’t let anyone forget her singleminded purpose: to kill Bin Laden.
Chastain is tough, steadfast and foul-mouthed as Maya, and does little to make her charming or accessible. There’s no back story and thankfully, no love interest. She’s based on a real CIA model: what you see is what you get. In one crowd-pleasing scene when she is the only woman in a room full of suits, she calls herself a “motherfucker” in front of CIA chief Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini).
While CIA officer Mark Strong lets a room full of CIA agents have it after yet another terrorist event–the movie reminds us of the real-life cost and sacrifice brought by the war on terror–that’s nothing compared to the fury unleashed by Maya in pursuit of her cause. “I’ve learned from my predecessor that life is better when I don’t disagree with you,” says one of her bosses. These men are terrified of her. And put up with her because she’s that good. “She’s smart,” one says to Panetta. “We’re all smart,” Panetta snaps.
Chastain makes a most satisfying heroine and will earn her second Oscar nomination (“The Help” was her first). She did her homework, she told the SAG members at the screening Sunday. She had to learn the real meaning of the agency lingo, and sat down with Boal to go over every line. Chastain had already worked with Clarke on “Lawless,” and Bigelow said she admired her work in Ralph Fiennes’ Shakespeare film “Coriolanus.”
This role “required tremendous talent,” said Bigelow. “She had to be able to handle with verbal agility the comprehensive and complex dialogue.” At noon the day after Chastain took her grandmother to the Oscars, she was on a 25-hour flight to Chandahar, India to start shooting the movie that she calls her most difficult to date. “It was not hard to leave this role,” she said. “It was so intense making this movie.” Chastain said she discovered her character when a group went to tour a mosque; while the men were allowed in, Bigelow, Annapurna chief Megan Ellison and Chastain had to don full robes. “I felt invisible,” she said.
The movie is as relentless as its heroine, laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts–her cast ranges from Venezuelan (Edgar Ramirez) to Australian (Clarke and Joel Edgerton as the leader of the Navy SEAL team that raids the Bin Laden compound) to British (Stephen Dillane, Strong, Ehle)– and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. “You shoot it, you do it,” said Clarke. “You bust your ass, the long takes give vitality.”
The last section of the movie makes a satisfying finale, as real tension builds before an unseen president Barack Obama finally gives the green light to order the Navy SEALs to fulfil Maya’s mission. The irony, concluded Boal, was that “the leader of Al Qaeda was defeated by the specter he feared most: a liberated western woman.”
No question that this movie advances the careers of Chastain and Clarke and could knock Ben Affleck’s popular “Argo” down a notch–it’s that film’s more advanced and contemporary cousin, on steroids. (It may not be as successful at the box office, however. Bigelow has never been eager to please. And yet curiosity about its content may drive audiences to check it out–it brooks comparison to 1976 Oscar-winner “All the President’s Men.”)
Peter Debruge, Variety:
Wildly more ambitious than “The Hurt Locker,” yet nowhere near so tripwire-tense, this procedure-driven, decade-spanning docudrama nevertheless rivets for most of its running time by focusing on how one female CIA agent with a far-out hunch was instrumental in bringing down America’s most wanted fugitive.
By forcing partisan politics into the wings (President George W. Bush goes entirely unseen, while auds’ only glimpse of President Obama is during a 2008 campaign interview), the duo effectively give gender politics the whole stage: “Zero Dark Thirty” presents the highest-profile U.S. military success of our lifetime as the work of a single woman, “Maya,” inspired by a real CIA analyst Boal discovered during his research.
Like Bigelow herself, Maya realizes that actions — or action movies, in the director’s case — are the surest way to combat a tradition in which society doesn’t believe women to be capable of getting the job done, and “Zero Dark Thirty” follows the character through every significant step along her 10-year journey to hold bin Laden accountable for 9/11.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
As it has emerged instead, it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya’s character… Chastain carries the film in a way she’s never been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.
Richard Corliss, Time:
First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one. Like Argo — which, with all due respect to director Ben Affleck and the film’s many admirers, ZDT blows out of the water — it dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes. (And it takes fewer fictional liberties with the source material than Affleck did.) In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the “non-fiction novel” stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word “docudrama” doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.
It’s a subject perfect for Bigelow… As a bright young woman driven to bring down an al Qaeda terrorist, Maya shares aspects of Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in the Showtime series Homeland, but she lacks Carrie’s defining neuroses — or much other personal biography. What are Maya’s political beliefs? Who are her family and friends back home? Does she have a sex life? Doesn’t matter: she is her job. In a way, Maya is the CIA equivalent of Bigelow: a strong woman who has mastered a man’s game.