It would be misleading to compare director Kathryn Bigelow to CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), the central character in her new movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.” But it’s tempting to do it anyway. Both work in a world dominated by men. Both are extremely focused. And both are fierce.
“I don’t know how to characterize myself,” Bigelow, 61, said about the commonalities between her and Maya, who is based on a real agent. “But I think what’s so fascinating about the screenplay is that it’s about a character who defines herself through her actions, her dedication, her commitment and her courage.”
Search for bin Laden
“Zero Dark Thirty,” military speak for 12:30 a.m., covers the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden, culminating in an almost real-time re-enactment of the raid by Navy SEALs on his lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Most of the story is told through Maya’s eyes as she follows leads developed by the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, electronic eavesdropping and, finally, good old-fashioned boots on the ground.
Along the way, she evolves from civilian to warrior, butting heads with colleagues and superiors, her mission to find bin Laden becoming less like a job and more like a mania. She has no friends, family or love interest. The audience is never told why she is the way she is, but that is very much in keeping with the movie itself, which moves like a procedural.
The screenplay, by journalist Mark Boal, is based on his reporting of the raid and the events leading up to it. But originally the film was going to be about not finding bin Laden, specifically, his escape from American forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in 2001. Boal was more than halfway through the script and Bigelow was scouting locations when bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Suddenly, their movie required major surgery, so they abandoned it altogether and made a very different film.
In what must be a record for a project as logistically challenging as this one, it took only six months to rewrite the script, assemble the cast (Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini) and painstakingly re-create the bin Laden compound, which had to be built to withstand the rotor wash of the Black Hawk helicopters that would descend on it during filming.
“It kind of permeated everything about the film,” Bigelow said of this sprint. “There was a kind of contemporaneous aspect to it. The story was being reported and the story was being filmed almost concurrently, with a certain degree of momentum and urgency. It felt like a very timely piece.”
Obviously, given the setting and documentary-like attention to detail, the film bears more than a family resemblance to “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow and Boal’s Oscar-winning 2009 film about a Baghdad bomb-disposal unit. Bigelow seems to enjoy investigating human behavior under extreme conditions.
But the scope of this film is broader, involving not just one man or group but the intelligence community and political class to which it must report. In fact, the production came into conflict with those worlds even before cameras rolled, when it was alleged that Boal was given classified information by the Obama administration in an effort to present the president in a flattering light before the election.
“The film was mischaracterized, and there was a lot of sloppy reporting,” Boal said. “We didn’t take anyone’s talking points and turn them into a movie. As far as the access, I didn’t do anything differently from what I’ve been doing since I was 20. You knock on as many doors as you can.”
Bigelow said the material was inherently dramatic, which made it easier than it otherwise might have been to shape for the screen. But there are a lot of people, including some who haven’t seen the movie, who wish the filmmakers had done more than just shape it. Meaning they should have editorialized about the CIA’s use of torture to extract information.
There are no scenes in which agents argue with one another about the morality, efficacy or legality of waterboarding, beating and humiliating prisoners, all of which is shown in the movie. Either Boal the journalist determined that such discussions never took place or Boal the screenwriter decided they didn’t belong in the story. According to Bigelow, it’s both.
“It’s so interesting,” Bigelow said, allowing that she doesn’t understand why people don’t get it. “They used to ask me about ‘Hurt Locker,’ ‘What are the politics of those soldiers?’ And my response then, and would be now, is when you’re down range bending over a series of wires, you have a bomb suit on, it’s probably 120 degrees inside your helmet, your IQ is dropping and you have only 45 seconds to be on the ground because someone will call in your coordinates and there’ll be a sniper on you, you’re not saying to your buddy, ‘Who are you going to vote for in November?’ In other words, you’re doing your job.”
Doing the job
When making her argument, Bigelow doesn’t raise her voice or otherwise alter her cool and low-key delivery. Tall, almost willowy, with a face far more youthful than her age, the California native is not an outwardly imposing person, but you get the message when she sends it. It’s another trait she has in common with Maya, who doesn’t look like the stereotypical idea of a hard-boiled agent. With flaming red hair, she’s striking, but because she’s such a cipher and a pit bull, her looks come off as beside the point.
Asked if she cast Chastain with these warring effects in mind, Bigelow implies that the real Maya had similar qualities, but she won’t come out and say so.
“We’re going to protect our sources,” she said. “These are civil servants who are working in the intelligence community, so that’s all I can say.”
What she will say is that she learned everything she could about those 10 years in the Middle East and the events preceding them, down to the number of wives bin Laden had and the fact that women like Maya played such an important role in tracking him down. She said she was surprised by that — and surprised that she was surprised by that. After all, she is the first woman ever to win an Oscar for directing, which she accomplished by applying her considerable skills to something more than just blowing things up. Same with “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“I think what’s so significant about the movie for me is that it’s a glimpse into the psychology of the intelligence community and what it takes to make those kinds of sacrifices, put yourself day in and day out in dangerous situations and dedicate your life almost exclusively to make our lives safe,” Bigelow said. “There’s no attitude. There’s no agenda. That’s the story.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” (R) opens Friday in the Houston area.
John Clark is a freelance writer.