'Zero Dark Thirty' has bin Laden, Oscars in its sights
05:00 AM, Jan 16, 2013
LOS ANGELES Kathryn Bigelow has learned her way around a sandstorm. Next she may discover how she handles a firestorm.
Her latest film, the military tale Zero Dark Thirty, opens Wednesday not only as an early awards winner, but as Oscar’s only hopeful with something to say about contemporary politics.
Argo, the Iran hostage drama, has 1970s diplomacy covered. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln jumped a century earlier to corner the market on Civil War-era stumping.
But among movies analysts who handicap this year’s potential Oscar field, only Bigelow’s story of the 10-year-hunt for Osama bin Laden examines the nation’s post-9/11 political landscape. And Zero touches hot-button issues including waterboarding, the raid on bin Laden’s hideout and the U.S.’ ultimate mission in the Mideast.
Sill, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who teamed for 2008’s Oscar best-picture winner The Hurt Locker, are quick to compare their latest venture to that film, an outright drama, than to anything non-fiction.
“This is not a documentary,” Boal says. “It’s a dramatization,” one based on well-documented history and the CIA’s former most wanted fugitive.
Bigelow knew wading back into war sands could be problematic, given expectations among studio execs and awards voters who consider her Hollywood’s most impartial Mideast war correspondent.
And Bigelow wasn’t going to shy away from the subject matter, which began as a story of the military’s failed search for bin Laden and was rewritten after he was killed May 2, 2011, by a U.S. special forces unit during a raid on his Pakistani compound (the film is titled after military jargon for the time of night 12:30 a.m. Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s house).
While Zero doesn’t embrace a political party or specific military strategy, Bigelow says she wasn’t interested in telling a story set anywhere but the real world.
“I felt a responsibility in recognizing the sea change history had dealt us,” she says of the Sept. 11 attacks, a subject matter that has produced one film to eclipse $100 million, Michael Moore’s 2004 polemic Fahrenheit 9/11, which earned $119 million.
She and Boal say the bin Laden story had to be told, regardless of its outcome or blowback from critics.
“It’s tough and controversial and it happened,” Boal says of the manhunt. “What we tried to do is capture the complexity of the debate without being a history lesson.”
Or a party’s bugle call, Bigelow says.
“I don’t want this to be an agenda movie,” she says. “The journey and the hunt were inherently dramatic. You don’t need to deviate or trump something up. It was inherently rich in character and drama, which is what you look for in any good story.”
Movie draws criticism, controversy
Of course, most cinematic stories don’t center on the attacks of 9/11 or the search for bin Laden, which went fruitless for more than a decade. And when SEALs finally were cleared to raid bin Laden’s compound, the film posits, approval took months because of internal military bickering and bureaucracy.
Though the film isn’t out yet, critics already are firing salvos at Zero, which they say unofficially endorses waterboarding and incorrectly credits the interrogation tactic with helping discover bin Laden.
The New Yorker wrote that the film is likely “to stir up controversy” for having “strayed from real life.”
The New York Times’ Frank Bruni went further: “No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that’s what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest.” He says that the movie doesn’t “reflect many experts’ belief that torture is unnecessary, yielding as much bad information as good.”
While Bigelow and Boal emphasize the film is a drama, they says that every character in the film including Jessica Chastain’s frustrated agent Maya, the hero of the story is based on someone real, and that much of the movie is based on first-hand accounts.
Other outlets have been supporters of the film. Zero already has captured best-picture honors from the Boston and New York Online critics groups. And the American Film Institute named Zero, along with nineother movies including Lincoln, Argo and Life of Pi, as the best movies of 2012.
Bigelow says that critics of the waterboarding scene, which she called “emotionally difficult” to shoot, are ignoring other investigative tactics by the U.S. military featured in the film. “Soldiers get important information with hummus and bread,” she says.
“We did our homework,” Boal says. “There were people who were involved in the hunt that didn’t make it into the movie, too. You have to make a creative choice about what makes it into a 2-½ hour film that’s covering a span of 10 years.”
Originally, movie focused on Tora Bora
Bigelow and Boal set out to make a very different movie before bin Laden was killed, a picture about the futile search search for the al-Qaeda leader in the caves of Tora Bora in 2002.
When they got word of bin Laden’s death, “it was an emotional day,” Boal recalls.
On the one hand, they shared the nation’s relief that the world’s most-wanted criminal was dead.
On the other, six years of work had to be tossed.
“It wasn’t immediately clear what the impact of all this was going to be,” Boal says. “But we knew we had to start over. We threw out years of research.”
Boal started anew, employing some of the reporter techniques he used for Locker and as a magazine correspondent for, among others, Rolling Stone and Playboy. He met anonymous sources at gas stations, held off-the-record lunches with enlisted military and used two retired Special Ops veterans as counsel and sounding boards.
Bigelow, meanwhile, was stepping up production on a war film she wanted to eclipse Locker in scope and message. She built 112 sets in India and Jordan and cast 120 speaking parts.
Still, she didn’t want a testosterone-fueled ride like Locker, which starred Jeremy Renner as a munitions expert in Iraq.
So she anchored her story with Chastain’s agent Maya, an exasperated government official trying to goad superiors into action.
Bigelow says she doesn’t reflect on “the female perspective” of war films “because it’s the only perspective I have. But what I do think was interesting here, and hopefully something I was able to explore, was the extraordinary contribution of women in defense. Their role, their courage doesn’t get told often. I felt honored to be able to do that.”
Chastain echoes Bigelow. “By page 20 of the script, I knew I had to play Maya,” she says.
“Everyone in my generation remembers where they were when they heard bin Laden was dead,” Chastain says. “But none of us knows what it was like to be in the CIA hunting him. This story brings heroes like Maya, people who made a difference, into the light.”
How bright a light becomes clearer Wednesday and Jan. 11, when the film expands from limited release to a nationwide rollout. Early awards suggest the film could expand through Oscar season, as well.
But like Locker, Bigelow says, some films tackle issues that are beyond box office concerns.
“This was a galvanizing moment for the country,” Bigelow says. “I wanted to make a movie that put the audiences with the SEALs on the ground. No one’s done that, but that’s a story that needs to be told responsibly. Hopefully people will make up their own minds about whether we did.”