NEW YORK — Kathryn Bigelow is accustomed to moving with ease, grace and confidence through what is essentially a man's world. In Hollywood, and especially in the realm of tough, action-oriented movies, she's carved out a unique directing career that features hard-edged works such as “Near Dark,” “Blue Steel,” “Point Break,” “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker” (for which she became the first woman to earn an Academy Award as best director).
Now, she has reteamed with her no-nonsense “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal (who shared that movie's best picture Oscar and earned his own statuette for best original screenplay) on the controversial thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” a fact-based procedural about the CIA's hunt for and eventual killing of 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden.
And given her own penchant for boldly breaching the barriers of male-dominated domains, Bigelow says she is especially gratified to be able to tell that story with a strong female character leading the way.
“Zero Dark Thirty” relates the dogged, painstaking pursuit of bin Laden over a grueling decade through the eyes of Maya (played with steely resolve by Jessica Chastain). She's a young American intelligence operative recruited straight out of high school and trained to be cool, analytical and totally committed to the hunt. And while Maya is a fictional composite, Bigelow said, she's closely modeled after a real-life CIA agent whose true identity is a closely guarded secret.
“I think what was fascinating and surprising to me were the women at the heart of this hunt,” Bigelow said during a press day hosted by Columbia Pictures at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “I just didn't anticipate that, and I was thrilled to find this out and then through (Boal's) reporting and dramatization in the screenplay to discover these really tenacious, dedicated, courageous women that are working on our behalf as we speak.”
Chastain, who noted that she was in New York City on 9/11 and also when news came that bin Laden was killed, likewise admitted to being surprised that women played such key roles in the story.
“When I was reading the script, every page that I turned was a shock to me, especially Maya and the role she took in it,” the actress said. “And then I got upset with myself that it was such a shock to me. Like, why would I assume a woman wouldn't be involved in this kind of research? Historically, in movies, lead characters are played by women defined by men, whether it's a love interest or they're a victim of a man, and Maya's not like that.”
Being dogged inquisitors themselves, media members fired off a series of questions probing for clues to Maya's real identity. Boal, a longtime investigative reporter whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, quickly stepped in to define the boundaries.
“One of the things just as a general life principle we're not going to do is talk about the real-life people that the film is based on,” he said, “because many of them are still working, and we take protecting their identities very seriously.
Even Chastain in preparing to play Maya wasn't privy to the agent's real identity.
“I got a lot of research from Mark,” she said. “It really helps when your screenwriter's an investigative journalist. Questions that I couldn't answer through the research I then had to use my imagination and Kathryn's imagination and Mark's to create a character that went along the lines that respected the real woman.”
Lest she be characterized as pushing some feminist agenda with the film, Bigelow said the gender of the key CIA operatives that finally nabbed bin Laden is merely an interesting footnote.
“I have to say that if the character at the center of that hunt had been a man, I would have been very happy and eager to engage in that story as well,” she said. “What was important to me was that this was a very strong character at the center of this hunt and that the movie doesn't engage necessarily in gender politics about that character.”
Details add drama
Although audiences go in knowing the outcome, Bigelow insisted that it's the minutely detailed progress of the hunt that gives the story its most compelling tug.
“Well, certainly, it doesn't lend itself to spoilers,” Bigelow said of the film's foregone climax. “I think what was so strong and what struck me so much about the screenplay was how inherently dramatic the story and that 10-year journey were. It was a very riveting, galvanizing story that gave us a real glimpse into the intelligence hunt on the ground through the eyes of the characters that Jessica and Jason (Clarke) play.
“We get a glimpse of what it would be like to hunt the world's most dangerous man — the dedication, the courage, the sacrifice and the price that they paid personally, especially some of their colleagues who did not survive. It was inherently a very dramatic piece. The fact that you knew the ending only amplified the drama.”
From early on, much controversy and debate arose from certain of the picture's most gut-wrenching and troubling scenes — those depicting the use of torture (or, euphemistically, “enhanced interrogation methods”) by American agents to extract information from terrorist suspects.
“There's no question that that methodology is controversial, but there was no debate on whether or not to include it in the movie because it's part of the history,” Bigelow said. “It was really a question of finding the right balance.”
Part of the history
Chastain admitted that those scenes were especially difficult to shoot, but she knew they were an essential part of the whole story.
“It's a part of the history of the characters, and instead of looking at it and making my own judgments on what I personally believe is right and wrong, I try to look at it in terms of the character,” she said. “(Maya) shows up in her suit to go to what she believes is going to be a normal interrogation. It becomes much more intense than she imagines.”
Boal noted that he was extremely careful not to draw a direct link between the use of torture and the final information that led to the location of bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad.
The story strives to show, he said, that the eventual location of the terrorist came through old-fashioned, day-to-day intelligence investigation.
“I understand those (torture) scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental,” Boal said, “but I think what the film does over the course of more than two hours is show the complexity of the debate and the number of different ways that information came in to the CIA.”
And as for the film's climactic scene in which the elite Navy SEAL team took down bin Laden, Bigelow said that was purposely kept largely clinical, without macho action-movie heroics and with barely a glimpse of bin Laden himself.
“Our thinking was this is about the people, the men and women on the ground in the workforce, who found this house, and then therefore, found this man,” the director said.
“Ultimately, it's not really about him as much as it's about them. They humanized that hunt and humanized that journey. It's their story.”