With her ninth film, the 61-year-old Bigelow seems to have — in her collaboration with Boal — found the subjects to match her long-held interest in violence and visceral storytelling. After films like the action flick "Point Break" and the cyber thriller "Strange Days," Bigelow is clearly now drawn to dramatizing the lives of those toiling for the U.S. on the front lines of war and terrorism.
"The opportunity to humanize an environment that works in the shadows and humanize a work force that has a very important job that is sort of opaque to the general public is exciting," says Bigelow, whose "Hurt Locker" captured the adrenaline rush of a bomb squad expert in the Iraq War.
In "Zero Dark Thirty" (the title is taken from the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, when the raid took place), obsessive tip gathering, brutal interrogations at "black sites" and high-tech geo-tracking culminate in a recreation of the raid in Abbottabad, for which a full-scale copy of bin Laden's compound was built in Jordan. Bigelow, with cinematographer Greig Fraser, outfitted cameras with night-vision goggles to mimic the experience of the SEALs.
Scenes of torture have been one of the film's biggest talking points. Though CIA detainees have been said by Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, not to have played a part in the intelligence gathering that led to killing bin Laden, a detainee is shown in the film to help lead to identifying bin Laden's courier. When Obama shuts down the detainee program, CIA officers complain in the film about intelligence drying up. Some, like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, have claimed the film is thus pro-torture.
The filmmakers hope the movie is seen as being straightforward and sans agenda — an analytical history that asks the audience "to lean into their own conclusions," says Bigelow. The intended perspective, she says with relish, is: "On the ground, in the center of that hunt."
"What better place to be?" says Bigelow. "It's where I wanted to be. I wanted to put the audience right in the middle of it and keep it as subjective and immediate and visceral and primal as I possibly could."
Clarke, an Australian actor, is gaining acclaim for his physical performance as a CIA officer carrying out the interrogations amid the oft-repeated directive to "protect the homeland." He menaces to a battered, pulpy detainee: "This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over."
While various accounts have suggested a handful of particularly key CIA officers — including a female officer — tracked down bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" focuses on one, named Maya in the movie and played by Chastain. Many moviegoers will come out of the film wondering if that unknown female agent played as large of a role as "Zero Dark Thirty" suggests. The actress believes Maya is "100 percent accurate," though Boal tempers that, saying, "it's a movie."
"There's a narrative imperative once you start to focus on an individual, that you see everything through that individual's eyes," he says. "It's not untruthful. But there were a lot of people that contributed to this and there were a lot of other women, for example, that contributed to this who are represented in truncated fashion."
The film doesn't pertain to have all the answers, just some of the facts. It ends not with flag-waving but with a question. The conversation started by "Zero Dark Thirty," it would seem, has only just begun.
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