Americans may never recall May 1, 2011, quite the way they do Dec. 7, 1941, or Nov. 22, 1963, or, certainly, Sept. 11, 2001. But director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal will remember it, as the day their movie got very old, very fast.
"We were working on a project about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden," said the Oscar-winning Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"). "Mark was working on the screenplay, and was quite far along, and then May 1, 2011, happened. And we realized after some soul searching that it was going to be a little bit difficult to make a film about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden when the whole world knew he had been killed."
They "pivoted," she said -- rewrote and reschemed -- and now the results are ready to be unveiled: "Zero Dark Thirty" chronicles the CIA search for the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and several critics groups have already deemed it the best film of 2012. (The movie opens in Manhattan Dec. 19 and expands elsewhere in January.)
Others may regard it as something akin to "Nancy Drew and the Case of the International Terrorist": Framing the decade-long manhunt as the exorcism of one woman's obsession, the film stars Hollywood's hottest supporting actress -- Jessica Chastain ("The Help," "Tree of Life," "Lawless," "Take Shelter") -- in what is arguably her first starring role: the reality-based CIA agent Maya, whose dogged pursuit ends in the death of the world's most-wanted man.
"ZD30" (military slang for half past midnight) will undoubtedly have its champions and critics as a work of cinema, while maintaining its status as a target of political controversy. During production, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and others had claimed that the filmmakers were being improperly assisted by the CIA and the Department of Defense in order to make a pro-Obama film. But the finished film is something else: a more-than-implicit endorsement of torture as a legitimate tool of the war on terror, with the current president's stance against "enhanced interrogation" portrayed, however subtly, as a speed bump on the unpaved road to victory.
An inside point of view
During an interview in Manhattan, Bigelow and Boal addressed issues sure to trail the film like Maya trails bin Laden.
"What is obvious once you state it, but maybe not that obvious, is that the movie has a very particular point of view," said Boal, whose "Hurt Locker" screenplay won the Oscar in 2009. "It's told from the point of view of people who do this work, and that creates certain editorial judgment calls. Was it weird for people doing enhanced interrogation to all of a sudden have a political sea change? That what your last boss said was copacetic your new boss says is illegal? That's weird, hard to handle, but we're not taking a 10,000-foot view of having an agenda about it. We're taking a 3-foot view of what it would be like to be one of those people ..."
"... Where the climate is changing," Bigelow said.
"People will infer what they want," Boal continued, "but the movie isn't trying to score points on the efficacy debate at all. I could argue, if I wanted to, which I don't, that the falafel is more important."
"A key piece of information," Bigelow added, "is delivered over a plate of falafel."
That the falafel is being fed to a suspect who's been deprived of food, sleep and doesn't remember what he's already told the agents, played by Chastain and Jason Clarke, draws an indirect line back to the efficacy of enhanced interrogation. On the other hand, Bigelow maintains that the film is faithful to what actually happened. "When you're working in a kind of reported film format," she said, "there's a historical imperative that defines the narrative."
"It's a controversial subject," added Boal, who does most of the talking for the two. "And I've noticed in the past that people tend to bring controversy to material, whether it's a book or painting or a film, and find what they want to find. And there's definitely stuff in there to find, all over the place. But all I can tell you is from the bottom of my heart, the intention was to capture the intel part as best we understand it and show the totality of it."
Regarding the politics of "ZD30," Chastain said she didn't think the film "ever really discussed whether it's right or wrong."
"I think before I got the script, I was confused," she said, "because some people were saying it was helpful in interrogations, and then we saw those pictures from Abu Ghraib, and you didn't know exactly what was going on. What I found so interesting in the script is it shows the brutality of it, but also shows CIA agents later saying, 'How am I supposed to get this information when you took away the detainee program?'
"My actor's response to that is I don't want anyone to be tortured," she said, a few hours before having to get into her Catherine Soper makeup for Broadway's "The Heiress" and become a Henry James heroine. "Mark learned a lot of what's in the script from firsthand accounts. But to me, the movie still asks a lot more questions than it answers."