Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
How in the world does Kathryn Bigelow not get a Best Director Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty? Just how? The Academy members are already eating humble pie for ignoring Ben Affleck, who has been scooping up all the Best Director trophies for Argo. But Bigelow’s going to be their hurt locker.
She’s the motherf***** who’s made the film of the year. Just like her on-screen counterpart, Jessica Chastain’s CIA officer Maya is “the motherf***** that found the place” where Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Maybe the Academy members didn’t believe that Bigelow’s the maker of the year like most of Maya’s CIA colleagues didn’t believe that her lead — a courier named Abu Ahmed — could get them their big daddy. Yet they nominated Zero Dark Thirty in the Best Film category just like Washington DC never gave up on Maya’s gut or guts.
While on the face of it, Bigelow’s follow-up to the multiple-Oscar-winning Hurt Locker is “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man”, actually it’s a very personal film. It’s an exhaustive and exhausting procedural as seen and felt and engineered by one woman — Maya.
When we first see her in the interrogation cell, she’s almost apologetic to be there. When the tortured terrorist asks for mercy, she says almost like a school girl: “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Maybe because she was plucked out of the campus and put straight on Mission Osama. A decade later when the CIA director asks her what else she has done for the agency, Maya says: “Nothing. Nothing else.”
But by then you can see the history of the case on her face and a curious mix of fatigue and fire in her eyes. Jessica Chastain, that fantastic actress from The Tree of Life, makes Maya the kind of silent movie hero who ushers you inside her head and plays you from her heart. So before you actually realise it, a global war against terrorism has quietly been overturned into a personal vendetta for a woman “who has no friends”.
The Best Actress category at the Oscars this year is so wide that it’s difficult to call but is there a performance more knowing and more nuanced than Chastain’s from Zero Dark Thirty? Unlikely. It’s not a showy performance — the kind the Academy loves — barring a stray shout here and a sudden outburst there. But every twitch of every muscle on Maya’s face interprets the images we see and the sounds we hear.
That brings us to the original screenplay by former journalist Mark Boal, the same guy who wrote and won the Oscar for Hurt Locker. “Based on first-hand accounts of true incidents”, he stitches together a seminal story of the post-9/11 American mindset and tosses questions of morality and humanity through their actions. It’s not just about the horrors associated with the waterboarding and the dog-collar torturing, it’s about the internal decay of the officers in the face of desperation.
Bigelow directs Boal’s screenplay with ferocity and fearlessness, punctuating the otherwise chatty office procedural with scenes of shock and awe. Using very little background music, she builds up the big set-pieces with a sinister silence and calm that will have you palpitating in the aisles. And even though you know how it will all end, the climax is chillingly claustrophobic; easily one of the best last half-hours in film history .
In their whole internal debate of whether it is pro-torture or pro-Obama, anti-American or strictly political, the Academy hasn’t showered enough love on the Bigelow show. And they may play even safer by not picking winners from the film in those five categories. But be assured this is one of the best Hollywood films you’ll see at the theatres this Oscar season. One where you wouldn’t have to wear the big glasses; rather they would, as the clock strikes zero dark thirty.
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