And the hits just keep on coming. After a dry first nine months of the year, the Oscar season is heating up with one sensational contender after another. In the first half of Thanksgiving weekend, Les Miserables put itself firmly in the leading tier of the race. Now Sony Pictures’ surefire Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty took over the latter half of the holiday. It earned enthusiastic standing ovations for star Jessica Chastain and director Kathryn Bigelow at a Sunday unveiling (the first major screening) at LA’s Pacific Design Center. Shrouded in controversy throughout its pre-production and shooting stages, this riveting story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden had quite a checkered history in coming to the screen. As Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal explained in the Q&A following the film, he and Bigelow had been developing for the better part of a decade the story of how bin Laden eluded capture and most likely would never be caught. Then suddenly in 2011 he was nailed. That changed the whole trajectory of their story, and Zero Dark Thirty suddenly became a movie about his ultimate capture and killing.
It’s a remarkable effort on the part of Boal and Bigelow, who won Oscars for their acclaimed The Hurt Locker three years ago. I would venture to say they will be back in the race again this year for this follow-up effort which should figure strongly in the Best Picture, Actress (for Chastain), Director, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Editing and Music Score (a haunting underscore by Alexander Desplat) categories. Talk on editorial pages and among moviegoers upon its limited December 19th opening — followed by a January wide break — will only add to the Oscar potential here, with critics groups year-end honors also likely to figure into the picture.
This is turning into a hell of an Oscar race. Strategists were hoping that many of the November-December releases would fall by the wayside and clear the way for earlier contenders like Argo and Toronto sensation Silver Linings Playbook, but clearly the late-innings flicks are delivering big time, clouding the picture and adding an unusual amount of mystery to the race.
After today’s first screening — primarily for an audience consisting of many SAG nominating committee members — Boal, Bigelow and actors Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Edgar Ramirez participated in a Q&A to talk about the extraordinary experience of making this film, which was shrouded in secrecy and controversy. There were charges that in the heat of the Presidential campaign the Obama administration was giving unprecedented cooperation since obviously a positive film about the capture of bin Laden couldn’t hurt re-election chances. The filmmakers always denied that; in fact, in the finished product unveiled today, Obama is only seen or heard one time in newsreel footage talking about how the U.S. would never tolerate inhumane means of torture in order to elicit information — even as the film’s early scenes vividly shows such uses as waterboarding and other horrific acts to get the info they desire. Not exactly a pretty picture. Other than that there is no mention of Obama and his efforts to make this happen except occasional references to the intense interest of the President as to how this operation was going to be enacted. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is never seen or mentioned.
Instead, Bigelow explained what they went through on the movie, even in the darkest moments when it looked like it wouldn’t be made. “We were working on a project on the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2001 where basically he was last seen in the Tora Bora mountain range in Afghanistan, and we were working with a group of Delta operators who were in the mountain range at the time and they lost him as he went down the back corridor into Pakistan. Mark was working on the screenplay and about 10 at night on May 1, 2011, we realized we could no longer make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden,” she said to much laughter in the audience. Boal added that he had been going around saying that they were never going to get bin Laden, so it was a very emotional personal moment that night. But they were married to the material and decided to hop on to this idea at that point and he started researching the intelligence hunt that led to bin Laden’s eventual demise.
“We started getting this idea of trying to capture the history as best we could in the context of it being drama and hopefully capture this moment in time in American life and make something that stands up to the test of time — that in maybe 10 years time somebody would say, ‘They more or less got this right’,” Boal said, adding that they knew there would be many TV quickie movies and the like and had to move fast especially since they had already paid their dues on the subject. “For the last year we have all been working really long hours to get this done and to make sure it wasn’t just a history lesson, and that’s what the actors did so amazingly is find the moments of human passion and pain within this larger historical frame.”
A key fact Boal stumbled across was that women played such a key role in the hunt for bin Laden. That led to Chastain’s lead role as the CIA operative Maya, who cracked the case as it were. Chastain is simply remarkable in the role and a certain Oscar nominee for Best Actress in playing a person who becomes obsessed over the course of several years in finding and killing bin Laden. It’s a fascinating, singular portrait of blind ambition toward a greater cause. She nails it.
For Chastain, it almost didn’t happen due to scheduling problems, but when she got the call from Bigelow she was there. Once she signed on she was all-in. “For any project you have to train. When I got cast it was impossible for me to start shooting the next day. I sat down and went through every single line and every single word because Jessica needed to understand what all the terminology would mean. So when I said it, I believe it, and if I don’t know what I am saying the audience won’t get it. It was an absolute school and we submerged ourselves into it,” she said.
Boal emphasized it is all not a documentary but hopefully closely captures the spirit of what happened and says this is first time it has been brought together. But he couldn’t reveal the CIA agents he spoke with or betray their privacy. Still he assures it is as close as anyone has come to truth of the hunt for bin Laden.
Certainly Boal and Bigelow have the 100% rousing support of Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal, who endorsed their efforts this month when she sat on the Moguls panel at Deadline’s all-day “The Contenders” event. “You know Mark is an excellent journalist and one of the things Kathryn and Mark do, and set out to do, is make living history. They don’t wait for people. They don’t wait for books or articles or anything else to tell us how to feel about an event. They don’t wait for time or interpretation. What they’re doing with this movie is delving into something that is happening, that is in our hearts right now today, and making us a part of it. It’s not that much of a political film as it is an emotional film and a film about the greatest manhunt in the world, and a film about the unsung heroes. I think it will surprise everybody when you see it, to see it’s about the decent people in this country who no one ever knows, who protect us every day, who give their lives for absolutely no money, no recognition, who are the true superheroes of our time. I think they (Boal and Bigelow) make movies about something that no one is making movies about and I am not one bit worried,” she said about the reaction to the film and the way any controversy might affect its Oscar chances.