'Zero Dark Thirty' Debuts: Can It Overcome Controversy To Wow Oscar Voters?

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.

Related: Deadline Awards Watch With Pete Hammond, Episode 1

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.

  1. I intend to see this, but my god, there’s just too many movies squeezed into too short a time before the Oscars. I have to cherry pick the movies I can afford to see.

    I want to see, Killing Me Softly, which has a good rating. I want to see Zero, and maybe one more movie. And that’s it. Hollywood needs to stop this bunching movies into a month.

  2. I don’t understand. If it wasn’t for President Obama they wouldn’t have killed Osama. The day after his inauguration he said ” I want Osama bin Laden, do whatever you have to do to get him with my full support”. Why isn’t that reflected more forcibly in the film? The republicans had GIVEN UP on getting him. (Maybe because his family was a friend of the Bush’s) Why isn’t the President getting his due? I loved Hurt Locker and war films and I was waiting to see this, but knowing what I know now, I may not go.

    1. Go back and re-read your history. Mitt Romney (aka “the Republicans”) said that getting Bin Laden shouldn’t be the most important aspect of our foreign policy. And he was right. NO ONE ever “gave up” so cut the shit and start watching something other than MSNBC. Getting Bin Laden was great (thank you George Bush for initiating the operation to make it possible), but our mid-east foreign policy is a mess under President Obama. How’s that Arab spring working out?

  3. I was one of the SAG Nom Comm members at today’s screening and have to say I was actually rather disappointed and could not make a case for it to be a major awards contender. The film is undeniably well made, but I thought it really dragged for the first 90 minutes of it’s 2 hour 40 minute running time. They chose to start the story very far back in the chain of events that ultimately led to the courier who led them to Osama Bin Laden and his compound. It wasn’t until they located the compound in Pakistan that I finally stopped wriggling in my seat from boredom and got sucked in. From that point it was indeed riveting. The film could easily be 45 minutes shorter and be more effective. I have no problem with a long film, but this one was very slow going until more than halfway through. Jessica Chastain is a terrific actress and acquits herself admirably here, but she is not done any favors by Mark Boals script. Not once is she seen to have any personal life whatsoever outside of her work for the C.I.A. Does she even have a home or does she live in her C.I.A. office? Does she have a significant other? A Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, friends? Anything? It makes Ms. Chastain’s character less than humanized and harder to relate to or sympathize with. Critics seem somehow predisposed to rave about these late season awards contenders, but “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t really much more than an admittedly thrilling, crackerjack recreation of the raid that killed Bin Laden. The rest of the film left me cold and sadly, rather bored.

    1. Thank you for your insight.

      Your experience is how I felt about “The Hurt Locker”. I wonder what you thought of that film?

      I had a feeling this might become another Bigelow wave of critic hysteria over a mediocre project.

  4. Great. Five bucks says it grosses less than Hurt Locker, and Bigelow manages to insult any service members she missed with her previous film.

    1. Oh please — this movie is an obvious love letter to service men and women that borders on Hollywood-sponsored propaganda. Look at Pascal’s comments about the unsung heroes who don’t do it for the money or the recognition, when in the wake of the raid this is PRECISELY what happened. Mountains of fawning adoration in the mainstream media and at least one rich book deal and now a love letter from Hollywood in the form of a major feature film. Yet, here you are whining about the “insulted” service members….get a grip.

  5. I assume since there was Hollywood/media outrage about a video no one saw that was offensive to Muslims (some in Hollywood even calling for the maker of that video to be arrested), I’m certain they will want to shelve this movie so as to not offend Muslims and trigger violence.

    1. How is pushing a movie for Oscar contention the same as shelving it? Hollywood is obviously not trying to bury this movie, just the opposite. Also, I doubt there will be protests over this. It doesn’t have the same religious content and is therefore less useful as propaganda/incitement.

  6. I was at this screening with you( I wished Kathryn a happy early birthday that led to the audience singing “Happy Birthday” to her). Powerful flick, exquisite writing , wonderful performances. But “Life of Pi” is still my pick to win it all… that is, until I see “Les Miserables” tonight.

  7. Very much looking forward to this. But it seems bizarre that there would be no mention of Obama, given his authorization to proceed was a last-minute decision that surely would effect the arc of the story. Should certainly suit all the Right Wing deniers who populate this blog with denouncements against anything positive being said about the president, especially given it is about killing Bin Laden. They will be thrilled Obama isn’t given any credit.

  8. This whole project has the feel of being rushed to capitalize on the bin Laden assassination in a very cynical way. The trailer was underwhelming and inspired no confidence that this movie knows what it’s trying to be or even what the stakes are. A mid-level CIA operative gets to keep her job, and maybe even get a promotion? Yawn. Healing the psyche of a wounded nation? No one was holed up in their basements cowering in fear over the next bin Laden voice message — we’d forgotten all about him. A daring commando raid where SEAL teams storm a house full of women and children and meet no armed resistance whatsoever? Complete fail as an action movie.

    The CIA & Pentagon & upper-level administration officials of BOTH parties have said repeatedly, before AND after the raid, that Bin Laden had no operational capabilities and was posing no further threat to the US. He was an old man holed up playing video games. Great, glad they nailed him, glad the US people got a head on a stake but no one serious is arguing the raid & assassination made Americans any safer.

    I don’t know — anyone underestimates Bigelow at their own peril and I’m fully prepared to eat my words on this, but the trailer looked like a mishmash of “ripped from the headlines” stuff (“Oh look! They had a dog on the raid!”) and not like the filmmakers knew whose story they were trying to tell and why anyone should care. I really don’t care about watching another movie about a mid-level CIA/FBI agent who had the courage to follow her hunch and prove some old white men wrong and maybe end up with a promotion, which is the main story they were selling in the trailer.

    1. You extrapolate much from trailers which are not designed to sell story but a distinctive feeling. The point is to tantalize and leave audiences wanting more. The trailer is so well produced for NOT being the traditional three-act narrative piece you’re talking about. Instead we have an event film built around a premise. The vibe is dark, dangerous, intense and cool – which translates into more bums in seats opening day.

  9. Oh, great, another liberal Hollywood movie that tries to tear down American values like liberty and freedom. Damn you Hollywood, you will never understand the way real Americans think!

  10. Uh, yeah, so Hollywood actually made this movie, which is pretty much the polar opposite of trying to “shelve” it.

  11. I saw the Zero Dark trailer several times last week before my bond film Skyfall came on. The trailer was vague but not that teasing. But I found the comments interesting read. As a film buff,veiwer I ask myself did the trailer wanted to make me see the film? Well the teasers didn’t seem to help. Everyone knows about Operation Germino and what went down on May 1st last year. What I found interesting is that Sony moved up the release date to the limited release season: December. Anyway Zero Dark is up against some strong competition like I saw the trailer to Les Mesirables several months ago and I was impressed with it,so impress to go see it.
    I would see Zero Dark just to see how the story is told and how real names were changed. Sometime the facts can’t be exactly be captured by filmmakers examples. Bookwise I expect alot of books on Operation Gerimino for example.

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