Imagine, if you can, the utterly bizarre experience of filming Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow's effort at capturing the hunt for Osama bin Laden. For almost a decade, screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow worked together on developing a story about bin Laden as a shadowy figure who was so elusive many believed he would never be found. Then came May of 2011.
In an instant, the entire movie had to change. Zero Dark Thirty now includes the massive effort of CIA agents who spent years hunting bin Laden, and the heroic tactics of the Navy SEALs who raided his compound in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
One thing it doesn't include, according to early reviews, is a glowing portrayal of the Obama administration. Instead of focusing on politics, ZDT puts the attention right where it's deserved: on the men and women who got the job done.
Bigelow has described the day when she and Boal realized the trajectory of their film had taken an unexpected -- and monumental -- turn:
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.
They switched gears to researching the intelligence hunt that led to bin Laden’s capture, moving quickly to outpace the inevitable slew of made-for-TV stories. In the process, Boal became aware of the key role CIA operative Maya played in locating bin Laden, and the film subsequently documents her steely reserve:
(Jessica) 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.
As for early whispers that Zero Dark Thirty would end up being a sort of congratulatory "Heck of a job" homage to President Obama, the film only shows him once, in a 60 Minutes clip in which he says, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture and I’m going to make sure we don’t torture." This is in stark contrast to a scene that happens earlier in the movie where intelligence operatives are shown waterboarding potential terrorists.
Putting it mildly, this is an extremely controversial subject. I wanted to try to capture the complexity of the situation, morally and psychologically. It’s not an aesthetic goal of the film to settle scores, or end the debate about torture’s efficacy – which is still ongoing, even within the community of people who advocated for it and implemented it. But it was part of the story and we needed to include it. The goal was to portray the events vividly and to make them real for the audience.
ZDT doesn't linger on the politicians' role in the operative, instead, it stays with the military and intelligence experts throughout the depiction of events.
The public knows very little about what the unsung heroes in the intelligence community go through, which is as it has to be, but here you get a rare opportunity to have a first-hand look at the men and women at the heart of one of the most covert operations in history.
I had a huge misconception about this film -- when I first heard Bigelow and Boal (the team who brought us Hurt Locker) were working on this story, I thought they chose to do so as soon as bin Laden's death was announced. It seemed rushed, and almost deliberately sensationalistic.
Now that I know how many years they worked on this movie, only to have to revamp much of it in the final hour, I feel like the tense determination effort shown onscreen will likely be a real echo of the drive Bigelow and Boal felt to make this story come to life on the big screen. I'm really looking forward to seeing the final product, which is already receiving nearly unanimous raves for the quality of the film -- and the direction it took:
What a relief someone in Hollywood is making a film about America's true heroes – our fighting men and women – and not politicians in D.C., Taking down our nation's top enemy is definitely something the CIA and the SEALS deserve massive credit for. It's about time that Hollywood did its part saying what all of us want to say: ‘Thank you!’
Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters December 19 -- are you planing to see it? What do you think of what you've heard about it so far?
Image via Sony Pictures