December 23, 2012

Movies: Dramatizing the ultimate 'Dark' op

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK, McClatchy Newspapers

In 2008, the screenwriter Mark Boal sought an appointment with a retired special-ops agent. Boal was researching a movie about the fruitless search for Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora six years before, and he wanted insight into how U.S. forces gathered intelligence.

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Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on the set of “Zero Dark Thirty.”


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Jessica Chastain stars in “Zero Dark Thirty” as a mid-level CIA operative in Islamabad, Pakistan.


The agent agreed to meet, but under strict conditions. Boal would be kept in the dark about where the encounter would take place until just before, when he'd be given directions, via GPS, to what turned out to be a gas station. The meeting would be brief, and there would be no guarantee of an information exchange.

"I showed up and there's this guy by the pump wearing sunglasses," Boal recalled in an interview. "And the first thing he said was, 'Give me a good reason why I should talk to you.' And I'm like, 'Well, nice to meet you too, sir.' " Boal eventually cultivated other sources, acknowledging that as a Hollywood screenwriter it isn't always easy emulating Bob Woodward.

The zigzag-y process that began at the gas station culminates in the groundbreaking "Zero Dark Thirty," Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow's searing dramatization of a different U.S. mission to target Bin Laden that ended successfully last year in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

"Zero Dark Thirty," now in theaters, likely will take its place alongside classics of war cinema such as "The Dirty Dozen," "Apocalypse Now" and "Saving Private Ryan" while simultaneously redefining the form. Few Hollywood action thrillers have contained so many documentary-style aspirations to truth and urgency -- and so quickly after an epochal event, to boot.

And never before has a stone-cold-serious American war drama featured a woman both behind the camera and at its center.

"Zero Dark Thirty," in other words, could well stand at the vanguard of a new genre: the viscerally human but post-feminist and post-political war film. 

UNFOLDING CHRONOLOGICALLY over roughly eight years, "Zero Dark" tells of Maya (a determined and increasingly weathered Jessica Chastain). The character -- Chastain says she is "100 percent a real person" -- works as a mid-level CIA operative at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. It's there that, with the help of a seasoned interrogator (Jason Clarke) operating under an ethically questionable U.S. detainee program, she gets wind of an al-Qaida courier she believes is the key to finding Bin Laden.

For its first two hours, Bigelow's movie follows Maya as she chases down leads across Central Asia, enduring institutional indifference and worse in the quest for the jihad era's white whale. For the last 35 minutes, "Zero Dark" offers us the fruits of her efforts: the prelude to, and spectacle of, the raid that has Navy SEALs striking Bin Laden's Pakistan compound at half past midnight (the coded "Zero Dark Thirty").

The movie, which was just named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, has an uncommon interest in the nitty-gritty of government intelligence (the closest screen comparison might be "Homeland," in which another lone-wolf female CIA agent is obsessed with a major terrorist figure). It marries that scut work with the neo-verite imagery of war -- night-vision grittiness and in-your-face torture scenes.

"I wanted to peel back the curtain on tactics within the intelligence community and what it would take to find a very sharp needle in a very large haystack," Bigelow said in an interview. "Then I wanted to show what would happen when they did."

Making a modern war movie isn't easy. There are the ambiguities of contemporary conflict to capture. There are the band-of-brothers cliches to avoid. There's keeping the real and the sensational in balance.

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