Jessica Chastain owns Zero Dark Thirty
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ may divide viewers along political lines, but there is one thing every should agree on – this is Jessica Chastain’s movie.
The release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden flick has been surrounded by myriad storylines. It’s been highly politicized: Republicans criticized its planned release prior to the 2012 election (the date was moved), Democrats – and Senator John McCain — have chaffed at the way the film “glorifies” the torture, the Central Intelligence Agency is being investigated for potentially sharing classified information with the film’s producers … even today, as the Academy Award nominations were announced, Bigelow was criminally snubbed in the Best Director Category. Despite all of these stories, these attempts to claim the movie for one particular cause or the other, Zero Dark Thirty belongs to star Jessica Chastain.
Chastain plays Mya, the fictionalized CIA intelligence officer who first developed and followed the lead that eventually led to the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Her story is based on accounts of an officer who doggedly chased down a single lead over ten years. Audiences have been cautioned against taking Zero Dark Thirty’s telling of this story as gospel. Like any movie, it’s been fictionalized for the sake of good storytelling, but considering the topical nature, the way the story is told against the background of the real history of the 10 years between 9/11/01 and 5/1/11 and the way the story is going to resonate with US audiences, it’s going to be tough for many to distinguish fact from fiction. At the end of the day, however, I am likely to believe that there is considerably more fact in the broad strokes of the story, with only the smaller – yet important – details as the fiction.
But viewing Zero Dark Thirty separate of that specific historical context is much more rewarding than trying to figure out what was real and what was not. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted a story that presents a hypothetical history in an incredibly compelling fashion. Mya is a character that might seem familiar to fans of Showtime’s Homeland; there is a lot she shares in common with Carrie Mathison – I’d be intrigued to slip into Fringe’s alternate universe and watch Chastain and Claire Danes switch roles. I was especially pleased that Boal didn’t slip into cliché when creating Mya – there’s no motivating backstory about a family member lost in the 9/11 attacks. Most importantly because it is simply unnecessary; there’s no one mature enough to appreciate Zero Dark Thirty upon its release that the emotional loss of 9/11 doesn’t already resonate without a trite backstory. That’s not to say that Mya doesn’t grow in these 10 years, experience successes and suffer losses that further motivate her, but that’s an important part of her evolution.
If there’s anyone in the cast that threatens to take the spotlight from Chastain, it is Jason Clarke as seasoned operative and kinda-sorta-but-not-really mentor Dan (there are very few – if any – last names attributed to any of the characters and in many cases, important characters are identified in the credits simply by their title). Dan’s line from the second trailer, “I’m bad news,” immediately defines the character as someone who puts his country and mission above everything, including his morals. Clarke is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood; hopefully this performance will open the doors for him that his great work on television hasn’t yet.
While Chastain and Clarke are clearly the stars of the film – though Dan does fade away over time, so that Mya can take center stage – that’s not to say that the rest of the cast is filled with blank faces. In fact, geeks across the planet should rejoice in some of the casting in minor roles (some barely a cameo). Folks like Torchwood‘s and Arrow’s John Barrowman, Lost’s Harold Perrineau, Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt, Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane, Human Target’s Mark Valley, Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, The League’s Mark Duplass, Warrior’s Joel Edgerton and The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini all appear, several so quickly you are likely to miss them the first time you watch (I’ve probably left off a name or two, but at some point you just have to stop).
Undoubtedly, the controversy that surrounds this film will probably have more of a negative impact than a positive one, and that’s unfair. While Senator McCain might have a problem with the implication that torture was the source of the intelligence that led to bin Laden – and if there is any politician who has earned the right to say whatever he wants about torture whenever he wants, it is McCain – Zero Dark Thirty celebrates the plot point. In fact, there is very little celebration found anywhere in the narrative, a stark contrast to how most – including myself – reacted on the evening of May 1st (there is some celebrating amongst the DEVGRU operatives after the completion of their mission, but it is relatively subdued, and could easily be attributed to the type of reaction any special operation group has when the whole team returns to base safely).
Instead of letting itself be claimed by real-world politics on its release, or allowing itself to delve into the morality and effectiveness of torture or any of the other greater questions the story touches on, it simply presents this fictionalized narrative as is. There is no tag at the end of the film, reminding of us of the lives lost on 9/11, in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or those lost by our intelligence agencies in the mission of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. There is simply an image of Jessica Chastain’s Mya, representing all of those things as well as the nameless, faceless members of our government and military who labored 10 years on that mission as the shock of the event wears off, and the completed mission leaves an incredible void. That moment is as powerful as anything else the film presents, giving one last opportunity for Chastain to shine.