The 62-year-old Ms. Bigelow seems to have — in her collaboration with Mr. Boal — found the subjects to match her long-standing interest in violence and visceral storytelling. After films like the action flick “Point Break” and the thriller “Strange Days,” Ms. Bigelow is clearly now drawn to dramatizing the lives of those toiling for the U.S. on the front lines of war and terrorism.
“The opportunity to humanize an environment that works in the shadows and humanize a workforce that has a very important job that is sort of opaque to the general public is exciting,” said Ms. Bigelow, whose “Hurt Locker” captured the adrenaline rush of a bomb-squad expert in the Iraq War.
In “Zero Dark Thirty” (the title is taken from the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, when the raid took place), obsessive tip gathering, brutal interrogations at “black sites” and high-tech geo-tracking culminate in a re-creation of the raid in Abbottabad, for which a full-scale copy of bin Laden’s compound was built in Jordan. Ms. Bigelow, with cinematographer Greig Fraser, outfitted cameras with night-vision goggles to mimic the experience of the SEALs.
Scenes of torture in the film have already provoked controversy. Though Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said CIA detainees played no part in the intelligence gathering that led to killing bin Laden, a detainee is shown in the film to help lead to identifying bin Laden’s courier. When Mr. Obama shuts down the detainee program, CIA officers complain in the film about intelligence drying up. Some have claimed the film is thus pro-torture.
The filmmakers hope the movie is seen as being straightforward and without an agenda - an analytical history that asks the audience “to lean into their own conclusions,” said Ms. Bigelow. The intended perspective, she said with relish, is: “On the ground, in the center of that hunt.”
“What better place to be?” said Ms. Bigelow. “It’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to put the audience right in the middle of it and keep it as subjective and immediate and visceral and primal as I possibly could.”
While various accounts have suggested a handful of particularly key CIA officers — including a female officer — tracked down bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on one, named Maya in the movie and played by Miss Chastain. Many moviegoers will wonder if that unknown female agent played as large of a role as the film suggests. The actress thinks Maya is “100 percent accurate,” though Mr. Boal tempers that, saying, “It’s a movie.”
“There’s a narrative imperative once you start to focus on an individual, that you see everything through that individual’s eyes,” he said. “It’s not untruthful. But there were a lot of people that contributed to this, and there were a lot of other women, for example, that contributed to this who are represented in truncated fashion.”
The film doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, just some of the facts. It ends not with flag-waving but with a question. The conversation started by “Zero Dark Thirty,” it would seem, has only just begun.
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