By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 12, 2012 at 6:26AM
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's ripped-from-the-headlines "Zero Dark Thirty" (December 19) has been wowing the critics, who are raving about best actress Oscar frontrunner Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, a tough-as-nails CIA agent who doggedly pursues Osama bin Laden. Chastain was going to star opposite Tom Cruise in "Oblivion" until the filmmakers persuaded her to do this $52 million indie instead. “I'm gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” Maya declares after one terrorist attack. "And then I'm gonna kill bin Laden." It's a chilling moment in an intense movie that holds up on second viewing. (See Bigelow and Boal on Charlie Rose.)
Chameleon Chastain, who could grow into her generation's Meryl Streep, talks about that scene in our video interview below. She took a day off from starring in Broadway's "The Heiress" to do some press along with old chum and "Lawless" and "Texas Killing Fields" co-star Jason Clarke, a rangy blue-eyed Australian who finally breaks out in this film as a wily CIA operative who is adept at extracting information. (Still to come are Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," Roland Emmerich's "White House Down" and back-to-back Terrence Malick films.)
"Zero Dark Thirty," which purports to dramatize what really happened in the decade-long search for the Al Qaeda leader, is generating controversy for presenting waterboarding as a means to extricate information vital to his capture --both actors deny that the film condones torture--as well as questions of how much access to classified materials Boal and Bigelow actually had. The filmmakers were in touch with the real CIA agent who is the basis for Chastain's character, who is still working undercover and making waves inside the CIA.
But while I applaud the movie's disjunctive cutting style and organic reported drama--which do not hew to narrative conventions--it's unclear how audiences will respond. Word is that the first Academy screening played well--but not nearly as rapturously as "Lincoln." At the premiere Monday night at Hollywood and Highland, the movie's assertive heroine seemed to play better for women than men. Sony marketers are trying to figure out how to best position the picture for a public that may be expecting a Navy SEAL adventure--an all-male TV spot is playing opposite network football-- as opposed to a brainy and deliberate CIA procedural closer to "Carlos" and "All the President's Men" than ""Act of Valor." Thus they're covering their target demos with different spots.
For her part Sony motion picture chairman Amy Pascal, who acquired the film from financeer-producer Annapurna's Megan Ellison, is gung-ho on the film, calling it "observational journalism." Sony could use a push from awards attention to boost the movie as it moves from limited holiday to January wide release to countries around the world.