Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow collaborated again with her screenwriter partner Boal from 2010 best-picture-winner "The Hurt Locker." He effectively reported the film in real time: the opening title card reads "based on first hand accounts." One thing that Boal discovered about the decade-long post-9/11 pursuit to track down Osama bin Laden--the journalist was focused on the CIA's failure to do so until real events caught up with him on May 1, 2011-- was that women were key players. This makes the movie groundbreaking in more ways than one. "We started getting the idea to capture history in the context of the drama of the capture at this moment of time in American life," said Boal. "We wanted to make something that stands up to the test of time."


Bigelow added that having the film feel real and contempory was important; the actors had to perform "in a narrow band-width not using conventional Hollywood tropes, working within the rigorous confines of history." The title refers to military jargon for 30 minutes past midnight, as well as the exact time--12:30 AM--when the Navy SEALs first stepped into the Bin Laden compound.

The film starts by dropping young CIA agent Maya (Chastain) into the thick of the action in Pakistan as the local CIA chief (Kyle Chandler of "Argo") and her agent colleagues (Jason Clarke of "Lawless" and Jennifer Ehle of "Contagion") are deep into the investigation into Bin Laden's terrorist network. They are interrogating and torturing suspects (Bigelow does not spare us here, from pain and choke collars to waterboarding), desperate for leads. Maya arrives with a reputation: "She's a killer." She becomes obsessed with one courier and his link to Bin Laden. When other people get distracted, she does not. When politics intervene, she won't let anyone forget her singleminded purpose: to kill Bin Laden.

Chastain is tough, steadfast and foul-mouthed as Maya, and does little to make her charming or accessible. There's no back story and thankfully, no love interest. She's based on a real CIA model: what you see is what you get. In one crowd-pleasing scene when she is the only woman in a room full of suits, she calls herself a "motherfucker" in front of CIA chief Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini).

While CIA officer Mark Strong lets a room full of CIA agents have it after yet another terrorist event--the movie reminds us of the real-life cost and sacrifice brought by the war on terror--that's nothing compared to the fury unleashed by Maya in pursuit of her cause. "I've learned from my predecessor that life is better when I don't disagree with you," says one of her bosses. These men are terrified of her. And put up with her because she's that good. "She's smart," one says to Panetta. "We're all smart," Panetta snaps.

Chastain makes a most satisfying heroine and will earn her second Oscar nomination ("The Help" was her first). She did her homework, she told the SAG members at the screening Sunday. She had to learn the real meaning of the agency lingo, and sat down with Boal to go over every line. Chastain had already worked with Clarke on "Lawless," and Bigelow said she admired her work in Ralph Fiennes' Shakespeare film "Coriolanus."

Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez
Sasha Stone Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez

This role "required tremendous talent," said Bigelow. "She had to be able to handle with verbal agility the comprehensive and complex dialogue." At noon the day after Chastain took her grandmother to the Oscars, she was on a 25-hour flight to Chandahar, India to start shooting the movie that she calls her most difficult to date. "It was not hard to leave this role," she said. "It was so intense making this movie." Chastain said she discovered her character when a group went to tour a mosque; while the men were allowed in, Bigelow, Annapurna chief Megan Ellison and Chastain had to don full robes. "I felt invisible," she said.

The movie is as relentless as its heroine, laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts--her cast ranges from Venezuelan (Edgar Ramirez) to Australian (Clarke and Joel Edgerton as the leader of the Navy SEAL team that raids the Bin Laden compound) to British (Stephen Dillane, Strong, Ehle)-- and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. "You shoot it, you do it," said Clarke. "You bust your ass, the long takes give vitality."

The last section of the movie makes a satisfying finale, as real tension builds before an unseen president Barack Obama finally gives the green light to order the Navy SEALs to fulfil Maya's mission. The irony, concluded Boal, was that "the leader of Al Qaeda was defeated by the specter he feared most: a liberated western woman."

No question that this movie advances the careers of Chastain and Clarke and could knock Ben Affleck's popular "Argo" down a notch--it's that film's more advanced and contemporary cousin, on steroids. (It may not be as successful at the box office, however. Bigelow has never been eager to please. And yet curiosity about its content may drive audiences to check it out--it brooks comparison to 1976 Oscar-winner "All the President's Men.")

Predictably, critics can't resist comparing the director to her central character.  Rotten Tomatoes link here.  "Zero Dark Thirty" opens December 19, then wider in January.  Reviews below.