Bigelow, Chastain get real in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Oscar can be fickle. At a ceremony in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to take home the Academy Award for Best Director, for 2008’s “The Hurt Locker.” However, she was not nominated for the prize for this year’s Oscars, which will be handed out next week in California.

The film she directed, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is nominated, but has faced some troubles with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has been reported that various academy members have been urging people to vote against the movie.

The 61-year-old director has declined to elaborate on why she thinks she wasn’t nominated for helming arguably the year’s most influential film. “Zero Dark Thirty” is about the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011. It stars actress Jessica Chastain as Maya, a fiercely obsessed CIA operative tracking down bin Laden. Chastain, 35, has been nominated for best actress at the upcoming Oscars.

When it comes to the apparent snub for Bigelow, Chastain points out that the director is not necessarily in bad company.

“Look at the other movies where the directors aren’t up for the award,” she tells The Japan Times. “Ten movies are nominated, but (only) five directors. The guys who directed ‘Argo’ and ‘Les Miserables’ aren’t nominated either. (Bigelow) won the award for her last movie, that may be the deciding factor.”

The alleged campaign against “Zero Dark Thirty” refers to its explicit and matter-of-fact torture scenes, specifically of waterboarding. Those scenes have generated international controversy, debate and even a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. Neither Bigelow nor Chastain will comment on the idea that torture is hurting the film’s shot at an Oscar.

The scenes are hard to take for many viewers and Chastain’s character, Maya, is at first shocked by the process. However, she soon becomes used to it. Chastain doesn’t feel, though, that her character’s acceptance of the process means the audience will come to accept so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Nor does she feel that it means the movie endorses the efficacy of torture.

“I don’t think if I was watching it for the first time I’d get used to it,” Chastain says. “I’d think it’s awful. The question does arise for the viewer, about the use of such extremes and whether they work — that, I can’t answer.

“You do have to keep in mind that you’re dealing with the terrorists behind 9/11. So do you fight fire with fire? Maybe that’s a better question. Maybe the answer’s really one for philosophers. Still, in the practical world it’s the politicians who answer it for us.”

Liberal Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has, unexpectedly to many, come to Bigelow’s defense in stating that “Zero Dark Thirty” does not endorse torture. He mentions that the hunt for bin Laden took 10 years — eight of which were under the administration of President George W. Bush, who secretly sanctioned torture; and two years under the administration of President Barack Obama, who he says instead used detective work that led to bin Laden’s execution.

Chastain agrees with Moore in that filmmakers have the right to depict that which makes a story realistic.

“Depicting something is not the same as endorsing it,” she says. “Kathryn is not a proviolence individual and neither am I. This is an important and quite realistic story, despite it being fiction based on truth. It’s not a documentary. People should not look to it for a factual history of what went on.

“But it isn’t irresponsible or partial. It’s obviously controversial, because most American audiences don’t want to think their government uses torture, let alone routinely. And on the other side, or sides, non-American audiences don’t like the idea of another country using excessive force.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s position on torture has changed in that it is less frequently denied (in contrast to the country’s official position). Even during the Vietnam War the U.S. never admitted to indulging in torture. Bigelow points out that: “Some of the leftwing British press have taken exception to certain scenes, in a perhaps understandable reaction against what they perceive as U.S. chauvinism or imperialism. But I imagine in more neutral markets … like Japan, which unlike China doesn’t have a political agenda, this will be seen more as a suspense film that relates to recent history or news but is less affecting to them on a personal level.”

Since Bigelow won’t comment on the controversial matter, how does Chastain react to Senate charges that the waterboarding scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” are “grossly inaccurate”?

“I’m not in a position to verify anything. I know that the project and the evolving screenplay involved a ton of research,” she says. “Kathryn and Mark (Boal, coproducers of the film) like to make things realistic — I mean, look at ‘The Hurt Locker’ — and they did talk to a lot of people in the know.”

Chastain sums up the argument by stating that the filmmaker has an obligation to the audience.

“Nobody in their right mind is for torture,” she says. “But nobody, and especially filmmakers, can be for censorship. If a story links to reality, then the truth of realism has to be there.”

With all the talk about torture, it’s too easy to forget that Chastain herself has quite a gentle personality. Her mother is a vegan chef, and the actress herself is a vegan who does “not wish to contribute to the world’s cruelty … I don’t want to torture anything.”

However Chastain was able to suppress this part of her to become the singularly focused Maya.

“Acting is to some degree a mystery,” she says. “It’s not a science. It can be an art, but it’s so human … you have to dig inside yourself to find the attitude and the moods. It can take time and it can take several takes, but other times, the magic happens spontaneously and temporarily you inhabit that character.

“Of course a healthy actor sheds the character by day’s end. I wouldn’t want to take Maya home with me! I doubt she wanted to take her obsession home with her, but that was her job, and it was apparently 24/7. Acting is my job, and it’s done on a set or location.”

The actress is a native Californian, like Bigelow, and became a breakout star in 2011 after appearing in a slew of pictures including “The Help” for which she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Recently starring on Broadway in the perennial classic, “The Heiress,” she’ll soon be seen in “Mama,” a psychological horror film, and in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a sort of two-movies-in-one, from her and his points of view.

“Some people have said, ‘How can you follow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) with a horror movie?’ I feel it’s not the subject, necessarily, it’s how it’s done. That depends on the conception and vision of the screenwriter and director.”

Bigelow is a woman with a strong vision. According to actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred in Bigelow’s 1989 film “Blue Steel,” most of her films are: “Ones you’d have expected a man to direct. When I worked with her, I marveled at her command of the rather male-oriented material. Also at the fact that she was better-looking than the leading lady!”

Bigelow has stated that she isn’t interested in challenging gender roles or making cinema less sexist. Yet by starring a woman in “Zero Dark Thirty,” she delivers — via screenwriter Mark Boal — one of the most memorable female action characters of the silver screen.

The director and producer — who has also been a screenwriter, a model, an actress, a painter and an art teacher — isn’t a stranger to controversy either.

“Success amplifies the magnifying glass that’s applied to movies rooted in real life,” Bigelow says. “More so with political themes, although this wasn’t intended as a political movie. I think it encourages debate and people to read up on the subject afterward. When you think about it, citizens of any given country have minimal input into their government’s foreign policy. An informed electorate is important, and government ought to be more transparent.”

As for the film’s nearly three-hour running time, a few critics have said filmgoers should skip the first two hours and show up for the riveting third. Bigelow, though, adds that “the story gains momentum as the hunt intensifies.”

Chastain notes that audiences are subject to what history presents them with.

“These awful things are a part of life,” she says. “Not just today, look all through history. Kathryn and Mark don’t hide their heads in the sand; they’ve put a mirror up to what’s happened.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. Turn to today’s Film Page to read a review of the film by Giovanni Fazio.