Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Jessica Chastain is nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Maya, a tenacious CIA analyst in director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Zero Dark Thirty” about tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. If Chastain does win, her Oscar might to a large extent reflect the significance of the events the movie is based on.
Chastain delivers a wonderfully intense performance but it is a portrayal sequestered in the narrow emotional bandwidth of a single-minded character whose personal life and backstory do not factor in the narrative. Maya is Company through and through. Posted to Pakistan, she labors in a cramped space with an intensity that contrasts with the relatively bloated culture of her bosses in their big offices with golf putters in hand. Maya is a laser beam. She doesn’t need cigarette breaks. She doesn’t screw; she hardly even goes out to dinner.
Her mission: Get bin Laden. She isn’t put off by torture. She isn’t a Navy Seal groupie. She treads the halls of power in Washington without awe and the streets of Pakistan without fear. She goes after results and doesn’t rest until she gets them.
Chastain’s countenance and slender frame belie a toughness and obsession in her portrayal of Maya that rival any Islamist zealot. In one telling scene, Maya, narrowly escapes a terror bombing in Pakistan, immediately fleeing with her colleague, making no attempt to look for survivors or render aid to the wounded. Maya stays on task regardless of the toll it takes on her own humanism.
When several of her colleagues are killed in a bombing, Maya is shown sitting on the floor next to her desk. Grief has knocked her down – but not out. The unfinished mission brings her back. In the wake of that attack Maya even seems to believe in her personal exceptionalism. As she resumes her efforts to track bin Laden, Maya tells her boss, “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”
Throughout the movie Bigelow uses newsreel footage of terrorist bombings to mark the passage of 10 years, creating a sad timeline of international terrorism. When a CIA chief orders his analysts, “Bring me people to kill,” those recounted bombings also serve as tacit justification for a blunt game plan.
The scenes depicting the actual op against bin Laden are quite detailed as if Bigelow was determined to give viewers a proper pay off for two hours of skulking run-up. The Navy Seals loom bionic in their night goggles and mission gear.
Clearly they are killers, as they put a businesslike bullet into the heart of downed targets. While collateral damage is a necessary evil, numerous children in bin Laden’s compound are spared. The Seals deal death dispassionately even as they avenge the slaughter of thousands of innocents.
Those scenes make clear the difference between the Seals’ motto and the terrorists’ infamous “Allahu akbar.” The latter is but a senseless war cry by some of the most inhuman mass murderers of modern times. “For God and Country” on the other hand is the heartfelt code drilled into our elite soldiers to guide them through their most trying episodes.