Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

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‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Forgets What Makes Tom Clancy’s Hero Stand Out

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit movie poster

While watching “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it didn’t take long to realize like the CIA analyst hero of the late Tom Clancy’s novels has been rebooted one too many times. After being portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Jack Ryan got his clock turned backwards when Ben Affleck played him in “The Sum of All Fears.” I have no problem admitting I liked that film, but casting a younger actor as Ryan ended up screwing with the franchise’s equilibrium. Things were going smoothly beforehand, so why throw a younger actor, any young actor, into this role and take the audience back in time? Why not bring Baldwin back? When is all said and done, Baldwin is still the best actor to inhabit this character.

Well, now we have Pine taking over the role of the brilliant Jack Ryan, and this time the franchise goes right back to the beginning of Ryan’s career. What results is by no means a bad movie as it is well made, features a number of strong performances and some exciting action scenes. Regardless, there’s a feeling of emptiness at this film’s core. The problem it’s not much different from the many spy movies I have seen over the years and, as a result, feels largely forgettable.

For those who remember Fred Dalton Thompson’s character of Rear Admiral Joshua Painter from “The Hunt for Red October,” he gave a speech in which he talked about how Ryan was severely injured in a helicopter crash back in the 70’s and spent the following year learning to walk again. This is the Ryan we meet here when this film begins as he is compelled to enlist in the military after the events of September 11, 2001. From there, we watch him recovering from a helicopter crash, and he recuperates over time with the help of Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the woman we know will eventually become his wife.

During his lengthy recovery, Ryan is paid a visit by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who recruits him to work for the agency. We then move forward ten years later to when Ryan is working on Wall Street as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage, but this job is of course a cover for his real work as a covert CIA analyst as he keeps an eye out for financial transactions which are suspect and may indicate terrorist activity. Upon discovering trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have gone missing, the trail of criminality leads him to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Ryan travels to Russia and, from there, things go bang, bang, bang like you would expect.

I think one of the big mistakes made with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was that the filmmakers decided not to base it on any of Clancy’s novels. I know Clancy was always highly critical of the way Hollywood treated his books and I’m pretty sure he would have had many things to say about this installment had he lived to see it. At the same time, his stories were always intricate and fascinating, and the screenplay here by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is both confusing and hard in comparison. As a result, it feels a surprisingly lightweight compared to the complex stories Clancy came up with.

In addition to playing Jack Ryan’s chief nemesis, Branagh also directed the movie and has come to show a real panache for filming exciting action scenes. There’s also a crazy car chase near the end which really did have me on the edge of my seat, and he has come a long way from directing big budget movies like “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and “Thor.” Granted, you can’t go into this expecting something on the level of his Shakespeare cinematic adaptations, but he does provide the audience with a fun time. The problem is the story of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is very routine, and it was hard to get excited about what unfolded once I made this realization.

In all fairness, Pine does make for a good Jack Ryan in the way the character was written here. As tired as I am of movie studios making all these origin movies, Pine brings the same kind of energy to this role as he did to “Star Trek” as James Kirk. While this Ryan is not as interesting here as he was in the previous films, Pine does the best that he can with a somewhat underwritten part.

One performance in particular I want to point out is Costner’s as Thomas Harper. It’s fascinating to watch him here after having seen him as the heroic young soldier in movies like “No Way Out,” and he is aging nicely into the role of the elder statesmen who imparts his wisdom and advice to newbies. Part of the fun in watching Costner here is how mysterious he makes Harper. Ryan is not sure he can trust him fully, and Costner’s constant poker face throws not only him off, but the audience as well.

But despite all the good things about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the whole package feels far too ordinary for it to work effectively. We’ve seen this kind of story before, and not much was done to elevate it above the usual fare this genre has to offer. In the process of trying to make Jack Ryan young again in the hopes of jump starting this long-running franchise, they have robbed the character of what made him unique. In this film, he’s like any other young CIA recruit who has yet to understand what he’s getting himself into, and I have seen this scenario played out far too many times before.

For me, Jack Ryan was always the accidental action hero. He has a brilliant mind and always gets to the truth of the matter because he takes the time to study the individual at the center of the story. Like John McClane, he’s not out to be the hero and is always looking to avoid life threatening situations, but he eventually steps up to the plate because no one else can, and no else knows what he knows. If they ever do make another Jack Ryan, they need to make him the analyst he’s always been and not just start from scratch with an origin story. We know all about Ryan’s past, now let’s deal with his present and future. Is this too much to ask?

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Kill the Messenger’ Pays Tribute to a Martyr for the Truth

Kill the Messenger movie poster

“The widespread use of drugs is a symptom of a sick society. The war on drugs is bullshit. Especially since the CIA is one of the biggest dealers around.”

-David Byrne in 1992

I don’t think it’s any secret our government, let alone any government in the world, was at one time or another complicit in drug dealing. It’s not like we don’t treat as if it’s no big thing, it’s just that we have gotten so used to it to where many don’t bother to acknowledge or do anything about it. But one man, Gary Webb, did not hesitate to expose the CIA for its involvement in drug smuggling back in the 1980’s, and he ended up paying the ultimate price for telling the truth.

Kill the Messenger” is one of many movies which is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events,” but it deals with a story which needs to be told. Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper not known for doing international stories until he came along. We watch as he stumbles across a story dealing with the shady origins of the crack epidemic which spread throughout the nation’s inner cities, particularly in South Central Los Angeles. His investigation into the matter led him to discover how, in order to raise money for the fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinista Government, the CIA supported the cocaine smuggling of top members of Nicaraguan Contra Rebel organizations. When Webb published his articles on this story, which later became the basis for his book “Dark Alliance,” he won a lot of praise for his work, but then the roof caved in.

It’s no surprise the CIA came down hard on Webb as they began to conduct a vicious smear campaign on him which included veiled threats against his life. But what really stunned me was how rival newspapers went after him with a vengeance as he broke the story before they ever had a chance to investigate it. The Washington Post in particular hated how Webb broke the story as they were known for being first to report stories on the United States government, and their attacks on his credibility became more about protecting their own integrity as opposed to pursuing the truth. Taking this into account, it gives the audience an idea of just how cutthroat the newspaper business can be. As for myself, it makes me wonder if there is any business on this planet which is not cutthroat.

Playing Webb in “Kill the Messenger” is Jeremy Renner, and his performance here ranks among his best. He doesn’t try to make Webb a heroic character but instead a regular, ordinary man who does the job he is hired to do, and he does it really well. Renner makes us revel in Webb’s victories and feel for him when the whole world, even his own newspaper, suddenly turns against him. Not once does the actor overplay his role, and that he is able to keep Webb so grounded here is one of the things which makes “Kill the Messenger” work as well as it does.

Rosemarie DeWitt also shines as Webb’s wife, Susan. This could have been a throwaway role with DeWitt being left with little to do other than beg her husband to stop pursuing this story, but the actress makes Susan into the conscience Gary desperately needs through the toughest of times. Like Renner, DeWitt keeps the character grounded in a reality we can all relate to as she tries to make sense of a situation spiraling out of her husband’s control.

Directing “Kill the Messenger” is Michael Cuesta who also directed the powerful “L.I.E.” which the MPAA just had to give an NC-17 rating to for the most inexplicable of reasons. Could he have gone deeper with the subject matter that inspired this movie? Perhaps, but he makes a very good case for why we should be infuriated over why people were more interested in burying Gary Webb than they were in confronting how our government knew about and participated in the drug dealing being conducted on American soil.

Is this movie historically accurate to what actually happened in real life? I don’t know and I don’t care. Most movies based on true stories take liberties with the truth for dramatic purposes, and I doubt “Kill the Messenger” is an exception to that. What matters to me is this movie tells a compelling story which keeps you involved from start to finish, and Cuesta has given us just that. For those interested in getting to the absolute truth, try reading Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and Nick Schou’s book of the same name. This movie was based on both of those books.

“Kill the Messenger” joins the company of movies like “The Insider” and “Good Night and Good Luck” which are about people who decide to tell the truth and get punished for it in varying degrees. These days it seems like there are larger numbers of people who are more interested in their own monetary gain than they are in exposing wrongdoings. Webb’s story is one which deserves to be told as it is about a man whose job was to get to the truth of things, and the fact he was dragged through the coals because of that is one of the many unnecessary reminders of how unfair life can be. But in the end, he was vindicated, and this movie stands as a strong tribute to what he accomplished.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Check out the video below where I interviewed Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt.