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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Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Hurt Locker’ Raises the Bar on Seriously Intense War Movies

The Hurt Locker movie poster

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense war movies I have ever seen. It follows an elite Army EOD bomb squad in Iraq assigned with the task of disarming IED’s, or explosive devices designed to create the most damage possible. Chris Hedges was once quoted as saying war is a drug, and this perfectly the movie we are about to witness. Every time these soldiers go out into the field, it’s either life or death, and no one has any idea how it will turn out. We get to view things from the soldier’s perspective, and the result is a film of wished it was.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a highly experienced bomb technician who takes over a bomb disposal team after its previous leader is killed in combat. Aside from William, the team is also made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are immediately taken aback by William’s seemingly reckless tactics. From the moment he steps onscreen, it is clear William finds much more excitement in this most dangerous of jobs than any human being should ever be allowed to experience. It ends up being more important for him than anything else in his life, including raising a child his girlfriend just gave birth to.

When this movie was released, it was already past the point where Bigelow should have gotten her due as one of the best action directors working in movies today, and “The Hurt Locker” may very well be her masterpiece. As I walked out of the movie theater, my nerves still jangling from this intense experience, I was just waiting for someone, anyone to say they never realized a woman could direct an action movie so effectively. It’s like I was almost daring someone to say this. For those of you who are surprised at seeing a female director pull this off, I got a few things to tell you about: “Near Dark,” a vampire-western hybrid, “Blue Steel” with Jaime Lee Curtis, “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset and directing from a script by ex-husband James Cameron, and the vastly underrated “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow directed all of these movies. She didn’t start yesterday folks!

By using four or more hand-held 16 mm cameras, Bigelow gives “The Hurt Locker” a documentary feel which makes it seem all the more real. You are down in the dirt and heat with these troops as it sears away at their bodies during their tour of duty. Their current tour lasts about a month, but when this movie is finished, it will certainly feel like a long month. Bigelow also shows the majority of the action from the soldiers POV and, like them, we are not able tell for sure whether the Iraqis staring at them from a distance are friendly or if they are terrorists waiting to push a button to set off a bomb which could very well be under our feet. She is clearly more interested in seeing how American troops survive in a land overwhelmingly hostile to their presence. Every moment these soldiers are out there is a matter of life and death, and the unpredictability of it all keeps them on their toes and at full attention 100% of the time.

The script was written by Mark Boal who also wrote the script for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” another film dealing with the Iraq war and its effect on those who fought in it. Boal also spent some time in Iraq embedded with a real military bomb squad which became the source of this screenplay. What makes this unique among other Iraq war movies is it’s, thank god, not concerned with the politics of it all. Neither Boal nor Bigelow are interested in getting into a debate over whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, but instead in getting the detail to the letter of how this army squad does its job, and they appear to have captured this line of work perfectly. There is an authenticity here we cannot and should not question in the slightest.

Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as William James, a military sergeant who seems to have gotten far past the realm of fear. The way the movie is designed, it could have tumbled into the clichés of “Top Gun” with Renner “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes”. The fact it doesn’t descend into the kind of a film you’ve seen a hundred times is a credit not only to the filmmakers, but the actors as well. Renner gives us a character who is not entirely trustworthy, but not without a soul. His character perfectly personifies what Hedges talked about when he said war is a drug. He succeeds in showing us without words what effect this war has had on him. It has given him a strong sense of being alive he has not previously experienced anywhere else. But at the same time, he soon realizes how destructive it is not only to himself, but to others around him.

Another great performance comes from Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. He is actually one step away from wearing that bomb suit William wears, but the more he comes close to human life lost so horrifically in this war, the more it brings him into full view of the things he really wants in life. What William takes for granted, Sanborn wants for himself. This could have been a role where Mackie could have easily become that drill instructor who is by the book and one dimensional. But instead, he gives us a character who is almost intimidated by what his new leader is able to accomplish as he is angered at his insubordination.

It’s amazing to see what Bigelow pulled off with “The Hurt Locker.” With a budget of only $11 million, she made a movie more intense, exciting, and thrilling than male directors could have made with multimillion budgets. The answer is not to give audiences tons of special effects with no discernable story or characters, but to give us a movie which draws us in emotionally no matter what the budget is. Perhaps if Hollywood ever bothered to realize this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many bad movies or unnecessary remakes constantly being hurled at us.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

American Sniper

American Sniper poster

I came into Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” the same way I came into Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary ‘America: Imagine the World Without Her;” wondering if it was even remotely possible to review this movie in an objective fashion. With its look at the Iraq War, many on either side of the political spectrum have been arguing on whether this biopic of Chris Kyle, who is said to be the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, is pro-war or anti-war. In the end, many are going to end up bringing their own emotional baggage to this movie whether they intend to or not.

The way I see it, Eastwood is not the slightest bit interested in making a case about whether or not we should have been at war with Iraq to begin with. Like Kathryn Bigelow did with “The Hurt Locker,” Eastwood just accepts the fact that, like it or not, we were in Iraq and he is far more interested in what this war did to the soldiers in the long run. While I wished Eastwood dug deeper into the subject matter here, “American Sniper” is the most compelling movie he has directed since “Gran Torino.”

Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle, and he more than deserved the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. Cooper disappears completely into this role which required him to lift some seriously heavy weights to appear the least bit believable as Kyle, and he fearlessly shows us the moral weight he carries after killing so many people for better and/or for worse. Cooper’s face shows the toll of what Kyle has been through to where the actor doesn’t have to tell us what Kyle is experiencing psychologically. The moments where he may be forced to shoot a child weigh hardest on us because you see that his choices on how to resolve this situation are severely limited.

While Eastwood’s portrayal of soldiers under fire in Iraq might pale in comparison to what Bigelow pulled off in “The Hurt Locker” or the brutality of basic training Stanley Kubrick made us witness in “Full Metal Jacket,” he still captures the feel and atmosphere American soldiers got caught up in while on foreign soil. Although we may think we would have reacted to similar situations differently, it’s hard to convince ourselves of this after watching “American Sniper.” I don’t know about you all, but I have never served in the military and have no idea how I would and should react if I ended up in a war situation like this. Moreover, I shudder to think what I would have done under the same circumstances Chris had to face.

Sienna Miller plays Kyle’s wife, Taya, and she ends up being stuck at home while her husband keeps going off on several tour of duties. Now in some ways Miller has a thankless role as she has little to do but wait at home and hope her husband survives the war. However, her character provides a center in Chris’ life which he eventually realizes is more valuable than anything else he has in his life. So is Miller wasted in this movie? I don’t think so unless you really want to complain about how she doesn’t have a lot to do.

I have to applaud Eastwood and Cooper for bringing attention to how many soldiers still deal with severe cases of PTSD which has left them unable to fully function in civilian life. While I wish they dug a little deeper into this issue, the fact that any movie these days is dealing with it feels like a miracle. It’s a huge issue which many who have sent many brave souls to the battlefield never take the time to fully understand, and we see this in all the cuts in programs designed to benefit veterans.

Much has been said about the kind of person Chris Kyle was, and I can’t really attest to that because I don’t have much knowledge about the man other than what I have read and seen so far. What I can say is he served as a sniper in the Iraq War, came out of it with psychological issues which needed to be addressed and eventually came around to help those who suffered as he did. His death at such a young age was tragic however which way you look at it. Regardless of how you feel about Kyle, Eastwood’s “American Sniper” pays tribute to what American soldiers had to endure during the Iraq War. At the very least, the movie serves as a reminder of why we need to thank those soldiers for defending our freedoms regardless of whether or not we agreed with the war they fought it.

Here’s hoping those soldiers still dealing with mental health issues get the attention they deserve because they do not deserve to be left out in the cold.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

Green Zone

Green Zone poster

It was the teaming of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass which made me almost completely forget that “Green Zone” was yet another movie about our war in Iraq. I find myself, as well as many, avoiding this subject at the movies because we spend our days thinking about what goes on over there and of how we want this war to be over with already. But this director and actor were major forces behind some of the most exciting action movies of the past decade with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Furthermore, the composer of the Bourne trilogy, John Powell, is on board as well to give “Green Zone” an even bigger kinetic kick.

“Green Zone” was apparently inspired by the 2006 non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but the end credits state the movie is actually a work of fiction. Still, while it is not exactly “based on a true story,” “Green Zone” still feels like one of the more logical and honest commentaries about our mess of a war in the Middle East.

Matt Damon stars as Army Chief warrant officer Roy Miller, and we see him with his unit as they investigate a warehouse believed to contain WMD’s. Turns out it doesn’t, and we quickly find this is not the first time Miller and his men have come up empty. As a result, Miller begins to doubt the intelligence reports provided to the troops from a “reliable” but anonymous source. Endlessly curious about why he and every other military officer are not finding any weapons, Miller starts his own investigation into the matter. At the same time, forces around him continue to try and contain a potentially combustible situation that may soon become impossible to control.

It’s no wonder Greengrass chose to work again with Damon on this film. Ever since “The Bourne Identity,” we have had problem accepting Damon as an action hero. What makes Damon perfect for this role is that he never descends into some clichéd portrayal of a soldier who thinks he’s all badass. Roy Miller is a down to earth kind of guy who is sincere in his quest to keep America safe from enemies foreign and domestic. Never does he try to be a hero or show off how macho he is.

You have the soldiers coming up empty, you have the CIA knowing they will come up empty, and you have special intelligence officers who know far more than they are willing to let their own military know about. Also, you have investigative reporters writing articles on Saddam having started up weapons programs again even though they have never been told who their source is. They have to take the word of an official who ends up leading them around in circles.

Now there are a lot of people calling this movie “anti-American” and “anti-war,” but I couldn’t disagree more strongly with that assessment. Many recent war movies are more respectful to the troops than some bother to realize. As for those who assume that it is appallingly “anti-American” as it shows Roy Miller going rogue, I wonder if they had that problem when Jack Bauer does the same thing on “24.”

If anything, the recent war movies have been more anti-mercenary than anything else. Be it “Green Zone,” “The Hurt Locker” or even “Rambo,” mercenaries are shown stepping all over the soldiers if they have to, and we know they get paid twice of what the average soldier makes each year. The soldiers in these films have been presented as far more prepared and patriotic in their commitment to protecting our country. If that isn’t pro-troop, I don’t know what is.

There is also a complexity to both the American and Iraqi characters throughout the film. You figure everyone would be on the same team regardless of what side they are on, but you see all the infighting tearing each side apart as they delude themselves into believing they are winning. One pivotal character in “Green Zone” is Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), an Iraqi who Miller befriends and later becomes his translator. Hollywood has often been accused of presenting Middle Eastern characters as nothing more than terrorists, but Freddy is not like that. Freddy wants to help his country and risks his own life to try to help the Americans while not necessarily welcoming them. He becomes the symbol of those Iraqis that feel wronged by their leaders and of how infuriated they are about the endless damage left in their wake. From a distance, it becomes clear both sides are confused and completely unsure of what to believe.

In some ways “Green Zone” is a criticism of American military involvement in other countries, but director Greengrass doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with that. Still, during the scene where Miller comes face to face with General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor, who gives the role a strong menacing quality), he learns the truth of why American military forces are really in Iraq. Al-Rawi is one of the bad guys, but he is also a victim of being in the position he is in. In other words, Al-Rawi is going to take a fall because the United States government wants Saddam.

When Al-Rawi asks Roy Miller if he thinks American forces can seriously change anything in Iraq, I was reminded of a scene in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” where a helicopter pilot is being held by Somalia warlords who question the military’s involvement in their country:

“Do you think if you get General Aidid, we will simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy? That the killing will stop? We know this. Without victory, there will be no peace. There will always be killing, see? This is how things are in our world.”

Throughout his career, Greengrass has never been afraid of dealing with topics which are very touchy. With “Bloody Sunday,” he captured the horrible events of January 20, 1972 when British soldiers clashed with Northern Ireland protestors fighting for their freedom. Then there was “United 93” which dealt with the events of September 11th and of how the passengers on that fateful flight were the first to deal with a post-9/11 world. With “Green Zone,” he defies those who think movies should just be an escape and not a forum for national conversation. It’s an action movie designed to be as thrilling as it is enlightening. His aim is not to show how America divided itself from the rest of the world with this invasion, but of how it created sharp and highly sensitive divisions in America itself.

In addition to Damon, there are other actors who bring their considerable acting talents to “Green Zone.” Brendan Gleeson is perfectly cast as Martin Brown, the CIA Baghdad bureau chief who has seen it all. Still, he is trying to cut through the BS hindering his efforts to control the situation in Iraq. Amy Ryan is excellent as Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Lawrie Dayne. Her character has written many articles regarding weapons programs being continued in Saddam’s regime, but we see her doubt the source given to her. Most reporters in movies these days are despicable, but Ryan makes this one empathetic as she comes to discover the truth which contradicts all she has reported. The always reliable Greg Kinnear is also well cast as Clark Poundstone, a member of Pentagon Special Intelligence who knows far more than he lets on. It’s no secret these characters are based on real people, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

“Green Zone” isn’t as viscerally exciting as the Jason Bourne movies, and it won’t go down as the definitive Iraq war movie (“The Hurt Locker” holds that distinctive honor), but it is still edge of your seat entertainment. But not to worry, Greengrass films the action in a way that doesn’t make it all that hard to tell what’s going on.

Another key scene that comes to mind is when Roy Miller goes out to investigate a lead, and Kinnear’s character ends up cutting him off. As he walks inside the CIA headquarters in Baghdad he tells Miller, “You shouldn’t have been playing on the wrong team.”

It makes me wonder, when was the last time all of us Americans were on the same team?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2010.