Kathryn Bigelow told the audience she was tired. She didn't look it. "Speaking in complete sentences is still difficult for me," the Oscar-winning filmmaker confessed yesterday in Los Angeles just minutes after screening Zero Dark Thirty, her highly anticipated follow-up to The Hurt Locker, which was completed only a few days ago after several months of postproduction and not much sleep. It was the first unveiling of a movie that's been almost as shrouded in secrecy as its subject matter: With a screenplay by Mark Boal — who also wrote Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker — the fact-based Zero Dark Thirty follows one determined CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) and her decade-long quest to find and kill Osama bin Laden. So now that the film has finally been declassified, what do you need to know?
1. If Argo and United 93 had a baby, it would be Zero Dark Thirty.
… but don't be fooled by the analogy, since this sired hybrid is hardly baby-size at an epic two hours and 37 minutes. Still, even though it opens with the sounds of tragic phone calls placed during the 9/11 attacks, ZDT hews much closer to the bare-essentials docudrama aesthetic of Argo and United 93 than it does to, say, a 9/11-inspired weepie like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Chastain's driven analyst Maya isn't the type to let anything get in the way of her hunt for bin Laden — her personal life is both nonexistent and not of interest to the filmmakers — and Bigelow takes her cues from her protagonist, forcing the actors and Chastain to find their character moments within the dense expository dialogue, not through any traditional emotional beats.
2. The film will be controversial, but not for the reason you think.
ZDT already raised political hackles when it was revealed that the Obama administration gave Bigelow and Boal access to plenty of classified material about the assassination of bin Laden; conservatives cried that Obama was helping to shepherd a film about one of his signature first-term achievements in an attempt to goose his reelection bid. That allegation should prove moot when the finished film is released since Obama is barely mentioned at all, at which point it will surely be supplanted by a new controversy about the film's explicit look at torture. In several of the film's early scenes, Chastain watches as our guys brutalize a captured foe by waterboarding and sexually humiliating him, among other punishments. However, that inhumane treatment then leads to valuable intel, so you're forced to ask: Did the ends justify the means? Bigelow and Boal were quick to note after the screening that the film doesn't comment either way on the use of torture; rather, it's included because it's part of the warts-and-all official record. "I wish that it wasn't a part of history, but it is and was," Bigelow said, admitting that the scenes were the most difficult for her to film.
3. Jessica Chastain is the best at saying the F-word.
Chastain's Maya is certain to be compared to fellow CIA officer Carrie on Homeland, but she's a lot less likely to curse than her small-screen counterpart … and that rarity really makes Maya's expertly deployed F-bombs count, y'know? Chastain uses the MPAA's least favorite word three times in Zero Dark Thirty, and each instance drew the film's biggest, bestest laughs. We won't spoil any of those fuck-studded lines except to say that two of them are almost as immediately quotable as, well, "Ar-go fuck yourself." Jessi C, we love it when you work blue.
4. All of your favorite, random people are in this cast.
Chastain is the unambiguous lead of this staggeringly large ensemble, with Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) and Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) providing the most sustained support as fellow bin Laden hunters. But the smaller roles are all filled out by the best, most random people: Chris Pratt! Mark Duplass! Torchwood's John Barrowman! Kyle Chandler! In a movie where nearly all the laughs come from Jessica Chastain cussing, there's still a steady stream of chuckles to be had from recognizing that one of the SEALS going after bin Laden is Lady Gaga's boyfriend.
5. Zero Dark Thirty is certain to be an Oscar player … but wins may be hard to come by.
Since Kathryn Bigelow's last film was a Best Picture winner, it's only natural to wonder about ZDT's Oscar odds. Its best chance will come in the Best Actress category, where Chastain is a surefire nominee (though at this point, Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence remains the front-runner). I'd lay good odds on a Best Picture nod, too, and I think Bigelow has to be considered a heavy favorite to make the final five for Best Director, especially since she won in the category for Hurt Locker. It'll be a tough squeeze, since there are plenty of former winners competing for that laurel this year (Steven Spielberg, Tom Hooper, and Ang Lee among them) and it would be an easier call if Ben Affleck weren't in the mix for the superficially similar Argo, but Bigelow is beloved, and the film's actors genuflecting at her feet at yesterday's screening proved it. Her self-deprecating crack about her inability to form complete sentences was just a feint — Bigelow is nothing if not brainy and erudite at all times — but no matter: Soon enough, the film will speak for her.