At a luncheon at "21" early last December, Jessica Chastain was relieved. Not because her new film Zero Dark Thirty was chosen as Best Film by the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review, but because her secret could now be known. For a year after she was slated for the lead in this thriller based on the CIA's mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden, she could tell no one about the film, as if CIA rules applied to her. While her mouth was zipped, many thought she would be playing one of the wives of a Navy SEAL. Yeah, you can be barefoot in the kitchen, she quipped about this attitude. Radiant in a light purple Elie Saab ensemble, Chastain worked the room in Ferragamo platforms, happy at last she could speak about her performance as "the girl," as the real-life operative was known to CIA higher ups.
As Dan, her co-star Jason Clarke practices torture, water boarding in several cringe worthy -- and now controversial -- scenes at the movie's start. When you mention this detail, he corrects you: "I'm an interrogator," he insists, "torture is just part of that." Clarke lauded screenwriter Mark Boal's research. Dan plays with monkeys at Abu Ghraib. The caged monkeys lend an atmosphere: a lot of zoos were raided in the war. Another true detail comes from Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette's memoir. When "Jen" or "Maya," both are fictional names for Chastain's character, cries alone at the end with no place to go, the effect is visceral: whatever the truth of this woman is, as a loner, she belongs to a larger heroic story.
Mark Boal, who wrote the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, also directed by Kathryn Bigelow, comes from journalism. The luncheon's carefully assembled guests included Bob Woodruff, wounded in Iraq when he was covering the war, along with Katie Couric and others. As a journalist Boal said his inspiration came from a hybrid genre of writing prevalent in the mid-20th century, the new journalism of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer.
After their NYFCC and NBR awards this week, Boal and Bigelow will see how far their attempt to translate non-fiction cinematically will take them through the award season.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.