First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.
Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.
While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.
Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.