Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Is Jessica Chastain the Best Actress Oscar Frontrunner for "Zero Dark Thirty"?

Before all you overzealous Jessica Chastain fans (Are there actually any out there?) start hurling rotten tomatoes in my direction, please hear me out: I like her, too. She seems like a lovely person, and she's certainly a capable actress. There's no question about that.

Though I think she was nominated for the wrong movie last year (her work in The Tree of Life was more worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination than her performance in The Help), she deserves her rapidly bulging filmography. At the very least, I'd been expecting her to become the next Amy Adams, one of Hollywood's most highly employable actresses who gets Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations just for showing up in Oscar-bait movies. But Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role two years into her breakthrough?

I'm not even sure Chastain was the right actress for the potentially grand prize-winning role, Maya, the CIA officer whose fierce determination and persistence led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. My favorite aspect of Chastain's performance was the fragility and vulnerability she gave Maya, particularly at the beginning of the movie when Maya was first exposed to the CIA's use of torture tactics to coax intel out of prisoners (she seemed so thoroughly sickened by the process, I half-expected her to quit on the spot), and once the deed was done and her emotions poured out, literally.

(BTW, I don't understand the charges that the film glorifies torture. Depicting is not glorifying, otherwise Django Unchained and pretty much every slavery-related movie since Gone with the Wind -- with the exception of Lincoln, which pretty much swept it off-screen to focus more on political process -- has glorified that abomination. Zero Dark Thirty presented the torture without graphically violent details and in a neutral enough way that I actually felt sympathetic for the first detainee, who was nicely played by Reda Kateb, and so, I suspect, did Maya.)

Chastain, though, has a harder time selling steely. The screenplay (via numerous characters) tells us that Maya is strong-willed, combative and exceedingly annoying, but I don't think Chastain really nailed these crucial qualities because they didn't come across as vividly as they should have in her performance. She gave us obsessive and hard-working, yes, but I kept wanting her to go farther with the material, make Maya unforgettable, the kind of lead character that causes a movie to suffer when she's not onscreen. She needed to own Maya, but she merely inhabited her.

Her performance ticked all the boxes -- clenched jaw when appropriate, raised voice for dramatic emphasis, tears when necessary -- but the character remained more a sketch than a distinctive woman. It certainly wasn't as specific a characterization or performance as those of the three leads in Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow's last film, The Hurt Locker, a Best Picture winner that made Bigelow the first woman to win Best Director. I felt that I knew Jennifer Ehle's supporting character better than I did Maya, despite Ehle's truncated screen time.

Perhaps the film should have given Maya more back story, or Chastain should have filled in more blanks. (At times she didn't seem to know what to do with her hands, but I couldn't figure out if it was a Chastain character trait or Maya's.) While watching, I kept wondering what a force-of-nature actress like Angelina Jolie or Laura Dern would have done with the material.

Since the movie presented Maya as the woman responsible for the capture of Osama Bin Laden (from behind the scenes, not during the actual raid on the terrorist's hideout compound), she deserves to be iconic, like Alien's Ripley, without the sequels or the action sequences. But as a character, she wasn't nearly as standout as Quvenzhané Wallis' Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook or Emmanuelle Riva's dying octogenarian in Amour, all of whom dominated their films and probably wouldn't have made nearly as much of an impression in the hands of different actresses. Though Naomi Watts' Maria Bennett in The Impossible, like Maya, was based on an actual person, the character herself left less of an impression on me than Watts' ferocity, which was a quality largely missing from Chastain's performance in Zero Dark Thirty.

Still, judging from the reaction of the Academy and most of the critics groups (she already has a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award), you'd think Jessica Chastain was the only person in the film. I certainly wasn't expecting such great, mostly unheralded performances from Ehle and Jason Clarke (two of a number of British and Aussie actors donning American accents) as well as Kyle Chandler. (I swear, the Friday Night Lights Emmy winner, who also had a supporting role in Argo, must be Best Director poison, since both of his 2012 big-screen bosses, Bigelow and Argo's Ben Affleck were snubbed by Oscar.) But several years from now, who will be talking about that badass Maya from Zero Dark Thirty?

Maybe I blinked and missed something in the performance or about the character, but it's going to take a lot more than what I saw over the course of Zero Dark Thirty's two and a half hours to convince me that a relative newcomer deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar before Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julianne Moore and Sigourney Weaver get theirs. I still predict that Watts will end up besting the competition, but I'm secretly hoping that Hushpuppy's bark is even stronger than her bite, and she ends up crushing them all.

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