Jessica Chastain as Maya in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
Move over Katniss, Black Widow and Snow White -- here comes Maya.
In the Golden Globe-nominated "Zero Dark Thirty," Best Actress contender Jessica Chastain plays a new kind of heroine, one that rarely raises her voice and when she does, it's a roar. But she's not some cartoon action figure, and she never throws a single punch or shoots an arrow.
Maya makes her entrance in a no-nonsense neutral suit -- hold the stiletto heels. Her new boss, played by "Friday Night Lights" coach Kyle Chandler, immediately announces to his staff: "Washington says she's a killer." So true -- and yet she's unlike the typical macho gun-in-hand, karate-chop-to-gut Hollywood fighter. The steely CIA agent drives the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. The thriller slithers from Pakistan to Afghanistan to the USA, from 9/11 through multiple acts of torture and spy-versus-spy tradecraft to the final raid by the Navy SEALs that shut down the al Qaida chief permanently in 2011.
As part of Maya's espionage education in the field, she enters torture rooms but refuses to cover her face with a ski mask. While she might flinch initially at the sight of a brutalized prisoner, she ultimately "mans up" in the course of pursuing any information she can get on the courier she believes will lead her to bin Laden. As time goes by, Maya goes from observer to instigator. In one tense scene, Maya leads the interrogation and uses a big beefy American guy to throw the punches -- but, make no mistake, it's as if this petite firebrand was inflicting the violence herself.
Along the way, Maya survives a deadly bombing at a Marriott hotel and a close-range assassination attempt. She also faces resistance inside the agency, a group that tends to make decisions by committee. In contrast, she's a spy who goes by strong intel, trusts her gut and gets results. Maya remains single-minded and determined regarding the epic manhunt for bin Laden. It's her self-confidence at every step of the way that makes her stand out: confidence -- but not cockiness.
Chastain's character isn't softened in any way. She's not "humanized" with a romantic relationship. (When asked by a female co-worker if she's doing it with another agent, Maya sets her straight: "I'm not that girl that f***s. It's unbecoming.") Maya acts tough not because she has a chip on her shoulder, or Daddy issues, but because she's the chief crusader on a mission, and that mission is to eradicate bin Laden. It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it. Because of that, Maya represents a modern, real-world adult extension of Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games." And she doesn't need a love triangle to make her sympathetic because she's not asking for the audience's sympathy.
On the Oscar front, with both Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations under her belt, Chastain challenges Lawrence for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Chastain has many things going for her besides her obvious talent and ability to play many different types of roles, and to disappear despite her ginger hair. She has awards money in the bank given her nomination last year for "The Help" and her string of strong performances in "Lawless," "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and "The Debt."
In addition, in some ways Chastain's Maya is a stand-in, or alter-ego, for Director Kathryn Bigelow. The filmmaker has made her way in a man's world to become the first woman to pick up the Best Director Oscar in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker." Bigelow has shown a sense of conviction, purpose and single-mindedness in the 30 years that she's been making feature films. That spirit and will-power, not to mention talent, is echoed in the character of Maya. Competence is a given. Maya's a looker (so is Bigelow), but she owns her beauty without exploiting it like some cheap femme fatale. Spy-craft, like moviemaking, is a predominantly male sport. It's a game a woman has to play particularly well, especially if she wants to be driving the train, as Maya does in the hunt for Bin Laden -- and Bigelow does behind the camera.
"Zero Dark Thirty" opens in limited release on December 19, and nationwide on January 11.
[Related: See the full list of Golden Globe nominees]
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