Jessica Chastain: Here comes Maya, the Killer

Jessica Chastain: Here comes Maya, the Killer

Jessica Chastain is tough as nails as a CIA agent on the search for Osama bin Laden.

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.

Related Link: View the Full Production Notes for Zero Dark Thirty