"I think what is most important is to treat the material as truthfully and honestly as possible. We don't learn anything by closing our eyes off to it. We learn only by the very nature of watching, seeing and looking at something that isn't handled in an exploitational way or in any manner in which it could be treated as anything other than what it is."
The remarks of filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow date not a week ago or last month though rather some seventeen years ago to an interview I conducted with her at the New York Film festival for her 1995 feature, Strange Days. I pointed out, in that film, about the characters’ deep need or longing for sensory or sexual gratification is attained without the corresponding emotional or psychological complications.
"This is a film about the consequences of watching," Bigelow said. The same could be said of much of her work.
Bigelow’s extraordinary new feature Zero Dark Thirty, a dark and anguished procedural structured around the decade long search for Osama bin Laden, has become a Rorschach test, about perspective, morality and interpretation on the brutish and morally reprehensible enhanced interrogation techniques deployed by CIA-operatives to gain crucial intelligence against al-Qaeda terror suspects and detainees.
I have no problems about the relevance or validity of that discussion, but it has obfuscated and distorted a great deal of what’s compelling and valuable about the film. The writers (Mark Bowden, Jane Meyer) most qualified to write about the movie’s historical accuracy are, rather incongruously, least adept as discussing the movie as cinema or in the context of the director’s work. Bowden’s Atlantic essay is certainly persuasive arguing the film does not condone torture, though when he quotes Pauline Kael on Sam Peckinpah wholly out of context, it magnifies the unholy shotgun marriage and rather irreconcilable parts.
The writer who called Bigelow a “fetishist and sadist,” is beneath contempt, and the feminist cultural critic who likened her to Leni Riefenstahl is again, somebody plainly ignorant of film history and culture. (I am more interested in writing about the movie. I think it worth noting, the “torture works,” argument was immediately appropriated by the right-wing who were determined to deflect the judgment, bravery and toughness of Obama in order to undermine the political capital he acquired in the aftermath of bin Laden’s killing.)
As I wrote last week, told largely from the perspective of the tenacious, obsessive CIA-operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), Zero Dark Thirty is part of the director’s recurring concern focused on a brave, obsessive and often willfully naive innocent (Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, Keanu Reeves in Point Break) who infiltrates closed-off, ritualistic social structures in order to destroy them. Many of her friends died in the process, she says.
“I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”
Bigelow's films continually comment on the medium and, by extension, play off the concerns and attitudes of the person who makes them. It is why, many of them, are pervaded by a sense of failure and loss. It also explains, I think, why none of her films have ever reached a wide audience (they are too self-questioning and marked by doubt and failure).
Bigelow has long worked closely with strong male collaborators, her co-director Monty Montgomery on her debut, The Loveless; the very gifted Eric Red on the scripts for Near Dark and Blue Steel; James Cameron and Jay Cocks on Strange Days; and now Mark Boal, the journalist whose forensically detailed fact-based reporting are the terrific starting points of The Hurt Locker and the new film.
Bigelow’s style has also shifted and mutated over time. The early works, especially Near Dark, are suffused with a doomed romantic pessimism and poetic fatalism, most memorably the hotel shootout where the shafts of light sear the flesh of the vampires. Point Break is her most liberating and abstracted piece, cut by light and movement in an arabesque.
Bigelow started out as a painter, but she grew impatient and frustrated by the solitude and inert nature of that type of image making. The early and mid-period films marked her restless and innovative mixed-art uses of space, time and movement. "If you don't push the envelope a bit, you're always going to stay in the same place," she told me in that first interview.
More recently, her imagery has become distilled, pure and stripped down. In our last interview, during the time of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow told me, aesthetically, she was observant to the material. Arguably, the most devastating moment of the film comes at the start, the screen dark and the sounds of fear and panic and acute loss, from somebody aboard one of the hijacked planes and another trapped atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center. “I’m going to die, aren’t I,” she says.
The dominant theme of Bigelow’s films is infiltration, or initiation, and Maya fits the continuum of the outsider who draws on a steely mixture of competence, training, guile and street smarts. Reportedly based on a Central Intelligence operative exclusively tasked with tracking bin Laden, Maya relates late in the film she was recruited into the agency out of high school.
Otherwise, emotionally she’s a blank slate. “Washington says she’s a killer,” her superior and mentor, Dan (Jason Clarke), asserts at the start. Boal’s script is like contemporary war the film is fixated on, asymmetrical and amorphous, darting from a continuously unfixed state and “black sites,” in Pakistan or the former Iron Curtain (Bigelow helps ground us with the use of occasional title cards).
The movie’s power, energy and sweep is generated from the tangle of observation and the explosive collision of personality, necessity and historical urgency. The CIA is a hierarchal structure operated like a major corporation, the lines of authority clearly delineated. In a film with more than one-hundred speaking parts, Maya is the centerpiece, the organizing shape Bigelow and Boal rely on to provide a solidity and physical grounding.
Maya is introduced with her face sheathed in camouflaged, a witness to the harsh techniques Dan carries out against a terror suspect named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Her initial reaction of revulsion mirrored my own. Chastain’s performance is a marvel of withholding, even interiorizing feelings. Her preternatural cool is also a mask, concealing a drive and determination, like her risking insubordination by threatening to expose her superiors’ cautious or self-regarding inaction.
Character is action. Zero Dark Thirty negotiates the pain, desperation and enormity of the profound challenges inherent in Maya’s mission; death is a constant, especially through bombings or in one of the film’s many razor-sharp and chilling action sequences, Maya being ambushed outside her work by machine-gun wielding assassins.
No longer flamboyant, Bigelow’s style approaches the plaintive and immersive that in its documentary photorealism not only intensifies the action, it snares and unsettles you (at least it did me). Even when you know the tragic outcome, like a rendezvous involving a Jordanian doctor (and ruthless double agent) at a remote CIA station in Afghanistan, Bigelow is such a master of cutting, movement and camera placement, like a brilliant musician, fine-tuned and never sentimentalizing or exploitive but chillingly, horrifying documenting the consequences.
My friend Michael Phillips pointed out the presence of the terrific actor Édgar Ramírez as a technical specialist naturally evokes Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. Like Assayas, Bigelow has a propulsive and uncanny feel for speed and momentum and the incidents congeal and collide, especially in the second half as Maya pursues her theory of tracking bin Laden’s location by identifying and locating his courier.
The climatic special forces raid on the Abbottabad compound fortress is hypnotic and transfixing and the climatic death and loss that results from the operation is marked by sorrow and violation rater than something emotionally satisfying, much less a form of jingoism. From those horrifying sounds that open the movie to the devastatingly ambivalent final image, Zero Dark Thirty explores the personal and emotional costs of duty.
“Anger as soon as awake is dead,” Emily Dickinson said. In Zero Dark Thirty, it stings.