Kathryn Bigelow: The Art of Darkness

To understand the controversy around Kathryn Bigelow's hit film Zero Dark Thirty, it helps to understand Kathryn Bigelow's kind of movie

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Paola Kudacki for TIME

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"Kathryn then is the same Kathryn now," Dafoe says. "She's attracted to something instinctively, and then she researches it, and her research becomes an adventure. In the late '70s there was a lot of interest in rockabilly and appreciation of '50s outlaw culture, so she would go to clubs to scout people for their look and style, and worry about coaxing a performance out of them later. She was so interested in the slang and the idiom and the ritual of that world, which wasn't really of her own experience. And she's still interested in learning the language and rituals of hidden worlds. Just look at her titles — Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty. It's like coded language and she's cracking the code." (Zero Dark Thirty's title is a tweak of "oh-dark-thirty," a military term for half past midnight.)

The Loveless (co-directed with Monty Montgomery) led to a development offer at Universal that took Bigelow to Los Angeles. The studio deal didn't pan out, but she eventually secured financing for Near Dark (1987), which relocated the vampire myth to the American desert, followed by Blue Steel (1990), starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop with a stalker and a missing gun.

"She had a quiet strength," says Curtis. "There was this machinery to her. She was all business. Even down to her clothing — black jeans, black T-shirt, very simple, militaristic if you will, like a uniform. I used to do an imitation of her taking her shot list out of her pocket, unfolding it, looking at it and then folding it up and putting it in her back pocket. She would do that over and over. She's not a cold woman, she's not a machine, but there's a machinelike execution to what she does. She is only there for the film."

Bigelow followed Blue Steel with the sublimely goofy action hit Point Break (1991), starring Patrick Swayze as the ringleader of a band of bank-robbing surfers and Keanu Reeves as the hotshot FBI agent on their case; the film's kinetic foot chases were captured with a "pogo-cam," a handheld 35-mm camera with a gyrostabilizer. Her technical ambition expanded with the dystopian Strange Days (1995), which featured action sequences so complex that her production company had to design and build new camera equipment to capture them. (Point Break was executive-produced by her then husband James Cameron, who also co-wrote and produced Strange Days; they divorced in 1991 after two years of marriage.)

Bigelow's career foundered somewhat near the turn of the millennium, particularly after the box-office disappointment of K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), a would-be summer blockbuster. In the years between K-19 and her next film, The Hurt Locker, she met Boal. "Mark opened up a window for me onto how you can make a film that's part of the current conversation," she says. "The Hurt Locker was an opportunity to make a deep dive into content that was contemporaneous, an opportunity to reflect in a way that might make you uncomfortable, which was something we continued with Zero Dark Thirty."


Zero Dark Thirty credits its story to "firsthand accounts of actual events," drawing on Boal's original reporting and meetings with CIA officials; its composite characters are based on real people, living and dead. The film opens with a black screen and real audio recordings of 9/11 victims calling for help from the burning towers. It then cuts to a black site, where Maya (Chastain) observes her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) as he tortures a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb). The first 25 or so minutes of the film are largely taken up with torture: Ammar is strung up, beaten, waterboarded and kept awake for 96 hours straight.

Pale and stricken, clearly aghast at the abuse but resolved to stay in the room with the subject, Maya in Zero Dark Thirty's early scenes is an audience surrogate. She can also be read as a stand-in for Bigelow herself — an exceptionally skilled, workaholic woman triumphing in a male-dominated realm — though Bigelow politely shrugs off the comparison. "It's a natural parallel, and there's perhaps some connective tissue there, but if anything, it would be subconscious and not conscious," she says.

Maya is our only constant as the film barrels through 10 years of punctuated equilibrium in the war on terrorism, pausing over the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, the September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel and the suicide attack on the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman in December 2009, finally arriving at the Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2, 2011. Perhaps the finest action director at work today, Bigelow choreographs the predawn raid in near real time with breathtaking suspense and precision as well as a chilling matter-of-factness that drains the sequence of elation or jingoism.

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