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

  • Paola Kudacki for TIME

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    Bigelow and Boal also carry the burden of being first: theirs is the first movie about 9/11 that arcs to the assassination of bin Laden. (In the first weekend of the film's wide release, its five top-grossing theaters were in Virginia near CIA headquarters, D.C. and New York City, the areas affected most directly by 9/11.) It was written and shot with blistering speed after the raid and completed as recently as November. There will be many more films about this period; Zero Dark Thirty never could have compressed all the events of 10 years into 2½ hours, but even the movie's skeptics would acknowledge that it has thrown down a gauntlet for artists and filmmakers who want to complement or rebuke its version of this chapter of American history.


    "It's an important filmmaker who trusts the audience to participate," Chastain says. Zero Dark Thirty 's audiences have participated, to say the least, and they have raised vital questions about what the film gets right and wrong and why it matters. But part of the negative response can be seen as the product of Hollywood-movie conditioning, the expectation that we should identify with a heroic protagonist, share her motivations, enjoy her successes and, above all, feel a sense of triumph as we walk out of the theater. The impulse is especially strong in the context of bin Laden's assassination: a purely black-and-white conclusion, with identifiable and unconflicted heroes assigned to the task, is irresistible.

    Bigelow's movies don't work that way, and they never have. Jeremy Renner's bomb-disposal savant in The Hurt Locker routinely and willfully endangers himself and his fellow soldiers and seems permanently alienated from his wife and toddler son. In Near Dark "the good guys are the bad guys," as Bigelow puts it; that is, they are vampires. The terrorized rookie that Curtis portrays in Blue Steel is both hero and victim and seems irreparably damaged by movie's end. Ralph Fiennes' protagonist in Strange Days is a sleazy, pathetic salesman of black-market virtual-reality gear; we recoil from him more than we root for him. In K-19 a Soviet naval crew succumbs to radiation sickness largely because of the hubris of their commanding officer, played by Harrison Ford.

    "I wanted to dispense with all the movie tropes — the clean through line, the idea of the hero," Bigelow says of K-19 . "It was interesting trying to get that one financed, because you'd be pitching it, saying, 'This really happened. They averted a thermonuclear event off the coast of a NATO base.' I remember sitting in some executive's office, and they said, 'O.K., but who are the good guys?' 'What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.' 'No, I mean, who are the Americans?'"

    One might pose a similar question of Zero Dark Thirty , which portrays its intelligence-gathering Americans as variously savage, dedicated, flighty, monomaniacal, generous, blinkered, amoral and hollowed out. Who are these Americans? And how was American history and identity shaped — or warped — by the methods employed in our decade of vengeance? The film's heroine, fittingly, is a mystery unto herself, with no backstory; there are many questions that the audience can't ask her, such as "What do you do outside of work?" and "Are you dating anybody?" and "No, really, do you do anything but work?" These are questions, by the way, that Bigelow isn't terribly keen on answering either.

    She won't give details on her currently percolating project beyond saying it will be a third collaboration with Boal, but she hints strongly that her future is the present. "If you pick challenging, contemporaneous subjects that create controversy and noise around them, it puts you with Apocalypse Now, All the President's Men, A Clockwork Orange, In the Heat of the Night, Battle of Algiers . That's some very good company." Bigelow wants to keep that company. There will be no palate cleanser — no romantic comedy or Point Break reboot. "Once you've opened the window on topical material, it's very hard to close it," she says. "Holding up a contemporary mirror is more attractive to me now than ever."

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