Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.
In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.
In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
Zero Dark Thirty (Sony) has been praised as the best American film of 2012. It’s also been accused of justifying American torture of detainees and turned into a political football by members of congress demanding an investigation into the intelligence provided to the filmmakers by the administration.
That’s testament to the complexity of the film and the volatile nature of the subject matter. The direction by Kathryn Bigelow, who won Oscars for Best Film and Best Director in her previous film “The Hurt Locker,” is fierce and focused and Mark Boal’s screenplay grapples with the messy history of the eight-year-long intelligence operation to find Osama Bin Laden by refusing to make a spy thriller out of it.
As in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty shows us what this kind war does to the soldiers in the field, in particular Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictionalized take on the real CIA agent who unrelentingly followed the slimmest of leads and synthesized seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a map that led to Bin Laden. But the focus is not on the personal sacrifice so much as on the enormity of the job and the tenacity of one agent (“Washington says she’s a killer,” is the one-sentence resume offered on her arrival) to doggedly follow the trail while the bureaucrats and politicians weigh resources and shift focus with each new threat. After the tension and anxiety builds through the investigation, Bigelow pays off with the raid on the compound, played out in real time without movie heroics.
This isn’t documentary, mind you, and Bigelow and Boal take some dramatic license in the details, but it’s in the service of exploring the real story of the investigation as well as the culture of intelligence work and the reality of agents in the field battling bureaucracy on the one hand and terrorists on their own home field on the other. It is intelligent, uncompromising, and utterly compelling, and it begins right off by showing the torture and waterboarding of a prisoner, a man that the lead interrogator (Jason Clarke) admits right off will never be released.
That’s the reality of the war on terror in 2003 and priority #1 is finding and capturing Bin Laden. By refusing to duck the role of torture, and even more daringly refusing to have Maya verbally condemn it, Bigelow drew some heat. While the government vainly tried to claim it somehow distorted American policy (when in fact the policy itself was distorted), others have charged that the film makes the case that torture was a successful tool, when in fact Bigelow and Boal show us that it never produced any information that wasn’t already gathered through other means, and failed to produce reliable intelligence on pressing threats.
Bigelow leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions — on the morality of torture as well as the effectiveness of it — and it appears to have become a Rorschach test for audiences. The controversy fueled interest in the film but it may have cost Bigelow an Oscar nomination for her direction, which by my measure is the most accomplished and the most gripping American film of 2012.
It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Chastain), and Best Original Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing (shared with Skyfall), and it was the number one choice on MSN’s critics’ poll.
The Blu-ray and DVD both present four featurettes, all under ten minutes. “The Compound” is the longest of them and it is indeed a guided tour of the set built to serve as the Bin Laden compound. “Geared Up” looks at the equipment used by the actors playing SEAL Team Six and the training they went through for the invasion scene and “Targeting Jessica Chastain” is a brief profile of the Chastain and the character of Maya. Though brief, they offer a lot of detail on the preparation and research behind the production. The least of the supplements, in fact, is “No Small Feat,” which purports to be the “making of” production but is actually a four-minute promotional piece. The Blu-ray also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion), an unconventional wartime drama from The Archers (director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger), was made against the wishes of the British government and went on to become one of the most beloved British films of all time.
This dashing, deft epic begins with the dinosaur of an old soldier, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (a curmudgeonly Roger Livesay in a bald cap and walrus mustache), getting ambushed by the new young army in an attempt to jolt the old man out of his outdated notions of a “gentleman’s war” against the Nazis, and then drifts back to show just how Candy got here. Livesay is warm and witty as an ambitious young officer with a prankster’s streak, who becomes devoted to his German rival (Anton Walbrook) and falls in love with a series of beautiful women (all of them played by Deborah Kerr), all the while petrifying as the world changes around him over the course of three wars.
The Hurt Locker premiered in the one-two punch of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2008 and then made the long march through subsequent film festivals until its theatrical release in June 2009. Director Kathryn Bigelow shepherded the film through each showing, giving interviews every step of the way. She knew it was a hard sell. There had still not been a commercially successful film of the Iraq war and the low budget, independently-produced The Hurt Locker had no stars and no obvious promotional “hook.” It was simply a brilliant film, and we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the box-office.
I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Bigelow May 2009, when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. I had seen the film in Toronto and the shellshock had still not subsided, but I had been a fan ever since Near Dark and was thrilled to finally get a chance to ask her a few questions. Unfortunately time was limited and there was so much to discuss about The Hurt Locker that we never had the opportunity to talk about her other films. Maybe on my next rotation…
You start the film off with a quote by Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” There’s a real simplified reading of that comment, which is that likes the challenge and he thrives on the thrill. But I think it’s more complex than that. He’s the best at what he does and he’s at his best under pressure. He’s in charge and, for all the danger, he’s as in control as he ever is. When he gets back, he’s lost.
That’s beautifully put. I couldn’t improve on that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that Chris Hedges has written, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” it’s a great book and required reading. He talks about that you’re looking today at a volunteer military and one of the many things he confronts is, war’s dirty little secret is some men love it. This isn’t everybody, it’s just a particular type of psychological state with some men, there’s a psychological allure that combat creates, some kind of attractiveness, and it does create an almost addictive quality that they can’t replicate in any other way and are lost in any other context. However, in the case of Sgt. James—and again, I’m not extrapolating and saying there’s hundreds of thousands of Sgt. James—but the case specifically with Sgt. James is combining that kind of bravado and recklessness in his swagger and demeanor, but with a profound skill set. He is perhaps not the best diplomat but he does keep everybody alive. So it’s exactly what you said, what enables him to do what he does so well. There’s a kind of attraction, there’s a kind of addiction, there’s what I would call a price to his heroism and what that sacrifice has been for him is a flight from intimacy. He can’t be a hero in the sense that he’s the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect bomb tech. That doesn’t exist. There’s a real cost to his ability.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.
The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.