Until my day comes, nothing can harm me. When my day comes, nothing can save me. —Arabic proverb
Let’s talk about the prominence of female directors in Hollywood. This is a hot-button issue in film circles right now, mostly because “the prominence of female directors in Hollywood” is a contradiction in terms. I’ll bet you never even gave it a thought, but just try and count all the women you know of who are making movies.
Aside from two examples I’ll be getting to later, the only ones I can name off the top of my head are Lana Wachowski (technically a transgender), Valerie Faris (technically part of a directing team with husband Jonathan Dayton), Brenda Chapman (technically fired partway through her solo directing debut), and Nora Ephron (technically dead).
It’s not like female directors aren’t out there, of course. Such auteurs as Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion, Lynn Shelton, Sarah Polley, Lexi Alexander, and Miranda July are all hard at work in the trenches, despite little to no recognition for their efforts. We’ve also got Madonna, Drew Barrymore, and Angelina Jolie, all of whom only briefly dabbled in filmmaking after achieving A-list status through other professions.
If you want to talk about big-time female directors who remain active in the field and recognizable in the mainstream today, you’ve really only got two choices. First is Penny Marshall, who bears the distinction of being the first female director to make a $100 million-grossing movie (Tom Hanks’ Big). Though her slide toward irrelevance has been steep enough to rival that of brother Garry, and her directorial efforts are mostly limited to TV nowadays, she’s still quite active in show business and I’ve little doubt that she could still open a film if she really wanted to.
Then there’s Kathryn Bigelow.
Though she did have a respectable directing career prior to 2008 (see: Point Break, K19: The Widowmaker, Strange Days, etc.), her big win for The Hurt Locker changed everything. Not only did she become the first woman ever to take home the Academy Award for Best Director (beating out ex-husband James Cameron, I might add), she did it by proving that she could make a gritty action-packed war movie just as well as any of her male peers.
Essentially given carte blanche to choose her next picture, she inexplicably decided to return to the current Middle Eastern war. What’s more, she decided that this one would be a stab at non-fiction. She chose to make a film about the attempts at capturing Osama bin Laden, and the movie was only days away from filming when President Obama made his historic announcement on May 1st of 2011. Naturally, this meant that the film had to be postponed and drastically overhauled, with a new focus on telling the story of how bin Laden was found and killed.
Though Zero Dark Thirty could have been made with better timing, it had a pedigree that was beyond reproach. Not only was Kathryn Bigelow behind the camera, but she collaborated once again with Mark Boal, a respectable investigative journalist who previously wrote the screenplay for The Hurt Locker. The film had also had financing from Megan Ellison, and I could write a whole ‘nother blog entry about all the good she’s done for cinema in her brief producing career. Last but not least, the cast was anchored by Jessica Chastain, who deserved an Oscar at least four times over in the year of 2011 alone.
Not only did this film come with sky-high expectations, but it was a critical darling and an awards favorite before it ever saw a wide release. Mercifully, I’m glad to say that the movie did not disappoint.
First and foremost, everything that was great about The Hurt Locker is still great in this movie. The immersive camerawork, the gritty visuals, the incredible sound mixing, and the uncompromising depiction of wartime violence are all intact and effective as ever. Of course, it’s that last one that seems to be a sticking point with some filmgoers.
The film’s depiction of torture has been getting a lot of controversy lately, though I think that’s mostly because torture itself is a very touchy and controversial subject (as it damn well should be). However, the claim that this movie somehow glorifies or justifies torture is a total crock.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the film’s depiction of torture is limited entirely to the first act. This is because at the end of the first act, the film is at the point in real-time when scandals at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo effectively shut down the torture of American detainees. And really, that’s what it comes down to: In real life, the torture happened. We did abuse prisoners, they did give us information, and that information did eventually lead to the capture of bin Laden. All feelings and arguments aside, these facts are incontrovertible.
In my opinion, the depiction of torture in this film is equivalent to the rampant use of racial epithets in Django Unchained. Both films had to deal with those necessary evils in order to depict their subject matter in an honest way, and their presentation should certainly not be mistaken for endorsement.
Getting back to Zero Dark Thirty, the film never really condones or condemns the use of torture. Instead, Bigelow simply forces us to watch a prisoner suffer round-the-clock abuse and then leaves us to make our own conclusions. The prisoner is depicted in such a way that you can either sympathize with him, you can feel that the drastic measures are necessary, or anything in between. It’s really quite remarkable how well the movie strikes that balance, though a lot of that has to do with Reda Kateb’s outstanding performance as the prisoner.
Honestly, the whole supporting cast is phenomenal. Jason Clarke is probably the standout, as he pivots from good cop to bad cop with alarming ease. Kyle Chandler is stuck with the awful role of disgraced CIA chief Joseph Bradley, but he does a good job with what little he has. Likewise, Mark Strong plays a CIA higher-up with the kind of aggression that only Mark Strong could deliver.
James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and brother Nash Edgerton all make brief appearances, just long enough for their presence to elevate a few scenes. I was also rather surprised to see Mark Duplass, of all people. He only gets a few scenes and doesn’t really do much, but it was nice to see him all the same.
Still, in my opinion, the true unsung hero of this production is Jennifer Ehle in the role of “Jessica.” She’s another CIA agent who works closely with “Maya” (Jessica Chastain’s character) and she’s very professional in her work, but she doesn’t let the job take her life over the way Maya does. Jessica can take some time out to laugh, enjoy a glass of wine, and gossip with her colleagues. It’s even implied that she has a family back home. Though her screen time is rather brief, Ehle and her character brought a quantum of levity that this film badly needed. Plus, it was nice to have another strong and intelligent woman help Maya to balance out all the testosterone onscreen.
This brings me to Jessica Chastain herself, the leading lady whose character serves as our eyes and ears through the entire picture. Where to begin?
First of all, though “Maya” is allegedly an actual person, her identity is still classified. We know absolutely nothing about her, much less her real name (in point of fact, I’d bet that none of the CIA or army operatives in this film are identified by their real names). I don’t know if any of the filmmakers had access to information about the person herself (or possibly himself, for all we know), but it’s not like the filmmakers could have put that information onscreen in any way if they did.
For all intents and purposes, this person is a total enigma. You’d think that would make it hard to portray Maya as a believable character, but the filmmakers did just that in a very inventive way.
Put simply, the film portrays Maya as a self-made enigma. It’s not that Maya doesn’t have a backstory or ambitions or loved ones waiting back home, she simply chooses to ignore all of that for the sake of her job. If Maya’s country needs her to be a ruthless killing machine, then that’s what she’s going to shape herself into. Though Maya never explicitly says any of that, Chastain makes it abundantly clear with nothing but raw emotion. Even better, there are times when the impartial mask starts to slip, showing the vulnerable human being that Maya tries so hard to suppress.
Perhaps more importantly, Maya is effectively a bloodhound. She lives for the thrill of the hunt, using her keen intellect and unbridled tenacity to find leads and chase them to the gates of hell. Of course, it helps that she has the deaths of 3,000 Americans and countless comrades in the CIA to motivate her.
However, there inevitably comes many a time when her passion and hard work are held back by small-minded bureaucrats and politicians. This leads to conflict that is always entertaining to watch. In these moments, Maya makes it abundantly clear that she lives in a parallel universe devoid of fucks to give. No matter how many people are in her way, and no matter how powerful her adversaries are, Maya takes shit from absolutely no one. And really, why should she? Everyone else is only talking about bringing bin Laden to justice, but she’s out there actually getting the job done!
With all of that said, I do have one nit to pick: The ending. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film ends on an ambiguous note, since the characters’ true identities and what happened to them after bin Laden’s death is of course completely unknown. Even so, I felt like something was missing. And after thinking back to Argo, I think I’ve figured out what it is.
In the other great “nonfiction” CIA thriller of 2012, the characters made it explicitly clear that despite all of their hard work and all of the times they put their lives on the line, none of them could ever take credit for it. It might be years or possibly decades before the world would know who these people were and what they did for their country. This movie needed something like that. In fact, the statement would be made even more relevant by the fact that unlike the events of Argo, many details of the events in this film will likely continue to be classified for many years to come.
Not that it’s strictly necessary, but I think it would have been nice to add a little reminder for the audience that covert agents are working around the clock to preserve America’s safety and may never get their due credit for it. If nothing else, it would have been nice to go just one step further and say that wherever Maya is, her relentless efforts toward tracking down and killing bin Laden are deeply appreciated.
All told, Zero Dark Thirty is absolutely worth the hype. Jessica Chastain continues to earn her growing reputation, the rest of the cast is amazing, and Bigelow proves beyond any doubt that she’s no one-hit wonder. Most importantly, the film is a harrowing portrait of the years we spent living in fear of terrorism while bin Laden was on the loose.
If you’re old enough to remember where you were on 9/11, then you absolutely need to see this film. If that means going out to the theater and paying full price for it, then that’s your cross to bear.