August 3, 2015
‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Kathryn Bigelow Shows Us the Things We Carried
Posted on Jan 11, 2013
By Susan Zakin
Media gadfly Michael Wolff has called Bigelow a sadist and a fetishist because of the violence in her films. In “Strange Days,” Bigelow’s 1995 cyberpunk movie written by ex-husband James Cameron, there are scenes that almost could have been lifted from porno, and the action turns on a horrifying snuff film sequence. But Bigelow’s response is telling: “I don’t like violence. I am, however, very interested in the truth. And violence is a fact of our lives, a part of the social context in which we live. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”
War is dirty. It is immoral, or at the very least amoral, and leaves soldiers traumatized and ashamed. Feelings are blunted in combat, and grief can take decades to surface. Even then, many veterans say they have never recovered.
The crux of “Zero Dark Thirty” is this “long winter retreat of emotion” as war correspondent Anthony Loyd called it. That message is driven home when Maya’s CIA colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who has urged her to loosen up, pays a price for reacting too enthusiastically to what appears to be a break in the case. By that time, we no longer expect Maya to rend her garments and weep; the strength of Chastain’s performance is that we know how she feels. Chastain’s stillness allows us to ruminate on her unusual beauty, a visual correlative for the film’s narrative arc. Her red hair is both a banner and a wound, her pale skin the marble of a breathing statue. She is our American Marianne, ensuring the Triumph of the Republic.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is more akin to “Antigone” than a modernist screed: a drama that deals in archetype, and with careful accretion of detail, leaves a space for the viewer to experience the post-9/11 war with pity and terror as if it happened to them. The fact that we have been in a state of war for more than a decade has been muffled by our reliance on a volunteer army and unmanned drones. Bigelow is certainly aware of this. In a piece by war correspondent Dexter Filkins that ran in The New Yorker, she cracked wise about the short film that got her into film school at Columbia, which focused on a fight between two guys in an alley, each with a political agenda. She told Filkins that she “was very inspired by semiotics,” the French deconstruction theory dominant at the time.
“When you watch violence, you’re being deconstructed in a Lacanian sense,” she said. “You’re responding to an experiential situation in the safety of the theater.”
This was no offhand remark. Bigelow has always been interested in the relationship between the viewer and the text. (In “Strange Days,” she explores permutations of this relationship in the form of an addictive Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, called a SQUID, that lets people viscerally experience someone else’s rush, which usually includes sex, crime or violence.)
If you want to understand “Zero Dark Thirty,” it helps to know that in the 1970s, Bigelow was studying painting on a scholarship sponsored by New York’s Whitney Museum. She lived downtown in an old bank vault beneath an off-track betting parlor run by New York state. She was part of a conceptual art collective. Bigelow and composer Philip Glass, who was driving a cab at the time, used to renovate downtown lofts. The 5’11” Bigelow sanded the old factory floors and Glass did the plumbing. After the lofts were habitable, they would make a profit by charging the tenants a “fixture fee,” a one-time payment for the rehab of the industrial space.
The lofts are not so important. What is important is Bigelow’s grounding in semiotics and deconstruction, the French intellectual theory that caused so many of us to bail out of graduate school in the ’70s and ’80s. Semiotics was based on the idea that meaning is not transmitted; rather, we create it according to a complex interplay of codes and conventions. Some semioticians make a distinction between structure and message; most seem to concentrate on structure. (If that sounds arcane, consider film historian Paddy Whannel’s description of the field: “Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand.”)
Watching one of Bigelow’s films is not unlike listening to a Glass composition. Structures and rhythms have the pull of an undertow. That’s not to say that “Zero Dark Thirty” is abstract. The final action sequences roared. The Navy SEALs were sweet and macho, and the incursion to the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound stunningly filmed with night vision goggles, underscoring the film’s realism.
Despite her gift for action, understatement seems to be Bigelow’s natural register, as hardwired to her sensibility as it is to Maya’s. As stunning as the bin Laden scenes are, it is Maya’s reaction to the end of the hunt that transfixes us. No spoiler alert, other than to say that the ending of “Zero Dark Thirty” is equal parts Chekhov and Chris Hedges, the Truthdig columnist and former New York Times war correspondent who wrote: “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” Bigelow, who worked on “Zero Dark Thirty” as obsessively as Maya worked on finding bin Laden, is smart enough to know that Hedges’ insight applies equally to jihadis and Maya; if humanity has a dark commonality, war brings it to the surface.
O’Hehir wrote that what “Zero Dark Thirty” has to say about torture and many other things is not entirely clear, and what you see in it depends on what you bring with you. But I can’t escape the feeling that it is a supremely moral film. And despite the spectacular action sequence that culminates in bin Laden’s death, I believe it is a film that only a woman would have made. As women do, it forces us to take emotional responsibility. Emotional responsibility is not the same as moral or ethical responsibility: We did not, after all, bomb the World Trade Center or declare holy war. We did not, if I may be forgiven the crudeness, cut off the head of Daniel Pearl, a reporter who may have wanted to get his story, but who also wanted to do good in the world. But we suffered losses, and we matched our enemy’s brutality. Some of us get out alive, but nobody gets out clean.
Bigelow doesn’t endorse or condemn torture. What she has done with “Zero Dark Thirty” is far more difficult than anything Stone ever attempted: She created a work of art that reproduces the experience of war, cuts no corners on moral ambiguities, and, if America is ready for it, will force us to finally confront our grief over 9/11 and its aftermath.
Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t need a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. It is Bigelow’s art that lets you become Maya, the new CIA agent who finds herself in a dank cell watching something unbearable. Yet she stays. So do we. So did we.
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