“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just chose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies,” asserts award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. Kathryn Bigelow is paving the way for future women who aspire to be in the film industry. She has become the definition of an innovator with her keen insight of the male psyche and her ability to cleanse herself of gender and dive into a war-torn male world. The emotions that Zero Dark Thirty provokes are intense enough that it’s easy to forget, or simply not notice, whether a man or woman made the film. From The Hurt Locker (2008) to her earlier work, she works primarily in male-dominated genres. Rejecting the stereotypes of women, Bigelow isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or to explore topics where generally, a woman isn’t invited. Kathryn Bigelow captures the audience’s attention through her use of voyeurism, tactful violence and engaging subjects. Bigelow makes the viewer feel as though they are a fly on the wall.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with merely a black screen, viewers hear the tragic last phone calls of those who died during the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. “Am I going to die? Am I going to die?” asks a terrified woman calling from the Twin Towers. Seconds away from death, we hear a pause knowing the outcome. Bigelow uses voyeurism to make one feel as if they’re either in one of the towers or as if they’re the operator on the line, completely helpless. The phone calls evoke ardent emotions: furious anger, sorrow and a thirst for justice. The eery and chilling phone calls set the tone for the film and place one back to the apocalyptic nightmare that 3,000 people couldn’t awake from. Hearing a recording of a woman about to die a horrible death at the hands of terrorists motivates the urge to seek retribution. Bigelow continues to place voyeurism throughout Zero Dark Thirty by surveillance, television, and having the audience feel as though they’re behind the scenes of a tragic event that we have only seen narrowed perspectives on. The audience is now able to see it all, the good along with the bad. Her use of voyeurism results in Zero Dark Thirty feeling like a roller coaster where no emotion is left behind. There’s moments of absolute terror, paranoid patriotism. Zero Dark Thirty begs the question; what happens if?
Kathryn Bigelow’s use of violence is one of her recurring themes. “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” declares CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke). The first twenty minutes of the movie show the torture of Ammar al-Baluchi, a man with links to bin Laden. During his interrogation, Dan uses water-boarding, torture, and humiliation to make Ammar al-Baluchi speak. The violence is not softened or glamorize. It’s ugly, realistic, and the worst of all seems also business-like. Dan has no hesitation or repulsion in violating and torturing this man. In comparison to other films featuring torture, there’s no music or anything to add levity (think Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). This is happening and there’s no escaping it. This paints a vivid and revealing portrait of the measures that were considered necessary. When Ammar is being water-boarded, it’s terrifying to see him gasping for air and brings to mind whether or not the United States were just or if they went too far. Bigelow’s use of violence and the tension built throughout the film causes one to anticipate and look forward to the relief and satisfaction felt at the death of Osama bin Laden. Torture was vital to include because it exhibits the extremities that were used. There’s a perverse pleasure of seeing terrorists killed or photos of their lifeless bodies on national television. Bigelow has been quoted as saying, “I think violence in a cinematic context can be, if handled in a certain way, very seductive.” With America’s strong aversion to sex in films, Bigelow fills the void with violence.
Bigelow explores the sexual politics between men and women. The male characters she creates are incredibly macho while she strays away from stereotyping women. Bigelow explores the mentality of masculine men and captures their relationships with one another brilliantly. Bigelow’s female characters consistently are very intelligent, three-dimensional, and intriguing. Bigelow is careful to not objectify women and to an extent, does the opposite of the theory of the male gaze. The male characters in Zero Dark Thirty are secondary to Maya (Jessica Chastain). For example, the protagonist Maya is cold, collected, and has brilliant psychological insight. Maya is initially trying to find her place in a male-dominated environment and does so with her intuition and fierce dedication. One knows she’s quite comfortable when CIA chief (James Gandolfini) questions who she is. Maya responds, “I’m the motherfucker who discovered the place – sir.” She isn’t intimidated by the boys, rather it’s the opposite, and with good reason.
Along with her use of violence, Kathryn Bigelow also explores the relationship between reality and the media. Throughout the film, we see reports of the news yet the real world is far different from what the media shows us. In Zero Dark Thirty, the audience is offered a chance to see all sides rather than hearing one-sided, biased reports from the news. There’s a pivotal scene where Maya and two other CIA agents focus on the television to hear President Barack Obama reiterate that “American doesn’t torture.” Their faces are stoic; what are they thinking? Does Maya have remorse or regret? Kathryn Bigelow allows the audience to make their own conclusions regarding torture in America and how it aided our capture of Osama bin Laden.
Kathryn Bigelow’s academy award winning film The Hurt Locker draws many parallels to Zero Dark Thirty. Both are set against the Iraq-Afghanistan war, explore relationships among those in service, and place the viewer into a situation where they have no choice but to be present and enjoy the ride. Bigelow compares addiction to adrenaline almost as severe as a junkie’s need for their next fix. Maya’s life is capturing Osama bin Laden. Such as a drug addict having a level of obsession so ardent that nothing else in the world matters. Maya is sent down a rabbit hole of dead ends, interrogations, false intelligence, only rarely seeing light at the end of the tunnel. She is a woman possessed and will cling onto the few silver linings that she gets through excruciating work.
Toward the end of the film, night-vision goggles are used which present a surreal and unnerving feeling for the audience. Paranoia peaks not knowing where Osama bin Laden is, or if he’s there. The chaos of the situation and what they’re doing is blood-tingling. One is left on pins and needles on their seat as children and women are escorted out, not revealing whether or not bin Laden is there. Navy SEALs continue through the compound revealing children crying or holding onto their mothers. One is feverishly waiting to see Osama bin Laden and barely able to stay on their seat. The built-up adrenaline along with the setbacks that were faced along the way make one obsessed to see the downfall of Osama bin Laden. Maya’s obsession is contagious and by the end of the film, the audience wants it just as badly as she does. When Osama bin Laden is shot, the feelings are complex. There’s anger, a sense of relief and joy but also an acknowledgment of the moral compromises that were made. There is an underlying sadness and questions are posed. Are we really so different? There is a duality of good and evil between America and the Middle East yet the decision of which is which, is left to the viewer.
Zero Dark Thirty is both foreboding but beautifully poetic all at once. Through her graceful edits, she reminds one that despite how dismal and dark a world can seem, there still remains light and beauty. During somber events, there still remains a radiant, comforting light. Through her brilliant use of color and tone changes, the viewer can either feel at ease or like Chicken Little believing the sky is falling. One could argue Kathryn Bigelow exhibits her femininity most through her use of editing. She finds light where one wouldn’t think beauty existed. However, Bigelow also knows how to take one to the darkest of places. Her exceptional talent for developing and exploring male and female psyches assist Bigelow in knowing how her films will effect the audience. For women, it’s refreshing to not see the normal objectification of female characters and to have a female character that doesn’t need to have a romantic relationship to feel validated. It’s empowering to see a woman doing traditionally man’s job and perhaps even doing it better.