That happened with The Hurt Locker, 2009’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture and, historically, for Best Director. There are multiple angles with which to approach her win — one, that she deserved it. And she did. Most would agree that The Hurt Locker was one of the most impressive films of 2009, the year in which it went up against Up In The Air, Precious, Inglourious Basterds, and, most formidably, Avatar. Avatar was, of course, directed by Bigelow’s ex James Cameron, and even though we’ve been led to believe there’s no bad blood between them, it’s impossible to deny that many of us enjoyed the “stick it to your ex” subtext of her victory. Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time and revolutionized the way we currently watch movies (for better or worse), and if the Oscars were ever going to be all about commercial appeal, 2009 was the year.
Instead, the low-grossing war drama took the gold, and it’s impossible to separate that triumph from the other narratives happening at the time. Bigelow was the first woman to win, and there was that palpable feeling in the air: It’s time. Even if The Hurt Locker had been a lesser film than its competition (which it wasn’t), Bigelow had a good shot because she was one of few women to ever even have a chance at a Best Director win. No one is now saying Bigelow didn’t deserve it, or that the film wouldn’t have won Best Director had a male been in the chair. But it’s impossible to deny that her gender had something to do with that prize, even if it would’ve happened regardless. Because no one who checked Bigelow’s name on their ballots was unaware that they were voting for the first woman who really could win this award. No one didn’t think about that when she stepped up to the podium. No one didn’t mention it in the Oscar coverage the next day. It was a part of cinema history.
But now it’s happened, and we don’t need to think about it much anymore. After seeing Zero Dark Thirty, I predict that Kathryn Bigelow will also be the only woman to ever win Best Director twice. And this time, the fact that she’s a woman has absolutely nothing to do with what will happen come Oscar night. If anything, a recent win is an incentive to vote against Bigelow, and pick someone else for the prize — except Zero Dark Thirty is such a strong film, I don’t think many are going to. Anyone who might think her first Oscar was a “because it’s time” award presented more for reasons of gender equality and feminist progression than for the quality of the film can now be silenced. She’ll win again, I think, and this time, it’s merely because she did it better than anyone else.
There’s very little reason to describe the actual plot of Zero Dark Thirty, because in a way, there isn’t one. A woman named Maya seeks Osama bin Laden, and then finds him. There are no subplots. She does not have a love interest. She does not have anyone waiting back home. The only people she interacts with are the ones helping her do her job, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Maya works for the CIA and her job is her life, as I imagine it would have to be for her to accomplish what she did. According to screenwriter Mark Boal, Maya is based on a real person, but it’s not much use to talk about that. Many have gotten worked up about how accurate the film is, particularly in its depiction of torture and how it may have played a part in finding bin Laden. (More on that in a moment.) The film merely runs through nearly a decade of investigation, interrogation, and hard work; there are several rich supporting characters in the CIA played by James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, and others, but this is entirely Maya’s story. (At least, on the surface.)
With a running time approaching three hours, Zero Dark Thirty hurdles through ten years of history at a breakneck pace, and yet we never lose sight of just how exhaustive this work must be. Maya is hardly the ball-busting CIA operative you might expect from a glossier movie, where she might be played by Angelina Jolie. In early scenes, in particular, she seems a bit squeamish at the rough treatment of one of the CIA’s captives and only mildly asserts herself. But as the manhunt for bin Laden continues, and Maya grows more and more certain that she’s on the right track to uncover his whereabouts, Maya’s confidence surges, most notable in a couple of scenes — her introduction to her superior Leon Panetta (Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found this place,” and a chewing out of her Station Chief (Kyle Chandler) in which she lays everything on the line to continue her mission. Pretty much all of this could be played too broadly and come off as very Hollywood, but Zero Dark Thirty never takes us outside the realm of what feels 100% plausible. Who’s to say how it really happened? Only a handful of people who aren’t allowed to. But unlike this year’s vaguely similar Argo, for example, there isn’t a moment that leaves us feeling certain it was just invented for the sake of a more exciting movie.
That’s because Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t really need to be any more exciting than it already is. As advertised, it is “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” and that’s hard to argue with. The film begins with audio from victims of the September 11 terrorist attack that made bin Laden Public Enemy #1 in the mind of virtually every American citizen; 9/11 isn’t directly referenced much after that, and doesn’t really need to be. Zero Dark Thirty underplays the extent to which it is an allegory for our collective experience, as Americans; living in fear of another 9/11, wondering where those who hate us from afar were hiding, wondering what they were planning next. Maya takes on the responsibility of making this concern a 24/7 job; she gets right up in the face of that danger and faces death multiple times. We never learn a backstory that helps us understand why Maya, of all people, takes it upon herself to resolve America’s biggest problem. It’s probably better that we don’t know. The less we know about Maya, the more, in a way, we can identify with her; exhausted and lonely but determined. She could have been portrayed as heroic, and in retrospect, it’s easy to see her that way. But the film doesn’t guide our thinking, and even though it ends in the murder of a very bad person, this isn’t exactly portrayed as a triumph. Zero Dark Thirty knows that when people like Maya, and America at large, get what we think we want, satisfaction does not immediately follow. Do we really feel that much safer with bin Laden dead? Was the ten-year pursuit worth it? At what cost? Does this mean we’ve won? Just as with bin Laden’s death, most of us realize that this conflict began long before September 2001 and is far too complicated to end with any one person’s death. When Zero Dark Thirty ends, we certainly don’t feel like this story is truly over.
And yet there is a way in which Zero Dark Thirty feels like the definitive movie of the decade so far, in terms of depicting what the past decade has been like. It’s an excellent companion piece for easily the best 9/11 film to date, United 93, which took a similarly narrow approach to a monumental subject. Like United 93, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t pepper in a lot of extraneous characters or reminders of an event no one yet needs to be reminded of. It trusts that its gritty subject matter is more than enough, and we bring the extra emotions into the theater with us. Both the character of Maya and Zero Dark Thirty itself are slow burns; Maya isn’t immediately a compelling character, and the film doesn’t overwhelm us with its brilliance right away. I spent the first hour thinking that the film would likely land in the bottom half of my Top 10; the middle thinking it might crack my Top 5. When it ended, I knew I’d need some time before I truly settled on what I think of it. And days later, it has only become more and more of a masterpiece in retrospect. (Chastain’s performance has similarly grown on me.)
The Hurt Locker was a terrific war film, tense and melancholy and unlike any we’ve seen before. It wasn’t a terribly accessible film for those who haven’t been “over there,” though; which is not to say we couldn’t enjoy it or relate to the characters, but most of us, I imagine, approached it from a distance. Zero Dark Thirty feels like an even better film because it’s about us. (Better being a somewhat misleading term, considering The Hurt Locker ranked at #4 on my Best of 2009 list.) That isn’t to say that every great film needs to be a proxy for our own experiences, because only a handful of films ever do that. (I’d wager that United 93, in depicting a group of terrified Americans banding together in a time of fear and tragedy, was another.) And here is another reason I think Zero Dark Thirty is a slightly better film than The Hurt Locker — it is about and was directed by a woman.
Now, I don’t think The Hurt Locker would have been any better if directed by a man; or that it would it be a more “personal” film. Nor do I think Zero Dark Thirty couldn’t have been just as good in the hands of, say, Paul Greengrass. (Though his Green Zone sure didn’t come close.) But Zero Dark Thirty does feel like a more personal film to its director than The Hurt Locker did, because it’s about a woman working in a male-dominated field. She is often undermined, not necessarily because she is a woman but because she is tenacious and places more value on finding bin Laden than respecting her superiors. Bigelow, meanwhile, has almost exclusively made films we’d guess a man would direct — not just The Hurt Locker but also Point Break, Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker. Having now won Best Director for one of the best testosterone-filled films in recent memory, she can probably do just about whatever she wants; maybe that’s how Maya feels after finding bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t drastically different because its lead is a female and so is the director, but I do think that adds a little to the film’s quality, and makes a huge, decade-spanning tale for an international terrorist into a movie that also, in a subtle way, feels somewhat personal. It’s that combination, maybe, that elevates Zero Dark Thirty a notch above The Hurt Locker.
But it’s hardly just Bigelow, because everyone brings their A-game here. (You don’t want to make a timely movie about the greatest manhunt in history and suck at it, after all.) Alexandre Desplat’s score is haunting and effective; after a series of notable supporting roles, Jessica Chastain proves to the surprise of no one that she can carry a movie all by her damn self; Boal’s screenplay is virtually perfect. The film’s final act is obviously its most exciting, and while I feared it might skimp a bit and cut away at the moment of payoff in a misguided “less is more” approach, Bigelow actually strikes just the right balance between showing not enough and too much. (It’s also fairly impressive that the film works even when its protagonist goes largely unseen for the entire last act.) There are two immense opposing historical characters looming in this movie, Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. We wonder what both are doing in the film’s conclusion — if this were a fictional story, we’d see cutaways to both the president and the villain he’s hunting. But Zero Dark Thirty is stronger because it keeps the focus where it belongs; on Maya for most of the movie, and on the Navy SEAL team for the nail-biter of a climactic showdown.
Argo earned Oscar buzz early in the awards season as a crowd-pleaser that also had some measure of timeliness and seriousness. By my estimation, that buzz has largely quieted now that Zero Dark Thirty is around. Bigelow’s film blows Affleck’s out of the water, and though they take very different approaches — Affleck’s is appropriately lighter, with a distinct comedy bent — if you’re going to reward one film about Americans in danger in the Middle East, it’s going to be the one about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. (Poor Argo came out in the wrong year; its fact-fudging, forced family drama, and artificial implementation of suspense don’t come off looking well in comparison.)
Of course, in this year, it’s far from a shoo-in to win. It faces fairly stiff competition from Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, and, yes, Argo — at least this early in the season. Working against it may be the controversy about the film’s depiction of torture, proposed by many who haven’t even seen the film. To say that Zero Dark Thirty advocates torture is like saying Schindler’s List approves of the genocide of Jews. Merely depicting torture hardly makes a case for whether or not torture is “good” or “bad.” There isn’t much question about whether or not torture can be an effective way of gleaning information; whether or not it should be used is a different debate entirely, and one that Bigelow, Boal, and their film wisely decline to weigh in on. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, despite the obvious “victory” at the end of the film, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t end on a “rah, rah, America!” note, but rather a morally ambiguous one. After all, can the death of any real person really be considered a happy ending?
Zero Dark Thirty leaves it up to the individual, how to feel about torture, and the ending, and everything in between. It’s about as objective as a film can get.