"I've always trusted that what I think is funny they will laugh at, what I think is moving will move them, what feels ... interesting [to me], they will find interesting. I don't find anything interesting about a gun. A gun is there to threaten or kill. ... A gun is rarely used in film in a way that feels like ... life." Dustin Hoffman
“Zero Dark Thirty” just opened up in Boulder last weekend. I went to a matinee screening which was packed with young college-aged men. The protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, was named Maya, which is Sanskrit for illusion. Chastain also stars in Malick’s “The Tree of Life” opposite Brad Pitt and from looking at her imdb profile, she’s done a lot of television. She had a minor role in “The Help” as Celia Foote, the perky wife who hires Minny to show her how to cook real Fried Chicken.
Kathyrn Bigelow, the director, likes to direct big action flicks. Have you seen “Point Break” with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves? The plot revolves around surfing and busting into banks and stealing money, I’m simplifying it of course. She also directed “Strange Days” one of the few films I’ve ever walked out of, dragging my boyfriend at the time with me. I saw “The Hurt Locker” which won best picture in 2011, about a man obsessed with detonating bombs, again I’m simplifying the story for the sake of getting to my point. Bigelow likes action. She likes to keep the guns and the bombs in the frame and the threat they represent as a constant presence.
IFS is not screening “Zero Dark Thirty” so this blog piece is purely my attempt to share some observations about the movie and its director from the perspective of a woman who makes films, watches films and thinks a lot, maybe too much. I should be clear, I love action movies. One of my favorite action films is “The Fifth Element” with Bruce Willis and directed by Luc Besson. It is true that the "The Fifth Element" is on the comical and goofy side of the genre but it’s packed with science fiction, romance, CGI effects, wacky characters and heroic figures. The story still contains the classic save-the-world-from-the-evil-empire only with a lot of zany detours and ridiculous and implausible exposition. But isn’t that what every James Bond movie is about? Or any dark and serious action flick? In “Zero Dark Thirty” our hero is a heroine named “illusion” and she saves the world from Osama Bin Laden (OBL) the evil Al Qaeda dictator who paid for 9/11 and is behind the successful US campaign to have every passenger disrobe before boarding a plane. Only it’s for real. This is based on truth, it’s not a ‘Skyfall” or a hobbit or a Bruce Willis "Die Hard" movie.
So what was I seeing and experiencing while I watched this film? First I wanted to know if Maya was real and turns out she is but maybe her name is “Jen” and she is definitely still undercover. This is a real person recruited into the CIA from either high school or college to fight terrorism. Very interesting. And how did it feel to watch a film from the perspective of a female heroine who was putting the pieces together of a grand scale murder mystery investigation? Chastain does a wonderful job of letting her face do all the work. She did that in “The Tree of Life” also…I don’t remember one full sentence coming out of her mouth; it was whispers, happy yelps, fearful screams, gentle seductive smiles, angry or sad tears but very few actual sentences. To a lesser extent, she does that here too. She eats a lot of junk food and she thinks, sleuths, deduces, and finally is overwhelmed by her own results. My overall impression is of someone who does literally nothing else but detective work; she has no friends, is smart enough not to take on a lover, and ingests a copious amount of information.
So, I ask myself again, what am I watching? The film is set up like an episodic television show and is poorly crafted to some extent. The torture scenes depicted in the film (waterboarding) have been heavily debated all over the blogosphere, the press and on TV so there’s no need for me to discuss that. We are being carried on Chastain’s brows; they will tell us if we’re up or down, angry or sad, terrified or confident and so on. So, based on assumption, through Chastain we find Bigelow. What is Bigelow doing with this movie? Why did she choose the gaze of a female? Knowing that it’s based on a real person lubricates the decision, but I think Bigelow might have created the persona of Maya anyway. Maya is tough, insubordinate, and confident and possesses providence. She has no existence outside of the mission. She is a one-pointed animal.
To be a female action director in Hollywood, to be the first woman to win best picture, to be married to James Cameron for three years, to be able to direct pictures that are gritty, hard and threatening, to raise the money to make these films, to deal with the criticism that comes with them, to make a film that depicts extensive torture, to steadily build a life of wanting to be in that life you have to be an animal. You have to be conniving, tough, insubordinate, and confident and possess providence. There is no way out of it. If you don’t have those qualities you don’t make movies and you certainly don’t make Hollywood movies. I would pose that we are watching Kathryn Bigelow as Jessica Chastain as Maya. Because, as a movie, as piece of art, as a reenactment of the OBL takedown, this is not much of a movie. But as an anatomical dissection of what it takes to be a woman who makes Hollywood action movies, it’s beyond accurate. You have to know that Bigelow identifies with Maya, embodies her, breathes the same air and screams at the same a#@holes every day that Maya does. Maya does a beautiful job of telling people off and the satisfaction of it is palpable because Bigelow knows how to depict it beautifully.
As someone who has worked in the Hollywood machine for some years, been behind the assistant desks of Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher, and other monsters, I recognize a true heroine when I see one. This film is a battle cry it is not a film. It is a beating on the chest and taking up of weapons. Ok KB, I get it. Are you done proclaiming? Because I’d like to see what you’ve really got. Can Bigelow be the heroine and save the Hollywood filmmaking machine from certain destruction? I don’t think we have to know or that it’s all that interesting. What would be interesting is if she pulled a Marc Forster and did a “Finding Neverland”. Forster went from doing a hard and dark film called “Monsters Ball” to the literary and poignant true story of J.M. Barrie that was elegant, had a gorgeous script and was well crafted and performed. I’m not saying she shouldn’t do an action film, which she obviously wants to do, I’m saying she could tone it down, soften it up, change the story from a battle cry to a peaceful cry and show us another side of her skill set and talent. Can she soften up and remove the threat of a weapon or two? Can she craft something beautiful, precise and elegant that is moving and touching and not bloody and murderous?
It is possible that Hollywood has gotten to her and it’s too late, but I hope not. KB, step outside the box, step outside the 18 to 25 year-old male audience sweet spot, step into a film about life without a weapon, I dare you.