A close look at Kathryn Bigelow

Below is an article from  Times magazine written by Jessica Winter, depicting the artistic vision Kathryn Bigelow has put into works such as The Hurt Locker and, more recently, Zero Dark Thirty. It is an in depth and well written article that talks about many aspects of her career, such as the controversial torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, and artistic vision that leaves the audience with the responsibility of forming an opinion about a contemporary issue.


Kathryn Bigelow: The Art of Darkness

By Jessica Winter Monday, Feb. 04, 2013

In the late 1970s, the young artist Kathryn Bigelow had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend of a friend by the name of Andy Warhol. “Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art — that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” she recalls. Around the same time, she visited the Museum of Modern Art, paying special attention to Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White and Piet Mondrian’s color-block grids. “I remember thinking, The audience for this is very specific,” Bigelow says over lunch in her hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, not far from the museum. “A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.”

She emphasizes the word political, lingering over it for a moment. Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker (2009), which logs 38 days with a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad, was widely perceived as taking a neutral or apolitical stance on its subject matter — if such a stance is possible when the subject matter is the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It won nearly universal praise as well as the Academy Award for Best Picture. Bigelow’s follow-up, her second collaboration with screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, was originally planned as a feature about special forces hunting Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001. Boal was deep into his screenplay when news broke of the SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Almost immediately, he and Bigelow switched gears, instead mounting a chronicle of the 10-year hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.

The movie that resulted, Zero Dark Thirty, which was No. 1 at the U.S. box office in its first week of nationwide release and has been nominated for five Oscars, is in many ways as dispassionate a procedural as The Hurt Locker. Yet it has become the most politically divisive motion picture in memory. Not only does it stage brutal scenes of American operatives practicing torture at CIA black sites in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, but in the eyes of many experts, it also forges false connections between information gleaned by torture and the eventual discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.

In December, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee member John McCain and chairman Carl Levin wrote a letter to Sony chairman Michael Lynton calling Zero Dark Thirty “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture helped extract information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden” — specifically, the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The Senators also asked the CIA to disclose what access and information Bigelow and Boal received from the agency. According to a statement by Michael Morell, acting director of the CIA, which cooperated with Bigelow and Boal in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, the film “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding” bin Laden, but “that impression is false.”

Journalists with deep knowledge of post-9/11 CIA culture, interrogation techniques and black sites, including the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer and Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll, have lambasted the film, with Mayer accusing it of “providing false advertising for waterboarding.” New York magazine critic David Edelstein labeled Zero Dark Thirty “borderline fascistic.” He also called it the best movie of 2012, as did the New York Film Critics Circle.

Some 35 years have passed since Bigelow’s chat with Warhol. Back then, she was picking up work as an artist’s assistant and had a small National Endowment for the Arts grant for a short film, The Set-Up, in which semioticians provide running commentary on a fistfight between two men. Now she directs major Hollywood productions with high-level CIA input; Zero Dark Thirty is poised to become the highest-grossing movie of her career, with $58.1 million in receipts to date.

Like a white-on-white canvas, Zero Dark Thirty has become a projection screen for the audience’s perceptions and sympathies, taking on different colors and contours depending on what the viewer brings to it. And though the debate over the U.S.’s use of torture has been pursued and inflamed in endless articles as well as books and television series (nonfiction and fiction alike), none have been as high-profile or as lavishly funded and marketed as Zero Dark Thirty, and none have borne the imprimatur of the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, as Bigelow did for The Hurt Locker. She is not up for the same prize at this year’s ceremony on Feb. 24, though the omission is less attributable to the fracas around her film than to a combination of new voting deadlines and an unusually strong field; Argo‘s Ben Affleck and Les Misérables‘ Tom Hooper were also left off the Best Director short list. (All three are nominated for the Directors Guild Award, to be announced Feb. 2, and all three movies are nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.)

This territory has been controversial since the early part of the decade, so I knew that the film was going to be controversial, though perhaps I didn’t anticipate this kind of volume,” Bigelow says. Slim and just shy of 6 ft. tall, in a black sweater and jeans, she is an astonishingly youthful 61 and exudes a warm elegance, equal parts Northern California mellow and Northeast patrician. “I feel we got it right. I’m proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden.”

In common with Bigelow’s other films, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell the audience how to answer the questions it raises. Instead “the film creates a conversation,” says Jessica Chastain, who gives Zero Dark Thirty‘s protagonist, CIA operative Maya, shades of austerity and obsession that edge into a kind of religious devotion to tracking her prey. “I believe that was Kathryn’s intention when she made the film — to open a conversation. She ends it with an unanswered question, Where do you want to go? She’s asking the audience, Where have we been, and where do we go from here?”

Maya — an ethereally beautiful redhead whom we first glimpse hidden behind a menacing balaclava — is what she does; her mission is all we know of her identity or of her CIA colleagues. “Part of Kathryn’s brilliance has always been that she doesn’t let you get involved in trying to know what the person onscreen is thinking,” says the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, one of Bigelow’s early mentors. “She takes the trouble to show you what they are doing, and then she steps back.” It’s that space between the action and the stepping back that helps define Bigelow as a filmmaker. It’s that space, perhaps, that has allowed so much controversy into the frame.


Bigelow grew up in san carlos, calif., in the Bay Area. As an only child, she says, “you kind of become peers with your parents.” Her mother taught English; her father managed a paint factory and was something of a frustrated artist. “I guess his great passion in life would have been to be a cartoonist, but he could never figure out how to go from A to B,” Bigelow says. “But he would draw for me, day in, day out — sketches, caricatures. He thought of himself as extremely unattractive, and he would exaggerate his features.”

She painted from age 6 and after high school attended the San Francisco Art Institute. “I loved de Kooning, and I loved big canvases, and I loved oil, not acrylic. I loved the smell of it and the giant brushes and the goop — I mean, I was always covered head to toe in paint. I’d kneel down, and the paint was so thick on my pants that it would crack. I would do these big pieces that were like Abstract Expressionist — Renaissance fusion. I would take a corner detail from a Raphael, blow it up and paint it in an Abstract Expressionist way.”

In her early 20s, she enrolled in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent-study program. “I remember walking all over Manhattan in my little Levi’s jacket and my jeans and cowboy boots, so excited, so happy to be there and, I suddenly realized, so cold. I went into a hardware store because I could no longer feel my legs.” The Whitney gave her a studio, which doubled as a living space, in a repurposed bank vault three stories below ground level in an offtrack betting facility in present-day Tribeca. “Tribeca, SoHo — those concepts didn’t really exist in the early 1970s,” she says. “You actually couldn’t get a cab to take you down there. So I’d be down in the freezing bank vault in a sleeping bag, hearing gunshots up top quite often. But none of us students were worried for ourselves. It was a great community that formed. We were constantly communicating to one another about what we were making and trying to challenge one another. In film you don’t find that. Like, I never see other directors.”

At that time, she was also constantly communicating with an all-star cast of cultural figures. At the Whitney, her advisers included artist Brice Marden and Susan Sontag. Other formative influences were Weiner (Bigelow served as subject or editor of several of his 1970s videos) and sculptor and video artist Richard Serra (she appeared briefly in his film Prisoner’s Dilemma). She teamed with her friend Philip Glass to fix up former printing factories in SoHo as artists’ lofts, living in the spaces while she worked. (Bigelow sanded the floors and put up the Sheetrock walls; Glass handled the plumbing.) In one of these buildings, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe lived above her. Later, when she was crashing in a condemned building with no electricity near the South Street Seaport, photographer Cindy Sherman lived below her. Filmmaker Milos Forman saw an early version of The Set-Up and offered her a scholarship to a Columbia graduate program. At a Wooster Group performance toward the end of the decade, she went backstage and offered a role in her first feature film, a 1950s-set biker-gang tone poem called The Loveless, to the young stage actor Willem Dafoe, who accepted on the spot.


“Kathryn then is the same Kathryn now,” Dafoe says. “She’s attracted to something instinctively, and then she researches it, and her research becomes an adventure. In the late ’70s there was a lot of interest in rockabilly and appreciation of ’50s outlaw culture, so she would go to clubs to scout people for their look and style, and worry about coaxing a performance out of them later. She was so interested in the slang and the idiom and the ritual of that world, which wasn’t really of her own experience. And she’s still interested in learning the language and rituals of hidden worlds. Just look at her titles — Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty. It’s like coded language and she’s cracking the code.” (Zero Dark Thirty‘s title is a tweak of “oh-dark-thirty,” a military term for half past midnight.)

The Loveless (co-directed with Monty Montgomery) led to a development offer at Universal that took Bigelow to Los Angeles. The studio deal didn’t pan out, but she eventually secured financing for Near Dark (1987), which relocated the vampire myth to the American desert, followed by Blue Steel (1990), starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop with a stalker and a missing gun.

“She had a quiet strength,” says Curtis. “There was this machinery to her. She was all business. Even down to her clothing — black jeans, black T-shirt, very simple, militaristic if you will, like a uniform. I used to do an imitation of her taking her shot list out of her pocket, unfolding it, looking at it and then folding it up and putting it in her back pocket. She would do that over and over. She’s not a cold woman, she’s not a machine, but there’s a machinelike execution to what she does. She is only there for the film.”

Bigelow followed Blue Steel with the sublimely goofy action hit Point Break (1991), starring Patrick Swayze as the ringleader of a band of bank-robbing surfers and Keanu Reeves as the hotshot FBI agent on their case; the film’s kinetic foot chases were captured with a “pogo-cam,” a handheld 35-mm camera with a gyrostabilizer. Her technical ambition expanded with the dystopian Strange Days (1995), which featured action sequences so complex that her production company had to design and build new camera equipment to capture them. (Point Break was executive-produced by her then husband James Cameron, who also co-wrote and produced Strange Days; they divorced in 1991 after two years of marriage.)

Bigelow’s career foundered somewhat near the turn of the millennium, particularly after the box-office disappointment of K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), a would-be summer blockbuster. In the years between K-19 and her next film, The Hurt Locker, she met Boal. “Mark opened up a window for me onto how you can make a film that’s part of the current conversation,” she says. “The Hurt Locker was an opportunity to make a deep dive into content that was contemporaneous, an opportunity to reflect in a way that might make you uncomfortable, which was something we continued with Zero Dark Thirty.”


Zero Dark Thirty credits its story to “firsthand accounts of actual events,” drawing on Boal’s original reporting and meetings with CIA officials; its composite characters are based on real people, living and dead. The film opens with a black screen and real audio recordings of 9/11 victims calling for help from the burning towers. It then cuts to a black site, where Maya (Chastain) observes her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) as he tortures a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb). The first 25 or so minutes of the film are largely taken up with torture: Ammar is strung up, beaten, waterboarded and kept awake for 96 hours straight.

Pale and stricken, clearly aghast at the abuse but resolved to stay in the room with the subject, Maya in Zero Dark Thirty‘s early scenes is an audience surrogate. She can also be read as a stand-in for Bigelow herself — an exceptionally skilled, workaholic woman triumphing in a male-dominated realm — though Bigelow politely shrugs off the comparison. “It’s a natural parallel, and there’s perhaps some connective tissue there, but if anything, it would be subconscious and not conscious,” she says.

Maya is our only constant as the film barrels through 10 years of punctuated equilibrium in the war on terrorism, pausing over the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, the September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel and the suicide attack on the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in December 2009, finally arriving at the Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2, 2011. Perhaps the finest action director at work today, Bigelow choreographs the predawn raid in near real time with breathtaking suspense and precision as well as a chilling matter-of-factness that drains the sequence of elation or jingoism.

“Where there’s clarity in the world, there’s clarity in the film,” Bigelow says. “Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. That’s clarity. And where there’s ambiguity in the world, there’s ambiguity in the film.” Bigelow is unambiguous in stating that she thinks torture is “reprehensible,” but critics of Zero Dark Thirty object to what they see as a causal relationship between torture and the uncovering of bin Laden’s lair. They’ve also cried foul that Bigelow — who calls Zero Dark Thirty “a reported film” — and Boal make claims to both its journalistic bona fides and its right to artistic license.

“First, the interrogation scenes are inaccurate and overwrought and just plain wrong,” says former CIA director Michael Hayden, who argues that the film conflates the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay with the more strictly controlled and clinical interrogation techniques he says were employed at CIA black sites. “Second, though I can’t imagine Abbottabad happening without making use of information that we got from detainees, the linear, straight-line connection from that information to Abbottabad that the movie suggests is also overdone. And finally, it was far more of a team effort than Maya against the world.” (Maya is based on a real-life CIA operative who tracked the courier over years; she is reportedly still active in the field and cannot be identified.)

“It’s a good and eminently watchable movie,” says Robert McFadden, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent in charge and a senior vice president at the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy. “It’s also disturbing and misleading.” McFadden challenges Bigelow’s decision to follow recordings of 9/11 victims just before their deaths with a fictionalized torture sequence. “To go from ‘based on firsthand accounts’ to the recordings — which are so visceral, which provoke such an emotional response — to the torture, I think most people would come away thinking, Yeah, we needed to do that.”

Also, McFadden says, “The average viewer would have to be left with the idea that torture — or enhanced interrogation techniques, depending on your perspective — were critical in putting together the mosaic that led to Osama bin Laden. From open-source reporting and from people with access to the information, we know that, no, that information did not come from torture.”

As high-ranking an official as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the picture is somewhat less clear. After Abbottabad, the then CIA director wrote to John McCain in a letter, “Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively.”

Virtually everything about Zero Dark Thirty is debatable, according to Boal. “Even simple factual questions are being debated and litigated at the highest levels of government, between, for example, the Senate and the CIA,” he says. “It’s being debated among historians, among journalists, among politicians, even among those agencies. I’ve spoken to two people in the CIA who worked with the same prisoner, who had two totally different views of what got him to talk and of the value of a particular piece of intelligence in the overall puzzle. ”

That said, Boal adds, “If the general impression you get from this movie is that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that’s because that’s true. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean they had to torture people or that torture is necessary or torture is morally right.”

Zero Dark Thirty is not alone in an awards season rich with movies that re-create, reinterpret and even subtly rewrite history, from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to Affleck’s Argo to, most audaciously, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Bigelow’s movie has come in for the harshest scrutiny because the history in question is so fresh and undigested — and, to a great extent, not yet declassified — and because the filmmakers made the most vocal claims to reportorial accuracy. Boal speculates that Zero Dark Thirty has also attracted negative commentary because it dredges up ugly, even shameful chapters in a saga that received a triumphant, Hollywood-perfect finale from SEAL Team 6 on a moonless May night. “Kathryn gives us a graphic depiction of the detainee program when a lot of us would just want to forget about it and move on,” he says.

Bigelow and Boal also carry the burden of being first: theirs is the first movie about 9/11 that arcs to the assassination of bin Laden. (In the first weekend of the film’s wide release, its five top-grossing theaters were in Virginia near CIA headquarters, D.C. and New York City, the areas affected most directly by 9/11.) It was written and shot with blistering speed after the raid and completed as recently as November. There will be many more films about this period; Zero Dark Thirty never could have compressed all the events of 10 years into 2½ hours, but even the movie’s skeptics would acknowledge that it has thrown down a gauntlet for artists and filmmakers who want to complement or rebuke its version of this chapter of American history.


“It’s an important filmmaker who trusts the audience to participate,” Chastain says. Zero Dark Thirty‘s audiences have participated, to say the least, and they have raised vital questions about what the film gets right and wrong and why it matters. But part of the negative response can be seen as the product of Hollywood-movie conditioning, the expectation that we should identify with a heroic protagonist, share her motivations, enjoy her successes and, above all, feel a sense of triumph as we walk out of the theater. The impulse is especially strong in the context of bin Laden’s assassination: a purely black-and-white conclusion, with identifiable and unconflicted heroes assigned to the task, is irresistible.

Bigelow’s movies don’t work that way, and they never have. Jeremy Renner’s bomb-disposal savant in The Hurt Locker routinely and willfully endangers himself and his fellow soldiers and seems permanently alienated from his wife and toddler son. In Near Dark “the good guys are the bad guys,” as Bigelow puts it; that is, they are vampires. The terrorized rookie that Curtis portrays in Blue Steel is both hero and victim and seems irreparably damaged by movie’s end. Ralph Fiennes’ protagonist in Strange Days is a sleazy, pathetic salesman of black-market virtual-reality gear; we recoil from him more than we root for him. In K-19 a Soviet naval crew succumbs to radiation sickness largely because of the hubris of their commanding officer, played by Harrison Ford.

“I wanted to dispense with all the movie tropes — the clean through line, the idea of the hero,” Bigelow says of K-19. “It was interesting trying to get that one financed, because you’d be pitching it, saying, ‘This really happened. They averted a thermonuclear event off the coast of a NATO base.’ I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean, who are the Americans?'”

One might pose a similar question of Zero Dark Thirty, which portrays its intelligence-gathering Americans as variously savage, dedicated, flighty, monomaniacal, generous, blinkered, amoral and hollowed out. Who are these Americans? And how was American history and identity shaped — or warped — by the methods employed in our decade of vengeance? The film’s heroine, fittingly, is a mystery unto herself, with no backstory; there are many questions that the audience can’t ask her, such as “What do you do outside of work?” and “Are you dating anybody?” and “No, really, do you do anything but work?” These are questions, by the way, that Bigelow isn’t terribly keen on answering either.

She won’t give details on her currently percolating project beyond saying it will be a third collaboration with Boal, but she hints strongly that her future is the present. “If you pick challenging, contemporaneous subjects that create controversy and noise around them, it puts you with Apocalypse Now, All the President’s Men, A Clockwork Orange, In the Heat of the Night, Battle of Algiers. That’s some very good company.” Bigelow wants to keep that company. There will be no palate cleanser — no romantic comedy or Point Break reboot. “Once you’ve opened the window on topical material, it’s very hard to close it,” she says. “Holding up a contemporary mirror is more attractive to me now than ever.”


About Haley Behre

I graduated from Syracuse University in December 2011 with majors in newspaper journalism and women and gender studies. Using these majors, I aspire to become a journalist who writes about human rights issues. I have held internships at the Syracuse New Times, Dash Media PR Firm, Syracuse Post-Standard and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. I also had an internship at the Not For Sale Campaign Syracuse chapter, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking. I was born in Seoul, Korea on September 30, 1990 and moved to the United States before I was one year old. When I was 8, my family and I moved to Norwich, England for three years. While I was here I was immersed into a new culture and got to experience many things other children my age do not get to. Over the three years, I visited Ireland, France and the Netherlands several times, and Belgium, Wales and Sweden once. In the winter of 2010, I got an amazing opportunity to visit Kenya for a month. This was by far the single most eye-opening experience of my life thus far. The natural beauty of the landscape and its people do not compare to anything I have seen. I currently intern for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press in the hopes of getting a full-time job at a newspaper or non-profit after.
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