Zero Dark Thirty represents a revolutionary idea — a woman who doesn’t need any man to come in and rescue her. Moreover, she’s the ball buster in the room. She’s the one who says it’s time to put the pressure on (a reminder that I am looking at the film as art and not debating torture) and she’s the one who sticks to her guns when the men want to turn tail and run. We spend much of the time on Maya’s face, watching her thought processes as she works it out, as she zeros in on her target.
At the end of the day, no one really knows what to do with this character. We prefer movies where the men fix everything because that’s what we’re used to, that supposedly controls the box office, that is the status quo that has been choking the life out of modern Hollywood. What do we do when a whole movie is about the internal life of a female character that isn’t a positive experience? By the end of Zero Dark Thirty Maya has done her job and done it well, as she had been trained to do by the CIA but that doesn’t mean she’s happy. There are no knights in shining armor to rescue her. She doesn’t get a pat on the back and a gold star. She doesn’t right the wrongs of our society. She suffers silently, alone, with nowhere to put her own torment.
Mark Boal wrote the character as a woman to make the point that in America women aren’t treated the way they are in the fundamentalist Muslim sects we’re at war with. In fact, there are two women in the film who are each in charge. This is something you saw back in the 1970s and in the 1980s even but you never see now. Women are meant to be wives and girlfriends but not singular protagonists.
The shame about Zero Dark Thirty, and even The Help, is that the controversies surrounding them might mean that movies like that don’t get made again. It is not our job to seek perfection in art; it is the artists job to seek their own perfection. The critics should not have abandoned Zero Dark Thirty for the safer choice because of the controversy. Either the movie is a brilliant work of art or it isn’t.
If Maya had been less sure of herself, like, say, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs who learned much from and was sort of pushed along by the men in her life, Hannibal Lecter among them, would there still be the same kind of agitation? Is it that old theory that men don’t trust women behind the wheel? Do none of us trust women behind the wheel?
Zero Dark Thirty is threatening in many ways that have nothing to do with torture. It is quietly the only film in the Oscar race by a woman and about a woman. Yes, the screenplay was written by a man but the uniqueness of the Bigelow/Chastain collaboration should not be discounted, particularly when we are in the rut we’ve been in for the past two years, where the majority of movies that land in the Oscar race are by and about men featuring men doing great things and women being subdued and supportive in the background. It feels like the 1950s all over again — except for back then movies like All About Eve were winning Best Picture.
Bigelow herself is threatening. After Twitter Asshat Bret Easton Ellis put out the “Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she’s pretty” nonsense, then tried to retract it, it was obvious that Bigelow would be judged differently simply because she was a woman. But I think we can be sure that if, say, Clint Eastwood or Jim Cameron had directed Zero Dark Thirty the controversy would have been minimized. Face it, we’re used to men being the smart ones, men being in charge. One of the great things about last year’s winner, The Artist, was that Peppy was a character in her own right. Sure, the film was really about the guy’s inner world but Peppy was the successful one. She rescued him. In Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence is also the rescuer but she doesn’t seem to have anything else on her mind except him. That appears to be the way so many of the younger generations, at least the ones I read on Twitter, want things to be – that is how they see strong women.
I am heartened by the way my 14-year-old daughter and her friends talk about gender roles in the media. They recognize that there’s a problem. I hope they become uppity women because without uppity women the world would be a very boring place. “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Not enough is celebrated about what Zero Dark Thirty is, how it’s a tiny revolution that may slightly alter the landscape of American film and the Oscar race. The invisibility of women is not a concern in Europe and other countries that showcase at Cannes. This is an American problem. Hats off to the filmmakers who remembered that 50% of the population in America are female and we’re not letting go of our power any time soon. Spielberg’s Lincoln, Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and most importantly, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
I watched Bigelow take the heat and respond with cool prowess, just as Hillary Clinton faced down Senate inquisitors with firm assurance when she was grilled at the Benghazi hearings. If I were arguing the point of history and torture I would have different things to say but we are still dwelling in the world of art, and in that world Bigelow is a quietly defiant hero. Whether Zero Dark Thirty or Beasts of the Southern Wild or even Lincoln win a damned Oscar or not is really beside the point. You can’t really beat back popular opinion. But the saving grace in this mishegoss is that we have these works of art for all time. They are worth more than a gold statue, which is really like the Maltese Falcon when you get right down to it — a futile pursuit.
So here’s to you, Kathryn Bigelow, and you, Mark Boal for doing the impossible — delivering a strong onscreen female who really is just interested in the work. Some might think the “feminist dream” of a woman who can say, “I’m not the girl who fucks” is a nightmarish stereotype, but that’s only because they’ve never lived inside the body of a woman who really does just want to work, to make her voice matter, to do everything a man can do and maybe sometimes do it better.
Sasha Stone is the founder of Awards Daily.