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She Who Will Not Be Ignored

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by Melissa Silverstein
December 14, 2012 2:00 PM
8 Comments
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kathryn bigelow

My fellow blogger Sasha Stone has another great piece (how do you write so much great stuff Sasha?) over on her blog Awards Daily called Female Trouble: Why Powerful Women Threaten Hollywood.  You must read it.  I usually ask Sasha to cross post these great gender pieces she writes but I thought today, it was important for me to amplify her piece because what she discusses is really important.

If you read this site regularly you will notice that this year we have taken every opportunity to note the awards that Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty are winning.  It is a rare awards season when a woman director and her film are a dominant conversation piece in the mix for best picture and best director.  The last time it happened was when Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker.  Last year no matter what anyone did Lynne Ramsay could not get any traction for We Need to Talk About Kevin, and previously, Debra Granik and Lisa Cholodenko had to settle for writing and acting honors for their films Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right.

But Bigelow cannot be ignored.  They will try and take her down which is happening now as Sasha notes branding her film as torture porn.  I can't tell you how many articles I have seen over the last couple of days by all different types of writers weighing in on the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty.  CIA agents and writers are going on CNN to argue that the film is misleading and that torture did not lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Of course they don't deny that the US tortured prisoners because we did.  Those water boarding scenes in the film are brutal.  It makes you cringe.

While watching the scenes of torture I just kept thinking how awful they were, how desperate everyone was to get information, how these torturers became broken by having to do these acts.  I thought the torture scenes rather than celebrating torture were a condemnation of these tactics.  It took 10 years to find this guy.  They just didn't beat the crap out of one person and get the info they wanted.  Do I believe that the US tortured people during 10 years of the search for Osama bin Laden.  Yup.  Do I believe from this film that the couple of guys they tortured on screen got them directly to Bin Laden.  Nope.

What is so fascinating about this whole conversation is that Zero Dark Thirty has revived this god awful time that all the folks who condoned these tactics want to put behind us.  The movie shows what happened when Obama came into office and things were shut down.  These torturers went home to lick their wounds and try and put their lives back together if they could.  The cowboy mentality that we usually see in soldiers depicted in films is part of the DNA of the CIA personnel in the film.  Jennifer Ehle's character of "Jessica" a seasoned CIA agent is practically giddy anticipating the arrival of a potential key link to get the terrorists.  The rush is palpable.

I am so loving that all these national security personnel are apoplectic about this film because it is a film that cannot be ignored.  It has gravitas and depth and is a damn fine movie.  I was all about Argo before I saw Zero Dark Thirty.  But with all respect to Ben Affleck -- who is becoming a first rate director -- Zero Dark Thirty dusted Argo.  It doesn't try and be nice.  I don't think there is a single likable character in the film.  These are all dedicated professionals unifocused on the biggest prize.

Back to Bigelow.  Kathryn Bigelow has directed films with female leads before.  Steel Blue.  Weight of Water.  But the world was not ready to embrace her talent on a grand scale until The Hurt Locker.  As people have written she was a journeywoman director with no clear through line in her work.  Now with these two films she and Mark Boal have become the frontline chroniclers of the war of terror.

Being the first woman to win the best director Oscar she received piles of criticism for making a film that had hardly a single woman character.  It was as if the boys would not have let her in their little club if she was a woman making movies about women.  That is probably true.

But in hindsight it is fortuitous that that happened.  Because this film, to me, is even better, and this one is a woman's story.   And it is not a pretty story.  Stories about women shouldn't always have to be pretty.  Jessica Chastain's character of Maya is laser focused on her job.  She does a job that many people gave up on.  Yet she does not waver.  When she gets the evidence that she needs she sells it hard.  And then the boys vacillate.  And she pushes.  For weeks and months.  And then in a great scene where she is a room with all men giving their estimate on whether Osama bin Laden is in the house, she says 100% when they are all at wavering at 60%.   She says "I know you guys don't like certainty but I am 100% certain he is there."

We all know there is a woman out there whose name is not Maya.  In the book that one of the Seal Team Six members wrote about the raid she is called "Jen."  These guys are lauded as heroes and according to the Washington Post "Maya" is having trouble at work at the CIA because she is no "miss congeniality", has been passed over for promotions and is struggling to receive the proper recognition for her work in the killing.   Men are lauded for this type of behavior and women are looked at as difficult.

Kathryn Bigelow has a very fine line to walk.  Last time she did the dance the conversation was about how she had been married to James Cameron and that they were in competition with each other for the best director honor.  The narrative also was about how pretty she is, how shy, how she doesn't want to talk about being a woman, and oh yeah how she is dating Mark Boal her much younger collaborator.

Now three years later there is no James Cameron but there is her ambiguous and close relationship to Mark Boal.  Bigelow herself says she is the delivery system for his content.  Their partnership is unique and quite frankly quite cool to me.  Now if these were two guys working together in this capacity no one would give a shit, but their personal relationship whatever it is or was is generating stories.  Bigelow again becomes fodder for gossip because of her gender.  If the roles were reversed, first the younger female writer no matter how integral she was to the entire production would NEVER be doing every single interview with the older male director.  Just wouldn't happen.  The older male director ego would shut her down fast.

Part of the job of a director today is to sell your movie.  Not every director is an outgoing effusive egomaniac.  So sometimes it is hard for a director to do the press needed to sell their film.  Kathryn Bigelow is clearly getting better at this, but it looks at times like she is not comfortable.  The ABC piece a couple of weeks ago was awkward, but now as she has been out there more, it's better as was evidenced on The Charlie Rose program earlier this week.

What I've learned in the couple of years that I've been writing about the films is that the Oscar season comes in cycles.  Right now everyone is positioning to make sure they get a nomination.  Bigelow and the film and the screenplay along with Jessica Chastain are locks.  People can't move them out of the locks into the maybes.  Not gonna happen.  So now is the time to try and take them down.  The thing is that because the film is controversial and about the biggest manhunt in human history there is a lot of fodder for people to use to take the film down a few pegs.  It's not the feel good world wide musical sensation like Les Miserables.  It's not about abolition of slavery like Lincoln.

But no matter what they say about the content of the film and its veracity they can't say that the film isn't well directed.  So that's where the rest of the shit comes in.  And the only reason they get away with the other shit is because Kathryn Bigelow is a woman.

She may not want to talk about this but I sure do because talking about women directors and how they are treated is a conversation that rarely comes around and proves how much work still needs to be done towards gender equity in this profession.  That is exactly what some people don't want to hear -- and must.

Inside Mark Boal’s and Kathryn Bigelow’s Mad Dash to Make Zero Dark Thirty (NY Magazine)

In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ she’s the hero; in real life, CIA agent’s career is more complicated (Washington Post)

Female Trouble: Why Powerful Women Threaten Hollywood (Awards Daily)

"Zero Dark Thirty" Filmmakers Keep Breakup Quiet In Oscar Campaign (Buzzfeed)

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

8 Comments

  • Sounds of Cinema | December 28, 2012 2:21 PMReply

    I appreciate the sentiment here and in Sasha Stone's piece regarding sexism and Hollywood but suggesting that everyone criticizing ZERO DARK THIRTY is protecting a patriarchal power structure is disingenuous.
    I also have to wonder: why such an emphasis on the Hollywood awards circuit as some barometer of success or relevance? Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar but Charlie Sheen has one.

  • Stephanie Rosenfeld | December 21, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    Really good piece, Melissa.

  • Rachel Feldman | December 21, 2012 11:20 AMReply

    Great comments Melissa! Fantastic conversation. Thank you!!

  • Star | December 16, 2012 5:08 PMReply

    "And the only reason they get away with the other shit is because Kathryn Bigelow is a woman."

    Sorry, but this is horseshit. Lincoln, Les Miserables and, especially, Django Unchained are being "taken down" every bit as much as ZDT. That's just Oscar politics at work.

    The fact that you think Bigelow is, somehow, being targeted or singled-out is just paranoiac nuttiness.

  • JG | December 15, 2012 3:43 PMReply

    And when women are war criminals, torturers and deliberately hide the fact that Al Qaeda hijackers have US entry Visas from the FBI? Still heroic? Bigelow is a propagandist.
    --
    http://politicalfilm.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/zero-dark-treason/

  • DJP | December 14, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    A great director needs great scripts to make great movies. Kathryn never had a great script until The Hurt Locker. She has the talent and now that she has compelling material, she is making great movies.

  • BLOB | December 14, 2012 3:13 PMReply

    I love Bigelow and truly believe she is a great director. But Zero Dark Thirty, along with The Hurt Locker and to a lesser degree The Wire, a pieces of work that make people feel smarter than they actually are. It hits that sweet spot that makes people pat themselves in the back and unjustifiably ignore its faults. I wonder how many people saw that "Michael Clayton" final shot of ZDT and thought, "oh ok, I get it. This shit is deep yo." The movie is good but the goddamn hype machine is getting out of hand now.

  • Charles | December 25, 2012 11:06 AM

    This is in response to the comment by Blob. I haven't seen the movies so I cannot comment on the quality of the film.

    But, Blob, you just psychoanalyzed an entire audience that you've never met.

    That's chutzpah.

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