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The Auteur of Unease

What Kathryn Bigelow understands about the war on terror that no other director does

Getty/Stephen Lovekin

How highly improbable that, of all the working Hollywood directors—the grandiose (James Cameron) and the action-addicted (Ridley Scott), the melodramatic (Steven Spielberg) and the blood-obsessed (Quentin Tarantino), the grizzled (Clint Eastwood) and the conspiratorial (Oliver Stone)—Kathryn Bigelow should be the one to best channel the global war on terror. Her 2008 movie, The Hurt Locker, about the leader of a bomb-disposal squad, created a new kind of war movie—small and tense, character-driven and bombast-free—and won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Her new film, Zero Dark Thirty, recently nominated for the prize, will likely serve as our lasting dramatic record of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But why her? She is not just a woman, but a woman who once appeared in Born in Flames, a movie about feminists and lesbians trying to take over the United States. She began her career as a painter, studying at the Whitney Museum under Susan Sontag; her first film starred two semiotics professors. It's true that her early commercial movies were often focused on posses of violent men—the motorcycle gang of The Loveless (1982), for example, or the surfers–bank robbers of Point Break (1991). But she often directed them in a way that makes feminist film critics certain that she was secretly speaking to them, stretching out the homoerotic scenes, or casting leading ladies with butch haircuts who know how to hold a gun.

The classic war movies of the post–Vietnam era have generally taken on grand, philosophical themes: the meaninglessness of war, the grinding down of man by the machine—the machine being war itself, represented by someone like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, the sadistic marine who turns his boys into instruments of death. But Bigelow's war movies shy away from the Big Message. Except for its dramatic beginning and ending, Zero Dark Thirty unfolds like a police procedural—law enforcement types in yesterday's clothes rough up informants, chase bad leads, and hunt for better ones in the old archives. The dramatic breakthrough in the movie comes by way of ... a back-burner file, like something out of "CSI: Pakistan." Many of the high emotional moments transpire in cubicles. Bigelow keeps her movies airless, morally evasive, and constantly on edge. And that is precisely what makes them suitable for capturing the uneasy mood surrounding the war on terror.

Homage to Monomania

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Source: Columbia Pictures/Jonathan Olley).

Remember the great false note of the war? The big, all caps "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" sign that hung in the background as President George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. The problem with that message was not just that there was an Iraqi insurgency brewing or that bin Laden hadn't been caught, but that a war on terror never actually ends; it lurks in Pakistan and Yemen and the suburbs of New Jersey, in dark corners you can't name or see. The filmmakers who failed to tune into this visceral feeling of low-level, lingering insecurity paid the price. Green Zone, for example, was a simplistic story of an officer on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq who discovers there are none and leaks the truth to the media. The message was too easy; the ending too redemptive. It was a flop. The films about the war on terror that have enjoyed the most success—at least artistically—have been documentaries: Taxi to the Dark Side, Gunner Palace, Restrepo.

And like the best documentarians, Bigelow pays close attention to quotidian details and keeps a tight, even claustrophobic, focus on a small corner of the war. She tells the stories almost entirely through the eyes of one person, Staff Sergeant Will James in The Hurt Locker and CIA agent Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Both protagonists are monomaniacal, with no backstory or future, and no existence outside of war. Bigelow made the unusual decision to focus on a female CIA agent, but that doesn't mean Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, humanizes Zero Dark Thirty. She has no love interest or really any personal connections, outside of her friendship with a fellow agent who gets killed. Sometimes when she talks she sounds more like a creature of destiny than a human being. "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," she says after her friend's death.

If Will James and Maya are instruments of death, it's unclear what or who made them that way. There is no Gunnery Sergeant Hartman to blame, no sadistic Marine code, no discernible enemy except in the abstract. They are the perfect warriors for the age of terrorism, because they are constructed themselves like terrorists—obsessive loners, reckless in the name of a cause.

Bigelow has been heavily criticized for the opening scene of Zero Dark Thirty, in which a CIA agent tortures a terrorist suspect and then later uses some information from him to find the name of bin Laden's courier, which turns out to be a critical break in the case. Various security experts who claim to have seen the relevant CIA documents have been arguing over whether torture did produce such information or if the CIA already knew the name of the informant. This is a pointless debate. Torture was in fact a part of the hunt for bin Laden; how critical it was we won't know for a long time, if ever. And Bigelow has never claimed to be making a documentary.

What she's doing is what she has always done in her films, back to her first student film—forcing us to reckon with extreme violence and our visceral feelings about it. The key moment of that torture scene comes when Maya lifts up her mask and lets her red hair tumble out. She, like us, has been watching.

Bigelow has hit this theme before. In her 1995 sci-fi thriller, Strange Days, the main character watches a rape and murder that has been recorded from the killer's point of view. To some, the scene felt less like a critique of snuff films than an actual snuff film, so much so that several critics walked out of screenings. But Bigelow defended the scene as critical to her movie. The real moments of horror, which recur in her movies, happen when the "main character goes through the looking glass and can never return," she has said. They are moments when the characters are forced in a profound way to "identify with the antagonists" and thus lose their innocence.

Bigelow and her co-producer, Mark Boal, have repeatedly insisted that "depiction is not endorsement." But her depictions are deeply uncomfortable and force a different kind of reckoning than you might find in the usual movie about a war between nation-states. The big finale involves the Navy SEALs moving into a compound, which, in this case, means a domestic scene, shoving aside (with one notable exception) the women and children and gunning down all the men. These men are despicable terrorists, but also husbands and fathers. Even though it's an unquestionably triumphant scene, Bigelow doesn't exactly invite us to cheer, the way most war movies would, nor to feel outrage or despair. She just invites us to witness. The toll it takes is obvious from the last moment of the movie, where we see Maya, alone in a transport plane, crying. 

Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a founder of Slate's women's section, DoubleX. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow @HannaRosin.