PRINT January 2013



Still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 156 minutes.

THE SETUP of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty puts you in the last place in the world you’d ever want to be. Over a black, empty screen, we hear a sound collage of phone calls made from the Twin Towers after they were hit, ending with a young woman’s plaintive “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” and the whispered “Oh, my God” of the 911 operator as she loses the connection. It is an opening even more immersive than that of Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), where we find ourselves looking through the lens of a video camera mounted on a remote-controlled “bot” as it hurtles along a chaotic Baghdad street toward a confrontation with an IED. Both films immediately kick you in the solar plexus and never let up. The seven daredevil features Bigelow directed before she ever set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan all have thrilling passages of bravura filmmaking, but nothing like the sustained power of these two films.

The Hurt Locker in particular testifies to Bigelow’s aesthetic roots in ’70s structuralism. She came to New York to enroll in the Whitney Museum’s theory-heavy Independent Study Program, worked with Lawrence Weiner and Vito Acconci, and was part of a loose-knit group of artists involved with film and video (James Nares, Beth B. and Scott B., and John Lurie among them). Bigelow’s ambitions suggested themselves in the relatively glossy production values and the violence of her short film The Set-Up (1978), which depicted two men beating each other to a bloody pulp in a dark alley behind the Mudd Club. Like this striking study, her early features revealed her aspiration to the ranks of such brutal and intelligent action directors as Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann. The Hurt Locker, while no less visceral, displays finer control and purpose. It could as well have been titled Several Instances of Dismantling an IED, although if it had been, it might not have cleaned up at the 2010 Academy Awards. The film won Best Picture, and Bigelow became the first woman to receive the directing Oscar. Zero Dark Thirty, which opened in a few cities in late December and goes into wide release this month, has already won critics’ awards for best picture and direction, as well as prizes for its cinematographer, Greig Fraser, and star, Jessica Chastain. It will no doubt be an Oscar contender as well.

Bigelow made both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty in collaboration with Mark Boal, a journalist who in 2004 was embedded in Iraq with a US Army bomb squad. For the former movie, he was both the screenwriter and a producer. On the latter, he gains a third credit: A MARK BOAL PRODUCTION appears before the title, perhaps to signify creative balance in a milieu that favors the idea of the director as sole auteur. As sprawling as The Hurt Locker was contained, and just as suspenseful—though we know from the beginning how the story’s going to end—Zero Dark Thirty follows the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, largely through the eyes of Maya (Chastain), a CIA operative who arrives in Afghanistan in 2003 and is immediately thrown into an “enhanced interrogation” session with a prisoner believed to have information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. Revolted at first, but determined to achieve her goal by any means necessary, Maya devotes herself to a pursuit that is, implicitly, justified for her—and perhaps for the viewer—by the horror that provided the opening sound montage. When Navy SEALS finally execute the raid that Maya’s hard-won intelligence put in motion, she is drained of emotion and purpose. Bigelow and Boal’s most brilliant choice was to end the movie with despair rather than triumph.
Amy Taubin

Still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 156 minutes. Patrick (Joel Edgerton) and Nate (Nash Edgerton).


I THINK IT’S THE COLLABORATION with Mark Boal and the timeliness of the stories that made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty different for me. As a filmmaker, I had a kind of longitudinal/latitudinal parameter within which to work. You’re within what I would call an aesthetic of restraint. Journalistic imperatives define your filmmaking. For me, it’s very exciting to work in that bandwidth.

After we finished The Hurt Locker, we were looking for another project to embrace. Mark was born and raised in New York. September 11 had a huge impact on him. He began reporting on special-forces operators who had been the first into Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Mark was about two-thirds of the way through a script—and then bin Laden was killed. I had a scout looking at locations in Kazakhstan. We had a trip planned to Afghanistan. We were going to fly into Kabul and then into Bagram Airfield and then go on to Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, which is where the operators had left from to go into the Tora Bora mountain range. I wanted to see the actual places before I chose locations for the movie. And then the May 1 [2011] raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad happened. After that, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not to hang on to what we had. But history had intervened. That’s what I mean about journalistic imperatives and historical imperatives.

At least now we had an interesting last act. Mark went to Washington and started to report the story of the decadelong hunt for bin Laden. And about two months into his reporting, he discovered that there were women who were central to this operation. And that became the frame for the story. We have ten years compressed into two and a half hours. There were many, many people involved in this operation, men and women. It’s not a documentary, but the characters, for the most part, have real-life counterparts.

I see this movie as a portrait of dedication and a portrait of belief. Maya believed, as is shown in the movie, that bin Laden’s courier would take them to him. I was fascinated by her strength and her tenacity and her fearlessness. It was not necessarily the most popular lead. As we show in the film, there were other avenues to explore. But Maya flies in the face of obstacles because she believes so strongly that she’s right.

The whole story was crafted to be told from her perspective. In that sense, it’s very subjective. You’re at the epicenter of that hunt with her, experiencing all the triumphs and the frustrations and the sort of bureaucratic hurdles that you have to push through. You’re in that Pakistani marketplace. You’re trying to find that house. You’re trying to get the phone number for a certain name—through whatever means available to you. Film has the opportunity to invite an engagement with an event, when you look at it through a journalistic eye. You know that it has been compressed and dramatized. The narrative is based on firsthand accounts, and maybe they don’t lay out in a narratively conventional structure, but that’s the beauty of it. With The Hurt Locker, people said, “Where are the acts? It’s episodic.” Well, that’s what these guys’ days are like. The hunt for bin Laden was a fairly difficult ordeal. Finding him was a complex and arduous process. There were many disappointments, a lot of frustration. It required a tremendous amount of dedication and courage, and people lost their lives. That’s how the story laid out.

After a pretty extensive amount of research and a lot of documentation, we arrived at how everything looked, the interiors of the Islamabad embassy and, obviously, the compound in Abbottabad. One place where we had to make an imaginative leap was with the stealth helicopter because, other than the tail section, which was left behind, what they look like wasn’t documented. Otherwise, all these environments and locations are replicated to the best of our ability. The choices are immediately limited, and I find that freeing. Where you’re making choices is in selecting actors and calibrating nuanced performances.

Still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 156 minutes.

The choice to shoot with the Arri Alexa [digital camera] was dictated by the material, by the circumstances of the raid itself. Because the assault happened on a moonless night, there was very limited ambient light. So I needed a lot of exposure latitude. The Alexa gives you that. My DP, Greig Fraser, did a lot of tests, and I thought they were just gorgeous. He is very specific about the lenses he chooses. Some of the ones he used were vintage Russian lenses. They gave the image a sort of hand-hewn quality. And the way he lights, he lights without it looking like it’s been lit. He’s a master, and it was a true collaboration. From the research we’d done, I had already created a visual lexicon before I met him. I told him, “You know, we’re going to have to embrace white here,” because the walls in the embassy and in all the offices are white. You say that to a DP and they go, “Oh, no!” but he just said, “All right, I haven’t done that before.” That’s when I knew he was fearless.

And then I talked to him about shooting in virtually zero-light conditions for the raid. We didn’t do a postproduction version of night vision where you kind of color it green and desaturate it. He was able to get real night-vision lenses that he attached to his camera lens. But in order for them to operate effectively, you had to be in almost a no-light condition. So we had to do the raid material twice. We had to shoot it once with these soft boxes that give you a low-light, kind of moonless light condition, and then we had to take all that light away and shoot it again, using the night-vision lenses. So in the film, when you can barely see the guys, that’s objective camera. Then, when the image goes green, that’s night vision. I wanted the audience to understand that the SEALS were moving through dark, confined spaces, but with night-vision goggles they could see perfectly well. I was talking to one of the retired SEALS who was always with me on the set, and he said, “They are meant to move like water.” It’s not like an action film, where they run or move quickly.

I felt a real sense of responsibility in doing something this contemporary. I had an opportunity to explore the psychology of the women and men working in the intelligence community. Zero Dark Thirty marshaled all the filmmaking tools that I find fascinating, yet at the same time the journalistic imperative imposed a restraint that keeps you focused. There is no wasted energy on anything extraneous. That’s the beauty of working this way.

People keep asking us, just like with Hurt Locker, “Aren’t you saying this? Aren’t you saying that?” In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the narrative is based on the reporting. It has been dramatized—it’s a movie and not a documentary. You could call it a reported film. By presenting the information, we’re hopefully starting a conversation. But there is no political agenda in the movie whatsoever. It’s not the filmmaker’s position to judge. My hope is that we made a good movie that people will enjoy. I’m saying, “Here’s what happened—it’s up to you to make the assessment.” I can’t comment on it. I just made the movie.