Zero Dark Thirty: Counting the human cost
When Osama bin Laden was killed by United States special forces two years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was deep in preparations for a movie about the failure to capture him during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan.
The script, by Mark Boal, was nearly finished. They had scouted locations in Kazakhstan and were soon to helicopter into Bagram and Jalalabad to see the terrain they’d be trying to replicate.
When news of Bin Laden’s death came in, it blew apart the project in such a way, Bigelow says, that any frustration was eclipsed by a sense of being “propelled by history”.
In fact, she says: “I think our first thought was: ‘Well, at least we have a third act.’”
As it turned out, Bigelow and Boal, who had successfully collaborated on The Hurt Locker three years earlier, quickly realised it was not a third act but “the entire story”. Zero Dark Thirty, which has been igniting feverish reactions since before its first screening, is an account of the 10-year CIA search for Bin Laden and the raid on his compound in Pakistan that resulted in his death.
It opens with a black screen, over which real audio from 9/11 plays, the screams and entreaties as shocking now as they ever were, and what follows, including scenes of brutal “enhanced interrogation” of detainees in CIA “blackspots”, is either “a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs” (the New York Times) or “false advertising for waterboarding” (the New Yorker) — a film that, ultimately, “endorses torture”.
At 61, Bigelow is a striking figure, slight, angular and tall. She is softly spoken. Her assiduously neutral position on the politics of the film brings to mind, ironically, a politician. There will be many accounts of the war on terror, she says, of which hers will be just one: a specific story, told from a specific point of view, informed by Boal’s interviews with CIA operatives.
“I feel very confident with his reporting,” she says, “very confident with my handling of his reporting. And I think we can both, with confidence, stand by that film from beginning to end.”
Bigelow’s approach to the film and the ensuing furore has clearly been influenced by her experiences on The Hurt Locker. In that movie, the wider controversies of the war in Iraq are sidelined in favour of the experiences of the soldiers: the beads of sweat, the dust, the fly dancing on an eyelash as the eye looks, unblinkingly, down the barrel of a gun. These small details accrete, over the course of the film, into something like a moral force.
In 2010 Bigelow justifiably won an Oscar for best director for The Hurt Locker, becoming the first woman to win in that category.
Zero Dark Thirty takes “a similar perspective”, she says, with its focus on the individuals, a group of CIA agents tasked with finding Bin Laden. “It’s a very human piece, and it’s a story of determination. We can all, as human beings, identify with believing in something — believing in something so strongly that there is nothing else in your life.
“It’s a real tribute to the men and women in the intelligence community who obviously have to, by the nature of their job, work in complete secrecy. It’s a nod of respect and great gratitude.”
Attention to detail
But when Bigelow says her aim was “to be faithful to the research, to not have an agenda, to hope that people go to see the movie and judge for themselves”, she overlooks the film’s structural sympathies. I suggest to her that one could argue that torture is such a black and white issue that to provoke sympathy for those engaged in it is in itself reprehensible.
“That’s an interesting point. But I think that you certainly see the human cost. And also, if it had not been part of that history, it would not have been in the movie.”
By “human cost”, she means both the bloodied, humiliated form of the detainee in the film and the deadened responses of the CIA agents, some of whom were killed in the 2009 suicide bombing of their base in Afghanistan. Bigelow trusted Boal’s reporting when he turned in the script, but I wonder if she insisted on knowing his sources — if, when it came to the most controversial scenes, she needed to satisfy herself that they were double-, triple- or quadruple-sourced.
“Having worked with Mark on The Hurt Locker, I felt like his attention to detail is so acute — and he comes from the world of investigative journalism — that it’s sort of like ... He described the way we worked together as he cuts the vegetables and I make the soup.”
Brought up in California, Bigelow went to art college in San Francisco and then on to a fine arts programme run by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. At that point her only thought was to become a fine artist.
She got into filmmaking by default, falling in with some video artists and being inspired to make a short film herself. It was called The Set-Up (1978) and ran along textbook grad-student lines: a 20-minute exposition of “two-men fighting each other as the semioticians Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the images in voice-over”.
“Film wasn’t something I searched for,” she says. “I backed into it.”
There followed a series of low-budget films, the odd music video (for New Order, in 1987) and, in 1991, Bigelow’s first big hit, Point Break, the surfing blockbuster starring Keanu Reaves and Patrick Swayze. It established a certain muscularity of style, which Bigelow consolidated with Blue Steel, Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker.
She is firmly of the belief that commenting excessively on women’s restrictions in Hollywood only compounds their ghettoisation — although this is also, surely, another facet of a generally apolitical mind-set. “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies,” she has said, “I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.”
If not politically, then as a filmmaker at least, Bigelow must have been delighted that two of the CIA sources in Boal’s script were youngish women.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Bigelow says. “Women in defence, I think, are sort of the unsung heroes. I was first of all surprised to learn that women were at the centre of this hunt. And I was sort of surprised that I was surprised. You don’t think of a young woman being a terrorist-hunter.”
Making Zero Dark Thirty was like an epic puzzle, she says, and she sheepishly confesses that’s one of the things she likes best: “Logistics. I know it sounds crazy, [but] I do enjoy it. Because it’s like finding order out of chaos.”
Given the film’s scope and ambition, the budget was relatively tight at an estimated $20-million. The major expense was recreating the compound where Bin Laden was discovered. Bigelow became obsessed with the accuracy, right down to the fixtures and fittings.
“We had to build it in a structurally sound way to withstand the rota wash of the helicopters. The production designer even researched what tiles were on the floor, replicated the bed frame and the oak chest of drawers — it was all from the ABC footage they were playing after the assault.”
When she gives any thought to the vastness of the story, and to the radioactive sensitivity of so many of its elements, she reassures herself that, “as a filmmaker, it’s a responsibility to engage with the time I live in. You’re kind of creating an imagistic version of living history.” And with all the risks that entails. — Guardian News & Media