If you did not gather from the trailer that Zero Dark Thirty stars a woman, achieving success in the male dominated military industrial complex, then you would not be alone. I don’t blame the movie’s marketers for masking that fact in order to gain a broader audience. In fact I encourage it, make more feminist leaning movies, disguised in the trailers as conventional patriarchal fare.
I went to see this movie solely because Kathryn Bigelow directed it. If you missed the Academy Awards two years ago, she won best director for The Hurt Locker, becoming the first female director to win the award in it’s 83-year history. In large part, Bigelow delivered what I expected of Zero Dark Thirty, a gritty, unflinching, yet nuanced look at the search for and assassination of Osama bin Laden. What I did not expect was a strong, intelligent, assertive, female lead, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who champions an unpopular theory on the whereabouts of bin Laden.
As a bonus feminist feature, the movie includes Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), a colleague of Maya’s at the CIA who becomes a friend. Two strong, realistically portrayed, female characters in one movie is almost too much to hope for. And their camaraderie in the midst of an overwhelmingly male environment, is moving to watch.
The lack of sexism Maya encounters gives much more credit to our military than it is due. No one makes comments to her face about being a woman in this line of work. No one makes any sexual comments about her. She doesn’t seem to be treated any differently because she is a woman. And while I realize that this may not be realistic, it was so refreshing that I was willing to overlook it.
Lest you think Bigelow or the movie’s writers are entirely avoiding issues of sexism, at the end of the movie, at Maya’s triumphant moment of success and vindication, a senior officer is on the phone to command and you hear him say that their analyst has confirmed the identity of the target, “yes, sir, the girl.”
To be clear, this movie is not for the faint of heart. It has torture, blood and violence. Katie Halper at Jezebel has this to say.
And I agree while the film depicts torture, it does not endorse it. It shows it as something disgusting instead of sanitizing it. It’s true that the film does not vilify the torturers. But, it is also true that the film refuses to vilify the torture victims, and even portrays them in a sympathetic light. It’s not clear whether torture played a direct role in finding Osama bin Laden. But torture was rampant and systemic for a period following 9/11. And to pretend it wasn’t would have been dishonest and trivializing. Bigelow wanted to show the ugly side of the war on terror. And she certainly did.
So suck it up and go see Zero Dark Thirty, because I want to see what Kathryn Bigelow does next.