Kathryn Bigelow

People might not expect you to know who Kathryn Bigelow is but they should. She’s the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director and she’s the most prominent female director in Hollywood almost by default. Even if you don’t care about that her movies are genuinely great. She’s not blazing new trails in the form but she’s blazing new trails in filling me with adrenaline during a movie. It’s always extra cool to me how much she gets masculinity as a woman but that’s just extra reason why anyone should be able to make movies.

I haven’t seen all her movies but I’ve seen all of them since Point Break, her first major success. When I get to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty I almost don’t know what to say since I like them so much, so I allowed myself get into long asides about movie accuracy and missing the forest for the trees.

Point Break

FBI agent Johnny Utah goes undercover with a group of surfers who might be masked bank robbers. Their exciting friendship and charisma tempt him to abandon his ideals.

Point Break is extremely stupid and awesome. The whole thing is basically Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze having stoner conversations, committing or trying to prevent bank robberies, and competing in extreme sports, all in the most macho way possible. Johnny Utah’s visceral desire for excitement finally answers the question of why anyone would become a movie henchman. Every second is so all-in that you could enjoy it totally genuinely or ironically, and I don’t know really which of those sides I’m on.

Strange Days

In the days leading up to the year 2000, brutal crime pervades Los Angeles. Former cop Lenny Nero buys and sells memory recordings on the black market. They are made with special headsets that record every sight and feeling. When several different death tapes are connected, Lenny uncovers a police conspiracy.

Strange Days is a team effort between Bigelow and writer/producer James Cameron, who she was married to at the time. Depicting a somewhat lawless near future could go over the top but Strange Days felt surprisingly plausible (except the clothes maybe, but it’s Los Angeles). The memory device is one of the better sci-fi plot devices out there since it’s actually useful to the plot instead of a gimmick to cram in somewhere. A lot of the character building and excellent action takes place in the first person view of memory tapes, and the feelings of fear or love in those shots pretty much make the movie. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett nail characters that get a surprising amount of focus considering how much other stuff Strange Days had to get done. There’s nothing totally revolutionary here but it’s super entertaining and I can’t think of anything else like it.

The Weight of Water

Newspaper photographer Jean sails to an island with her poet husband Thomas, his brother Rich, and Rich’s beautiful girlfriend Adaline. On this island two immigrant women were murdered over a hundred years ago, and Jean uncovers its details. Tension and jealousy seethe within these two interwoven stories.

This one isn’t thought of as highly. It’s not perfect but I don’t know if it was given a fair shake. Without getting too into it, a story focusing on subtle relationship dynamics sometimes is treated as less important because it fits more with how women are socialized than men. I think it’s OK not to be interested in one but it sucks that this is the only movie I’ve seen of Bigelow’s that fits this description at all and it apparently bombed. I think she did a great job building tension and helping us understand and relate to the characters’ feelings. She shoots the outdoor scenes beautifully and the limited action bursts with energy.

I could see how many people wouldn’t enjoy it. The connection between the two time periods is pretty tenuous, and to me their themes aren’t more than the sum of their parts. If you cared less about one the combination would really drag. Sean Penn usually kinda bugs me but here he’s supposed to be contemptible so that’s perfect. I guess that’s a lot of it – would you enjoy watching a movie where a woman rightfully learns to dislike her husband? There’s way more to it than that but if that sounds miserable you’re off to a bad start.

K-19: The Widowmaker

The first nuclear Soviet submarine goes on its maiden voyage. When its nuclear core malfunctions in American waters, the crew must fix it save each other and prevent nuclear war.

Submarines are naturally the most tense, masculine places possible. Bigelow can obviously do tension, and her subtle depiction of masculinity is what makes K-19 different. When the crew struggles for power and learns who can be trusted with rising responsibilities, I can’t help but find it more interesting because I know it’s her perspective. As far as sub movies go Das Boot solidly beats it, but K-19 has Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, it’s in English, and it’s not like five hours.

The Hurt Locker

Sergeant James takes over a small bomb disposal unit in Iraq. The two men under his command must adapt to his reckless tactics. They all cope with the danger of war in different ways when they are targeted by an invisible enemy.

This is where Bigelow goes from solidly entertaining to genuinely great. The Hurt Locker is the most positively intense movie I’ve ever seen. Again it’s a naturally tense subject but I don’t think anyone could have done it better. It looks, sounds and feels how I’ve seen combat in Iraq described: violent, nervous, ambiguous, and sweltering. Jeremy Renner surprises you the whole time as James. Similarly to Point Break it makes you see how some people could be drawn to the excitement of reckless danger.

Some have argued that The Hurt Locker inaccurately portrays the US military. If it was simply distracting to those who were in the military, that’s totally understandable. If anyone thinks that makes it a bad movie, I extremely disagree.

Apparently the uniforms, lack of radio communication, and other details were way off and that the main character was reckless and unfit for the job. Here’s some other things that probably were different from a tour of duty in Iraq:
-Artistic lighting
-The movie skips to the parts where stuff is happening
-All people present contribute to a theme or the plot, both of which don’t exist in real life
-You don’t need to sign up for the military to experience The Hurt Locker
-The Hurt Locker is much shorter than a typical year-long deployment

Hardly any movies accurately show any job. If a movie wants you to think a character is successful and creative, they’ll show him working on architecture on a big drafting table, even though as I understand most modern architects work on computers and more frequently they couldn’t find an architecture job and are doing something else. It’s a mental shortcut for the audience, not a shout-out for all the architects. The Hurt Locker needs to use what we already think about war to draw us in, but it also builds on that to change our minds about it. It shows Sgt. James as a stereotypical cowboy hero and then proves how his personality hurts him or his team. The fact that everyone disagrees with how he operates is the main conflict of the entire movie. They think he’s unnecessarily dangerous but he’s actually in it FOR the danger. For how long can his luck keep up? For how long can we keep asking people to do this?

Finally screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, and one of the guys he was with sued him for basing “virtually all of the situations”in the movie on him without compensating him. So someone thought it was pretty accurate!

Zero Dark Thirty

Young CIA analyst Maya devotes her life to the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. She fights to convince her peers and bosses of her theories and finally must trust the military with the task of killing him.

Zero Dark Thirty totally rules. It’s less explosive than The Hurt Locker but its slow burn glues my eyes to the screen for every second. Jessica Chastain is my favorite actor ever and this is probably her best role. She’s a ferocious maniac, a stone-cold killer, and a relatable, vulnerable, lovable kid. In this character Bigelow shows us the struggles of a woman trying to make it in a man’s job. The story condenses a crazy amount of information and is just confusing enough to help us forget we all know the ending already. That ending, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is probably my least favorite part of the movie but the way it’s shot is classic Bigelow excellence. Every bit of it feels so real and human. Again the script by Mark Boal impresses by bringing in a bunch of random guys and making you quickly care about them. Probably the most impressive thing about this movie is how much of it shouldn’t work, but it all does.

Much has been said about Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture. A common complaint is that the movie implies information received during torture was used to find bin Laden. This may be correct but man, did you even watch the movie?  The character Mark goes from maybe getting too into torture, to regretting it and wanting to change jobs, to openly doubting all information gained from torture since it’s frequently so inaccurate. Real progress only happens once they stop torturing guys and start doing real spy stuff. The only way to spell it out in the plot more would be cutting out CIA torture entirely (probably even more misleading) or having the first third of the movie be a bunch of unrelated red-herrings. To me that’s just not a realistic expectation. But if that’s what you needed to understand Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t love torture then yes, don’t watch this movie. Also please don’t vote.

The other reason I find those criticisms weird is that Zero Dark Thirty is such a tragedy. No one came out of it thinking, “Yup, the system works! U-S-A! U-S-A!” I probably came closer to thinking we maybe shouldn’t have even killed bin Laden than I did to thinking we should keep torturing people. I can’t help but think all these movie reviewers were just in their seats imagining conservative old red-staters fist-pumping the air for two and a half hours. I caught it in the theater in South Dakota and Arizona though, and everyone kept their fists politely in their laps. If anything, keeping the usefulness of torture ambiguous allows any person to accept the movie’s premise and really ask themselves if this is worth it either way. Otherwise they’d just assume it’s propaganda and mentally check out.

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