Kathryn Bigelow defends 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The director accused of glorifying torture talks to Time Out



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She is one of the world’s leading action directors and the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. Kathryn Bigelow’s new film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ charts the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Working with writer Mark Boal (who also wrote her 2009 Oscar-winning ‘The Hurt Locker’, about a US bomb disposal squad in Iraq), it tells the story of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain). Bigelow, 61, shows the CIA breaking detainees using techniques including torture in their search for Bin Laden – which culminates in the 2011 Navy Seal raid on a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has been widely praised and received a nomination for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. But since the film was released in the US in December, three US senators and a number of journalists have questioned its factual accuracy and the role of torture in its story.

How do you feel when people make presumptions about your politics from watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’?

‘There was a similar thing with “The Hurt Locker”, people wanting to know my feelings about the Iraq War. And I was mystified, because there’s no conceivable way you could watch that movie and think: I want to go and stand in a rubble-strewn street and pull wires out of an extremely explosive device. To me, “The Hurt Locker” only showed the futility of that conflict.’

So what do you say to people who claim that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is ‘pro-torture’?

‘I find it interesting that you could see “Zero Dark Thirty” and in any way come to the conclusion that it is pro-harsh tactics. It’s absolutely inconceivable. Certainly, my feeling going in was: if we don’t examine some of the more regrettable acts that transpired in the name of finding Osama Bin Laden, we’re going to repeat them.’

Our window into this story is a CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is based on a real person. Why did you choose her perspective?

‘Well, there were these characters who emerged as Mark [Boal] was reporting it. So we shaped the story around the research and attempted to make it as faithful a rendering of that story as we could, knowing, however, that it’s ten years compressed into two-and-a-half hours. So it’s accurate in the way a movie can be accurate. It’s not a documentary, and I stress that.

‘It’s an extremely complex story and operation, and I think the details of it will be debated for years to come. This is just a first draft. That’s how I see it. I hope there will be more films, more books, more articles, and each time there’ll be more information.’

Did any major revelations or new leads emerge once you’d finished the screenplay?

‘No major revelations came out after Mark had written the production draft, but there were [new] details. I had the good fortune of working with a couple of retired Seals while I was shooting the raid at Abbottabad and [learning the] details of their movements. There’s a methodical nature to that assault: it doesn’t unfold the way a Hollywood movie might unfold – or at least people have described it to me that way. Having them there, there was an attention to telling the story as faithfully as possible.’

Was it important that the film should avoid looking triumphant at the end? That it shouldn’t present the death of Bin Laden as rousing?

‘That was beautifully captured on the page. Yes, the operation to find Bin Laden was successful, but the film posits a question: what now? Where do we go from here? Where do we want to go as a country? I think it’s an opportunity for reflection.’

So when, right at the end, Maya is asked ‘Where do you want to go?’, is that a question for us?

‘It gives us an opportunity to look at some regrettable events in the past in the name of finding Osama Bin Laden – and I would say in the hope of history not repeating itself.’

Thinking of the noisy reaction so far to your film: surely that’s what you want from a film like this?

‘I think if you deny history, you repeat history, so putting information out there that’s worth examining and exploring is very productive. Sadly, this conversation was not nearly as spirited before this movie, and I can’t answer why. It’s worth discussing and re-examining. I think torture is reprehensible. I’ve said that, and I will continue to say it.’

What was your motivation for making the film?

‘Everyone around the world has been affected by the War on Terror, especially the families of 9/11 and the first responders and the military and intelligence professionals, so I was humbled and honoured to tell this story.

‘It’s been a long, dark decade and it’s been a chance to shed some light on the hunt itself, on the operation, on the tenacity of the individuals at the heart of it. It’s arguably the story of a lifetime. Its timeliness and its topicality are incredibly important to me as a filmmaker: it gives you the opportunity to engage in the first draft of history.’

Zero Dark Thirty’ opens in UK cinemas on Fri Jan 25.

Users say


The fact that she refuses to call torture "torture" but instead use the euphemism "harsh tactics" says a lot I think.

Watch the 'Zero Dark Thirty' trailer

Kathryn Bigelow on 'The Hurt Locker'

The first female director to cross the threshold of mainstream Hollywood speaks to Time Out about 'The Hurt Locker'.

Read the Time Out interview with Kathryn Bigelow

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