As soon as it became clear that Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was a genuine threat in the Best Picture race you could smell the fear. The powers that be could see the film was far more than just okay; Bigelow was about to blow the boys club out of the water, once again. Her movie had to be taken down a notch or two, but how? Since they could no longer dismiss little missy with a paternalistic pat on her head and a condescending, “good job!” maybe try smearing the film as an alleged breach of national security. And if the trumped up accusations of security breach wouldn’t stick, then it would have to be branded as torture porn. And if the torture porn tag felt too flimsy, then perhaps manufacture some frenzy over propaganda for our torture-loving military. And if THAT’s what it is, my god, what next? Just keep pushing those hot buttons, that’s what. When enough members of faux outrage brigade gasp anew at the fact the CIA tortured Al Qaeda suspects in the hunt for Bin Laden, let them run with that. Faster than a mouse-click the hive would be humming about how Zero Dark Thirty let it slip that torture was one way the USA did whatever was necessary to bring Bin Laden down.
That would make us look pretty bad, wouldn’t it? Considering America’s ostensible stance against torture and the experts who’ve said that torture doesn’t work anyway so why do it? Now along comes Bigelow’s film to tell the truth about how things went down, without taking a specific side, and suddenly, Bigelow’s film ADVOCATES torture. Bigelow’s film tells the story from the point of view of people on the ground, on the hunt. Her job was not to smooth things over for US politicians, nor to beat the drumbeat of barbarism to catch our killer at any cost. Zero Dark Thirty is not a propaganda film for either side. It is a story about people.
In the hysteria that has ensued, you’d think every trusting young boy had just walked in on mommy fucking the milkman. Why was it so hard to grasp that Bigelow wanted to depict events accurately whether or not it pissed off liberals or republicans? She, and screenwriter Mark Boal did the same thing with The Hurt Locker. That was a story about soldiers on the ground, our volunteer army sent into Iraq to fight a war based on lies, based on fear. Bigelow’s 2008 film didn’t take political sides — she took the side of the people saddled with the unlucky task of fighting an unwinable war in a hornet’s nest.
Bigelow and Boal’s second collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, is the story of a young female (OH MY GOD, ANOTHER WOMAN!) CIA agent whose mission it is to hunt down Bin Laden. Among many of the tactics in play during that time was torture. But this agent’s method of finding Bin Laden did not include torture — she outwitted Bin Laden’s support net in a way no one else could figure out. Moreover, her ideas were met with continual resistance. When her method produced results, every pair of testicles within a 50-mile radius stepped in to take credit. Ain’t that always the way?
Let’s face it, powerful women just freak everybody the fuck out. Everywhere in general, but especially in Hollywood. Would Andrew Sullivan have flipped out if, say, Oliver Stone had made Zero Dark Thirty? Doubt it. He certainly wouldn’t have responded so emotionally, I’m guessing. The same incredulous lack of confidence in Bigelow’s ability to handle this story (which she did, with flying colors) was, ironically, exactly what the real Maya encountered, and is still encountering, within the CIA. She was passed over for a promotion. She was discussed as having “personality problems” because she dared to confront people who tried to dilute her accomplishment.
The Hurt Locker was never this ruthlessly attacked because liberals felt it reflected their view of the war in Iraq. Zero Dark Thirty takes audiences to a more ambiguous place and asks US to take a stand on torture, perhaps. It asks us to answer the question of whether it was really all worth it. After the 3000 souls who perished when the Twin Towers fell, what was the extended cost of 9/11 that America wrought in return? Add nore than 6,000 dead US soldiers in both wars to those who died in New York that, and the toll is close to 10,000 before we even start counting innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians. While that endless carnage raged on, Maya was given a singular task: find Bin Laden. She does it. But has it meant anything to those still fighting? Has it led to fewer attacks? Lasting peace? Of course, not because the struggle isn’t that simple and the movie isn’t interested in handing us simplistic answers.
And if all of that horrendous ruckus weren’t already enough, out trots has-been scandal-tweeter cum 80s lit celebutante Bret Easton Ellis, rearing up to tear down Bigelow for being attractive. At 61, Bigelow is beautiful, yes. She is the kind of beautiful that bad screenwriters always put in their bad scripts that turn into bad Hollywood movies. But Bigelow has always been beautiful. She was beautiful when the critics trashed Blue Steel and Point Break and K-19. She was beautiful when she couldn’t get a deal in Hollywood and was beautiful in 2009 when The Hurt Locker became the best reviewed film of the year and won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. So, if it was all about her looks, what took so long? Wouldn’t Hollywood have thrown its self at her feet long before she hit her 60s?
His own meteor-ride petered out, Ellis has nowhere left to go and apparently no better way to spend his time than to say dumb things on Twitter in hopes of soaking up some of attention that has dribbled away from him in other areas. Everyone who follows him knows this. Now every tawdry news story links to him, of course, trailing after Bigelow’s success like a dirty piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her boot.
But wait. There’s more. Now Bigelow’s relationship with Mark Boal is also a hot topic for wagging tongues because GOD KNOWS the last thing ANYONE wants to talk about is how good the movie is. Because that would mean … she wasn’t a one-trick-pony. That would mean … it wasn’t just about sticking it to Jim Cameron. That would mean — gasp! can it be possible? — might Kathryn Bigelow actually be… a GREAT FILMMAKER?
Bigelow isn’t the only woman running the sexist gauntlet this year. As we all know, the Oscar race and Hollywood roll on greased testicles. Movies directed by women? Hell, you can count them on one diddly finger. Ava DuVernay, who became the first African-American female to win Best Director as Sundance has been riding a parallel track to Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild since the festival. Both films were highly praised, though Beasts has the feel-good component voters love. Middle of Nowhere is more truthful, but equally brilliant. DuVernay is a filmmaking pioneer trying to do what’s never really been done — bridge the gap between black and white stories by not telling the sort of stereotypical “black story” white audiences have come to expect.
She raised all of the money for her film herself, and is getting by during FYC season with the help of a tightly-knit community of supporters, as well as a few bloggers and critics here and there who have seen the film and are nudging it into the spotlight. We might have hoped that the one awards group to appreciate her what she’s done and look past exclusionary blinders would have been the NAACP. But no. The NAACP nominations came out and Middle of Nowhere didn’t make Best Film. These films did:
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
“Django Unchained” (The Weinstein Company)
“Flight” (Paramount Pictures)
“Red Tails” (Lucasfilm)
“Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds” (Lionsgate)
Three of the five of these films were directed by white men. Two weren’t. None by women, of course. And if that wasn’t diss enough, they also put out an independent list:
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
“Chico & Rita” (GKIDS)
“Red Tails” (Lucasfilm)
“Unconditional” (Harbinger Media Partners)
“Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day” (Codeblack)
Because, of course, why not give Beasts of the Southern Wild and Red Tails Best Film double honors at the expense of fresh voices at the fringe. The only Best Independent film directed by a woman is Woman Thou Art.
The point here isn’t to call the NAACP sexist. And it isn’t to say that they don’t do what every awards voting group does. But the oversight is glaring nonetheless. They failed to recognize a true pioneer in the African-American film community. Sure, no one ever wants to kick up a fuss about anything. Everyone would prefer we stay in our corners and continue to talk about Anne Hathaway’s cooch and Kate and Wil’s baby and which film is going to win Best Picture. The last thing we want to talk about is a systemic breakdown in our glitzy annual pageant, as pathways for female filmmakers are blocked at every turn.
Whatever fate awaits these women at the end of this year’s red carpet ceremonies, both Bigelow and DuVernay have made two of the best films of 2012. It’s always hard to get consensus support for a female director among mostly male voters. If you’re a black female filmmaker it’s doubly hard. That DuVernay is earning acclaim from the white critical community probably also stirs a certain amount of jealousy. We never know what motives drives people to diminish or disregard an artist. It’s a cruel fact of human nature that our first reaction to perceived threats is fear, and crueler still is the second reaction — to lash out. Bigelow’s film appears destined to become the best reviewed film of the year. It will likely join Benh Zeitlin’s Beast of the Southern Wild as one of the nominated Best Pictures. Middle of Nowhere will mostly likely not. But that doesn’t mean both don’t deserve the honor. Here’s to many more films made by DuVernay and Bigelow. And here’s to testicles, too. Men who possess the best are ballsy enough to share their power.