The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Why Zero Dark Thirty is a big deal to me

with 25 comments

Sweden is going to host the Eurovision Song Contest this year and a few days ago they announced who was going to host this event, which will be broadcasted over all of Europe. When it turned out that it was a talented female comedian, the immediate response from one of the leading critics in Sweden was to express his concerns He argued that since she had become a mother a few months ago, she was probably unfit for the job. According to the critic she ran the risk to be distracted, having other priorities and her thoughts elsewhere during the show.

The critic was soon called out in social media in Sweden for his outdated views and it was pointed out that there have been several men leading similar events over the years with a baby at home and that this was never considered a problem. But I think it says something about the power that stereotypes and prejudices have over us. As a woman you’re supposed to put your baby above your career.

This is supposed to be a post about Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. So why am I telling this story? Well, I think it serves as an illustration of how far we still have to go – even in a country like Sweden, which is considered to have come a long way in terms of equality. Women are still sorted into the same old boxes. Are you a mother, a sex goddess or a helpless victim in need of protection? Make your choice! Just don’t come and tell us that you’re a professional.

A big deal
To me Jessica Chastain’s portray of Maya, the agent who leads the hunt, is a very big deal, one of the things that makes this film stand out.
“Do you realize what we just watched?” I asked my husband as we left the theatre.

“We saw a movie with a woman in the leading role, who’s portrayed as someone who is smart, tough and able to lead other people. She wasn’t a sex object, she wasn’t looking for someone to take care of her or someone to hook up with and she wasn’t using her attractiveness to get what she wanted. She was allowed to do her own thing, regardless of her sex. How extraordinary! How refreshing!”

“Uplifting” isn’t the first word I’d use to describe Zero Dark Thirty, but from a gender perspective I think it is. It’s got Maya, but also several other female agents, who are portrayed as just as professional and focused on the task as she is. And it’s got Kathryn Bigelow, who once again stands out as a big, shiny exclamation mark in the world of action movies, which until now has been so completely dominated by men. Change takes time, but I’m positive that the very fact that she exists and is so successful will serve as a source of inspiration for many upcoming young female directors. Her work speaks for itself.

Endorsing torture?
I wanted to bring up the gender aspect of Zero Dark Thirty, partly because the discussion about the torture scenes was starting to get at me. But I’ll say a few words about that too, to let you know where I stand.

With all respect for that people are entitled to their own opinions, I find the idea that this film in any way justifies or glorifies torture quite ridiculous. What it does is to show what war means, in all its ugliness, including some aspects that we usually don’t talk about, things that happened despite the denial from the authorities. Whether the use of those methods were justified or not is left to the viewer to decide Zero Dark Thirty raises a lot of questions, but answers none. And that’s what makes it so far superior to most other war movies.

In the hands of a different director, this film could have been forgettable or – more likely – annoying. Imagine what it would have been like if Steven Spielberg had directed it!

Now don’t take me wrong, I actually like most of his work, including War Horse from last year, which pretty much every one else hated. But I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty would have been anywhere near as good with him as a director. I can see the additional ten minutes in front of me, where Maya returns to US, gets decorated by the president, unites with her family, visits a grave of some friend who died, holding hands with a newly found love, while the schmaltzy John Williams score is playing in the background. No thanks.

[mild spoiler warning] As it is now, the film leaves you exactly where a film on this topic should leave you: hanging, lingering in the thoughts in the events we’ve just seen.

What now? Has anything really changed with Osama bin Laden dead? Can we ever break the chain of revenge actions? Where do we go from here?

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, US 2012) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

February 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Posted in Zero Dark Thirty

25 Responses

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  1. I wish I could say I foresee us breaking out of the spiral of revenge, but I don’t, at least not on our present course. Excellent post! And you raised several relevant points about gender. If a man had become a father a few months ago, no one would question his fitness in a difficult professional role.


    February 5, 2013 at 1:22 am

    • Thank you Steph! And yes, statements like that one shows that we still have a long way to go before women are regarded as absolute equals with the same rights and opportunities to make whatever they want to with their lives.


      February 5, 2013 at 7:51 am

  2. Spoiler: I like how everyone interprets Mayas tears differently. Mine was that she just felt totally empty now that the only thing she had lived for for 10 years is gone. Not relieved or anything like that. And i guess that works as a metaphor for the whole situation/movie/country.


    February 5, 2013 at 1:26 am

    • I’m with you in that. It’s tears of exhaustion, not tears of joy. The scene works both on a personal level and as a metaphor.


      February 5, 2013 at 7:53 am

      • Haha, exactly my words on that scene… of course without reading your review or comment here. 😉 For some reason it’s ok for me to listen to podcasts about a movie before I’ve written my own review. But I don’t want to read any text about it. Strange. Here’s my review (in Swedish but there is a translation widget to click):


        February 7, 2013 at 10:30 pm

        • It’s rare to see the bloggers in Filmspanarna agree like this about a movie. Almostall 4/5 and 5/5! Makes for a nice enthusiastic discussion on Saturday!


          February 7, 2013 at 10:53 pm

  3. “He argued that since she had become a mother a few months ago, she was probably unfit for the job.” That just flabbergasts me. I suppose it shouldn’t because, like you say, for as far as we’ve come we still have a long way to go but still…….I find it absolutely flabbergasting someone could make such a comment.

    I adored this movie – I’ve seen it twice – and I like how you cover it because I really feel it IS Maya’s movie. It’s not a revenge movie or an Osama bin Laden movie – it belongs to Jessica Chastain. Her character and her performance.


    February 5, 2013 at 3:45 am

    • Thanks Nick. Well, at least the guy was properly called out, if that’s any comfort. But still.

      I would really like to see it again, but this time I might close my eyes a bit during the torture scenes. I’ve been through it once, so I think I would be entitled to cheat a little second time around.


      February 5, 2013 at 7:55 am

  4. Thank you jessica for your thoughtful review and ideas. Gender, especially for women is a big deal because still we fight for equal standing. For our voices to be heard without all the bagage we have to give 120%, go the extra distance, and out pace everyone. Your honesty is refreshing and I think we need more of it. Women need to start standing firm and I believe Kathryn Bigelow is one of our strongest leaders.
    Again, thanks for the powerful words and thoughts. You make a difference.

    Vicki Love

    February 5, 2013 at 5:26 am

    • Thank you Vicki for your words of encouragement. As you know gender politics isn’t the prime focus of my blog and I don’t put on those glasses in every review I write. But in the case of this film it felt like the natural way to approach it. I find it a little strange that so much of the discussion about the movie has been devoted to torture and so little has been said about gender


      February 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

  5. It’s an excellent film. Strong female roles are few & far between & all credit to Bigelow for creating one. I always feel that actresses should form their own production companies & seek out & create roles they would want to see on film because left to the Hollywood machine, such roles, like Maya, will continue to be limited.


    February 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    • I guess taking action doing the writing yourself is one way to go. It’s a pity if it’s necessary though. I think it should be in the interest of ANY screenwriter – male or female – to create both male and female roles that are interesting and not just there for decoration.


      February 5, 2013 at 5:12 pm

  6. Great post Jessica. I absolutely agree in terms of a strong female lead but the film itself didn’t do anything for me. I found it tedious and didn’t particulary enjoy the flag-waving revenge element to it. In some ways I seen it as opportunistic western propaganda. That’s just me though. Many have disagreed with me on this. 😉

    Mark Walker

    February 5, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    • Thanks Mark! Sorry it didn’t work for you, but that’s life. I didn’t see it as western propaganda at all, it felt fairly neutral to me. But then again: I guess there is an amount of politics in everything we see. Our own stances colour our impressions either we’re aware of it or not. It was the same thing about Argo. Some people found it propagandistic. I didn’t at all.


      February 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      • I admittedly find it hard to separate my personal politics from some film’s. I’ve yet to see Argo but I have heard these proganda views from some. There’s a good chance I’ll feel the same, considering I felt it during ZDT.

        Mark Walker

        February 5, 2013 at 5:31 pm

  7. Glad to see this movie gave you such a empowering feeling. Not sure i can really comment on it being a guy and all, but i do believe there should be more female directors in hollywood along with a more diverse range of female characters.


    February 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    • Thank you! It certainly did. I think we’ll eventually get more female directors and better female roles, but things are moving unsatisfyingly slowly.


      February 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

  8. Splendid post Jessica! I thoroughly agree with you on your comment about Chastain and her role as a protagonist. There’s a ‘you go girl’ moment in the film where she gave her boss a piece of her mind, and of course her irreverent comment to Leon Panetta during the briefing was just brilliant! This isn’t the first she played a strong female character though, she was fantastic in The Debt also. Agreed about the torture thing, it’s not in any way condoning the action. I think Bigelow’s argument that ‘depiction is not endorsement’ in the defense against it is spot on. Hopefully we get to see more of female-empowering roles in the future!


    February 5, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    • Thank you Ruth! Those scenes and lines really stood out to me as well. I haven’t seen The Debt, but I’ll keep it in mind!

      And yes, I think Bigelow is absolutely right. I don’t think this movie deserves allt the crap it’s gottten. But I guess the topic is so political that no matter what you did, you could expect to get criticism for it from some part.


      February 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

  9. Love your take on this! I saw it today and I felt uplifted by both Jessica Chastain’s work and what Kathryn Bigelow achieved. Actually, when she won Best Director at the Oscars, right there and then I decided I wanted to become a director. That aspiration has had some fine tuning over the years but without Bigelow, I wouldn’t be so inspired to be a leader (she’ll be going in my valedictory speech, that’s for sure). I just thought this was an all round tremendous movie and one I’d love to write about, but I’m a little too tired at the moment so I will get to it in the next few days. Basically – it has given me a whole lot of inspiration! And yes, if Steven Spielberg (who I do love) directed it, it would have been a much lesser film. I like how it plays things straight – too few films do that.


    February 6, 2013 at 9:03 am

    • Steeve, you’ve picked an excellent role model and I expect nothing but great deed from you in the future. Wouldn’t it be the greatest if you one day in a far future would give an Oscar speech, sharing how it all started with Bigelow?

      It’s great that the film has given you even more inspiration now. I look forward to see what you write about it when you can find time to do the writing.


      February 6, 2013 at 10:00 am

  10. Fantastic post, Jessica.

    ZDT by Spielberg? No, thanks. I definitely agree with you on that one.

    I think Bigelow and Boal did a fantastic job with this film. And I adored the character of Maya; maybe it was thanks to her and the portrayal by Chastain why I loved this movie so much. My review will be up on Friday. I’ll come back and share the link here. I’d love for you to read it. We agree on a lot of stuff.


    February 7, 2013 at 8:29 am

  11. […] 7.  Zero Dark Thirty Opening in the very beginning of the year, this movie made such an impression that it lasted through the entire year to appear in the top 10. Not bad. […]

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