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A Feminist Action Movie? With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow Goes For Gender (not Geo) Politics

A Feminist Action Movie? With "Zero Dark Thirty," Bigelow Goes For Gender (not Geo) Politics

After months of speculation and undue politicization, the first reviews of “Zero Dark Thirty” are in, and Katheryn Bigelow’s thriller is being hailed as another tense success following the filmmaker’s previous Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” But like Bigelow’s Iraq war suspenser, I am skeptical of the filmmaker’s attempts to make “non-political” movies about highly political material. And like “The Hurt Locker,” it seems to me that any film that follows testosterone-heavy American warriors into the thick of battle is going to play somewhat into conservative American myths about militarism, heroism and jingoism. But the films’ first reviews suggest a curiously feminine counterpoint to all that male machismo with its focus on “Maya,” a real-life CIA analyst who is at the heart of the story.

As Variety’s Peter Debruge writes, “By forcing partisan politics into the wings (President George W. Bush goes entirely unseen, while auds’ only glimpse of President Obama is during a 2008 campaign interview), the filmmakers effectively give gender politics the whole stage: The pic presents the highest-profile U.S. military success in recent memory as the work of a single woman, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain).”

Debruge further elaborates on the film’s sexual politics, suggesting a conflict with Maya’s male counterpart: “Compared with her wild-eyed cowboy of a colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), Maya’s body language suggests a little girl, clearly uncomfortable with the waterboarding and sexual humiliation that were common practice in the morally hazy rendition era.”

Likewise, Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson suggests the very narrative trajectory of the film stands in contrast to the cocky toughguy antics in “The Hurt Locker”:

“Not unlike David Fincher’s Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty subverts genre expectations, forcing us to be at times as frustrated as the characters as their years of pursuit often lead to dead ends — not to mention growing concern that all their effort will be for naught,” he writes. “Daringly, and successfully, Bigelow and Boal resist certain tendencies of films of this kind, eschewing the sleek, sophisticated tech-speak we’re accustomed to from government operatives in the Jason Bourne movies…. Instead, Zero Dark Thirty portrays the CIA and the military as consisting of dedicated, almost anonymous professionals who lack the panache we’re used to from war movies and government thrillers. In this way, Bigelow avoids romanticising their service, simply letting their weary determination be their distinguishing characteristic.”

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