Bartlett Sher on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview

Kathryn Bigelow is a badass of a director: an artist capable of superhuman narrative skill, with the ability to handle thrill, violence, politics and sweeping gestures with enviable ease. This is a masterwork of real events and artifice where life and art retell a story we all thought we knew in a way that is strangely healing.

Her sense of structure is elegant and violent. The film begins with a screen in darkness with just the voices of victims and responders on 9/11, and irises out to a single room containing a detainee being viciously tortured, and from there peels open to a government agency and nation mobilized to strike a single target. From here it irises back to the face of its protagonist, alone and struggling to make sense of her obsession with something well beyond her grasp.

The deepest pleasures in the film are in the weird edges and strange sub-textual battles that Bigelow deftly navigates. The first of these is between the West and the world of Islam. If anything, the failure of 9/11 was one of imagination. Every single Westerner, whether torturer, CIA chief or Navy Seal, struggles to make sense of a world they dimly understand culminating in the immense weirdness of soldiers so technologically equipped with scopes, armor and guns that their arrival in bin Laden’s almost medieval fortress with goats in the yard is almost a perfect metaphor for our entire relationship to Islam.

And perhaps more personally for Bigelow is the boundary explored between women and men, negotiating the endless condescension and disrespect men quietly heap on women. The central character, Maya, played with saintly patience by Jessica Chastain, spends an entire movie with insight and intelligence superior to her male bosses. When at last she is questioned, her response (too good to give away), allows hard-earned insight and skill to triumph over boorish sexual politics.

But Ms Bigelow is an artist whose canvass has a brilliant surface, with deep and expressive layers of underpainting. It is a rich work, highly pleasurable as a thriller, and expressive of a 12-year dilemma faced by our country. Artists, at their best, help navigate the personal and the political, and none better than Bigelow. Badass, indeed.

— Bartlett Sher, a Tony winner for the 2008 “South Pacific” revival, helmed the current Broadway revival of “Golden Boy.”

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