To understand the controversy around Kathryn Bigelow’s hit film Zero Dark Thirty, it helps to understand Kathryn Bigelow’s kind of movie.
In the late 1970s, the young artist Kathryn Bigelow had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend of a friend by the name of Andy Warhol. “Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art — that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” she recalls. Around the same time, she visited the Museum of Modern Art, paying special attention to Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White and Piet Mondrian’s color-block grids. “I remember thinking, The audience for this is very specific,” Bigelow says over lunch in her hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, not far from the museum. “A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.”
She emphasizes the word political, lingering over it for a moment. Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker (2009), which logs 38 days with a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad, was widely perceived as taking a neutral or apolitical stance on its subject matter — if such a stance is possible when the subject matter is the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It won nearly universal praise as well as the Academy Award for Best Picture. Bigelow’s follow-up, her second collaboration with screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, was originally planned as a feature about special forces hunting Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001. Boal was deep into his screenplay when news broke of the SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Almost immediately, he and Bigelow switched gears, instead mounting a chronicle of the 10-year hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.