‘Zero Dark Thirty’: A Powerful Look at the Only Woman in the Room

Eight years ago today, Kathryn Bigelow released Zero Dark Thirty!

The acclaimed thriller received five Oscar nominations and four Golden Globe nominations only a few years after Bigelow became the first woman in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Oscar in the Best Director category for The Hurt Locker in 2008. 

For her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. She starred alongside Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle, playing a fictionalized version of a CIA agent named Maya who is tasked with tracking down Osama bin Laden after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In a review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner, Jan notes that “Bigelow has Maya get her hands dirty, quite literally, from the get-go… In scene after scene, Maya is the only woman in the room. In one confrontation after another, she’s a physically tiny figure who faces off against men much bigger than she is. Chastain even has a one-on-one with beefy James Gandolfini (who played ‘Tony Soprano’ on television) seen here as CIA Director Leon Panetta, and every time, she prevails. Maya is the opposite of voluble “Carrie’ (the CIA agent played by Claire Danes in Homeland); Maya is as dry as the Grim Reaper and twice as terse.”

Zero Dark Thirty publicity with Jessica Chastain

Though Zero Dark Thirty is a heavily-researched and often brutal film in terms of imagery and themes, it sparked considerable controversy with its depiction of torture. Many critics considered it to be an example of pro-torture propaganda due to a scene in which a character named “Ammar” is tortured into providing the CIA with desperately-needed information.

However, Jan also wrote a series of articles for Huffington Post “debunking the myth that Kathryn Bigelow endorses torture,” which she concluded by stating, “So people who think that Zero Dark Thirty shows that the torture of Ammar leads in some direct way to the capture of Bin Laden are simply wrong. That just is not part of the story Bigelow is telling in Zero Dark Thirty. It’s either pure fabrication (people seeing what they want to see) or wish fulfillment.”

(Check out Jan’s main HuffPo article here to see a full breakdown of why she believes Bigelow was not promoting torture in this film.) 

Jan ends her review of Zero Dark Thirty with a message to the audience:

For much of the film, Maya is, quite simply, the only woman in the room. I am now asking women everywhere to take this journey with Maya, and stay with her in rooms from which we would ordinarily flee. There is a price to be paid for being in those rooms, and Bigelow has earned the right to demand that we pay it.”

Celebrate women filmmakers — as well as the eighth anniversary of its release date — by watching Zero Dark Thirty today!

You can also stream Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (for which Kathryn Bigelow made history by winning the Academy Award for Best Director) on Showtime.

© Anna Nappi (1/11/22) Special for FF2 Media.

Katherine Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Poster & image from Zero Dark Thirty from EPK.

Featured photo: “Kathryn Bigelow” by david.torcivia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse&atype=rich

Tags: Anna Nappi, Claire Danes, James Gandolfini, jessica chastain, Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, zero dark thirty

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Anna is currently a senior at Brandeis University studying Film, Journalism, and Psychology. At Brandeis, she writes for the student newspaper and is the undergraduate degree representative of the Journalism program. From theaters to museums to concert halls, she loves exploring the art world in Boston as well as in her Maine hometown. Anna is passionate about FF2’s mission and excited for the opportunity to work alongside a wonderful team dedicated to supporting women artists.
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