The Films of Kathryn Bigelow Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kathryn Bigelow Podcast

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BigelowcastKathryn Bigelow's career has spanned three decades of American film-making.  In that time she's proved a deft chameleon of style, co-opting the dominant styles of a time in a way that goes beyond mimicry, and has something to say about the visual mechanisms of the day.  Andrew and Kyle have a fragmented conversation as they try to pinpoint the exact nature of Bigelow's strength, touching on the way she allows unsettling images of recent American trauma to filter into her films, and through her efforts to put to symbolize ideals we still struggle with.  We hope you enjoy this podcast, and look into her past as we prepare for her films in the future.

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Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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Not content to rest on the success of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's last film, to-date, is a close examination of the process and psychological toll Americans withstood during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Andrew reviewed the film once before and was impressed, if not wowed, by Bigelow's willingness to blur enemy and ally together.  Now he and Kyle are looking at it from a new vantage point, removed from the fanfare of the '12 election and awards season, and with new eyes question its worth in an America where we've only now gone a month without a combat death of an American soldier for the first time in a decade.

Pale shadowAndrewCommentaryBannerI want to start on something that we discussed a bit when we were talking about The Hurt Locker last week.  You had mentioned that it was a smash success when, yes, it won many awards but it didn't exactly light the box office on fire.  Four years later Kathryn Bigelow returned to the fertile emotional and political ground of our post-9/11 state for Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hurt Locker still haunts my memory while Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT from this point on) does not.  It's not that ZDT is a failure by any stretch of the word, except perhaps as an ethical treatment of torture (something I don't agree with but we must discuss), and it made almost $150 million worldwide as well as winning Bigelow another slew of rewards.  But it just doesn't resonate the same with me as The Hurt Locker or even Near Dark.

So, now that we've got all of Bigelow's films to-date on our viewing radar, where did you fall with ZDT?

Kyle Commentary BannerThe first time I watched ZDT I was caught a little off-guard and my appreciation grew substantially afterward. The movie was more subdued than I had expected, coming from the tense suspense and action of The Hurt Locker, and I was especially impressed with how Bigelow handled the climactic raid. What ultimately left the strongest impression overall was the way ZDT refused to build any kind of conventional thriller-style suspense—we see the intelligence gathering and interpreting process as a slow, mostly grinding and disappointing one. There are a handful of moments of action, but they don't come off as exciting, and when Bin Laden's compound is finally stormed, we get a slow and deliberate exercise free of any action conventions. There is a lot going on here, but the lasting impression for me was always the way Bigelow stripped the film of the more classically entertaining elements she injects so well into The Hurt Locker, resulting in a more draining, patience-testing experience that mimics Maya's journey throughout the film.

This is fitting considering the way Bigelow has always adjusted her chosen conventions and formal techniques in relation to her characters (and we see the same thing with her handling of the suspense in The Hurt Locker)—but this time around ZDT didn't impress me as much. I don't know that my reaction to the film changed dramatically, but the magnitude of the reaction did. This is still a complicated movie with a lot of impressive things going on, but this second time through I didn't feel like I took as much away from it.

Let's start with the torture material that dominates the early scenes—I'm curious to get your thoughts there, and whether they're any different than when you first watched the movie.


Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2008)

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The Hurt Locker is one of the few perfect pieces of cinema to come out of America in the first decade of the new millennium.  It's a sum of Bigelow's career to-date, hitting the perfect zeitgeist of contemporary style and commentary, simultaneously looking like everything and feeling like nothing else out at the time.  The Hurt Locker's merits aren't in question but now, with more than six years passed, is it destined to linger or has its moment come and gone?  Andrew and Kyle both say it will be with us forever, but for very different reasons.

In some shit nowAndrewCommentaryBannerA funny thing happened to me when I got done watching The Hurt Locker again.  It's the same nerve-wracking "Dear God let me stop grinding my teeth" experience that I had the first time through.  But I had built myself up somewhat as this being the revelatory moment, the film that Bigelow made that finally freed her from comparisons to anyone else and separated her from the pack.

That was a bad thought.  Her appeal, so far, has been ingraining her films so completely in a sort of hyper-realized style of the moment.  We had Near Dark with its harsh lighting and grotesque special effects recalling the worlds of Michael Mann and John Carpenter.  Then Strange Days mixing the '90s tech crazed economic boom with other genre mixers like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.  Now The Hurt Locker, which on this watch through, has more than a passing resemblance to the "torture porn" era of films post-9/11 with an emphasis on an unseen foreign evil torturing our American characters through shaky cameras and inhospitable surroundings.

There's a lot I want to work through here, but how did you get through Camp Victory this time?

Kyle Commentary BannerI was hit a little less hard by the suspense and more impressed with her way of handling the personas and attitudes the war is cultivating in the characters—personas and attitudes that are often unpleasant and damaging at best, emerging in people who are still presented as generally "good." The "war is a drug" quote at the beginning of the movie pervaded every scene in a much stronger way for me this time around, perhaps  partly because the movie is slightly (very slightly) less culturally immediate now a couple of years down the road, but also because I felt a little more able to step back from the raw suspense this time around.

The great strength here for me isn't so much related to the movie as a breakthrough in Bigelow's career—though we should talk about why this was the case commercially—but as one of the first big mainstream movies of the current generation that managed to tackle an ongoing war with a complex, nuanced attitude toward our own troops' involvement in it. This isn't Redacted, trying to shock viewers into accepting American atrocities, and it's not Lone Survivor or Act of Valor pushing audiences to feel as if they're honoring troops by being witness to overblown action movie spectacle. It is, however, using many of the same slick, exciting film-making maneuvers of those sorts of movies and inserting really disturbing, often casual-seeming observations about how the war rewires people's attitudes and values.

In some sense I feel almost like the more important aspects of the movie get lost because they aren't hammered a little harder, but I credit Bigelow for using genre conventions—and we should definitely talk more about the gritty, shaky torture-porn elements you brought up—to make the movie seem less critical on the surface than it ends up being. That brings up the question again of why this was such a mainstream breakthrough for Bigelow—why do you think that was?


Kathryn Bigelow: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

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Kathryn Bigelow jumps from adapting novels to dramatizing history with K-19: The Widowmaker.  The film details two Soviet captains with opposing worldviews colliding over how to command a malfunctioning nuclear submarine during the height of the Cold War.  Andrew and Kyle find themselves at different ends of whether K-19 is an interesting film that is well-served in Bigelow's canon, or a capably assembled potboiler with Bigelow's genre blender dicing the results.

Maiden VoyageAndrewCommentaryBannerK-19: The Widowmaker has put me at an odd place this week.  One thing I hope you'll agree with, it's scads better than The Weight of Water, and there's a lot that I have to say about it.  But what puts my mind in a twist is that if I were watching this film for the first time, completely divorced from the rest of Kathryn Bigelow's filmography, I would have little to say about it outside of some positive notes about the lead performances and the occasional witty shot.  Putting it in Bigelow's canon almost subdues those accomplishments though, because with the attention to detail and criticism of national conflict as a measuring context make it clear how this is a dry run for The Hurt Locker in many ways.  I want to focus more on the former and less on the latter, but this makes me feel weird as I don't like damning with faint praise, and that's all I feel as though I can do in the context of this project.

Kyle Commentary BannerIt is much better than The Weight of Water, though I don't know if I have as much to say about it as you do. I was shocked to see when I sat down to watch it that it was over 2 hours long, because all I really remembered from seeing it long ago was that there is a lengthy sequence with sailors forced into dangerous radiation exposure. Having watched it last Friday, I still don't recall a lot more than that. Here it seems like Bigelow is held down by some tired conventions, making for a movie that falls into that "perfectly fine for what it is" category.

I like your idea of focusing on the "national conflict as a measuring context" idea though — let's go there first?


Kathryn Bigelow: The Weight of Water (2000)

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Five years after the ambitious and flawed Strange Days Kathryn Bigelow returned to the big screen with her first literary adaptation of The Weight of Water.  Kyle and Andrew struggle to find something good to say about this story of unhealthy desires told between people separated by a century.

The titular waterAndrewCommentaryBannerKyle, we've entered a lengthy period between films by Kathryn Bigelow.  Now, you said that you'd seen The Weight of Water before, and I'll be relying on you to pull something, anything, from this movie.  I hardly took any notes during it and looking at the last thing I wrote down, "Time-lapse photography of clouds," I hardly have anything to say other than it seems Bigelow came out of her five-year hiatus to make a slightly better budgeted episode of Masterpiece Theater.

Kyle Commentary BannerTo start, I'll address your first point—it was quite awhile ago when I saw this first, probably 10 years, but I did still remember a few things. For instance, Sean Penn is in it. Elizabeth Hurley, also in the movie. At one point, there is a boat. Also water.

Oddly enough, until the movie started, I did NOT remember that it cut back and forth between two stories in two centuries-apart time periods. When its first scenes opened set in the past, I thought I must have been mistaken and in fact hadn't seen the movie before—it turns out I just didn't remember half of it.

So here's the question that may help us get into why Bigelow would have wanted to make this movie, apparently an adaptation of a novel, where for all I care it could have stayed: Why have the two stories unfolding simultaneously? What is the audience supposed to get out of that, and where does it go wrong?