Zero Dark Thirty is billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.” It’s a carefully plotted espionage tale that flows from the clues that lead to the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May, 2011 and it will very likely earn its director, Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award nomination.
It won’t be the first time the Academy has honored her. In fact she’s one for the record books. Her last film The Hurt Locker was a huge critical hit and made her the first woman to win best director awards from the Academy Awards, the Directors Guild of America, the BAFTAs and the Critics’ Choice Awards.
It was her first serious awards recognition, but it wasn’t her first film. At age 61 she is a veteran with nine features, hours of television and music videos for bands like New Order to her credit.
Critic Jon Popick called her first film, 1982’s The Loveless, “a slightly hallucinatory homage to The Wild Ones,” which means it’s a surreal outlaw biker film, one part tribute to the genre, two parts reinvention.
That movie set Willem Dafoe on his way to stardom, but it would take Bigelow five years to make another movie. Her next film, Near Dark, is another hybrid, a mix of vampire myths, westerns and biker movies the Washington Post called, “outrageous and poetic.”
Near Dark became a cult favorite, but it was her next three movies that set the template for her career. A trilogy of action films—Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days—saw her blend technical sophistication with themes that redefined the genre of the movies.
“It would be very difficult for me to just approach something that reinforced the status quo—although that might be the safest road to take,” she said. “When you have this great social tool, at the very least, take advantage of it as a means to communicate.”
Since then she has pushed boundaries in a variety of films from action, like the submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker to The Weight of Water’s multi-storyline plot.
Bigelow is frequently referred to as a woman who makes movies for men. She sees it differently. “It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie,” she says, “the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t.”