With "The Hurt Locker" and now "Zero Dark," Bigelow has taken war cinema in the opposite direction. She wants to show the treacherous topography of battle on a small, personal scale: the tense moments of uncertainty, the painful jolts of entrapment.
The sweep and schmaltz of many Hollywood war pictures are gone; instead Bigelow's films channel the spirit of nuanced war movies such as "Bridge on the River Kwai" and combine it with a first-person 21st century technique.
There is also a less discussed side of battle on display.
"Bigelow's movies are about the atrocity and horror, but there's another theme that comes through: the absolute physically addictive pleasure that war can bring to the people fighting it," said Robert Burgoyne, an expert on war films and the chair in film studies at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. "It's more honest."
Indeed, at times "Zero Dark" is stylistically of a piece not just with documentaries but first-person shooter video games, which of course bring pleasure to millions every day. And though Bigelow is not the only recent filmmaker to attempt it — Paul Greengrass in "Green Zone" and Brian De Palma in "Redacted" have similar ambitions — few have done this level of research or gone for such an exacting degree of authenticity.
Burgyone also notes that a previous generation of war films — particularly a class of 1980s movies from the likes of Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick — took an implicit position that's lacking here. "The general frame through most of our major Vietnam war films is blatantly antiwar," he said. "Bigelow's films give you a sense of the war experience without an obvious pro or anti sentiment in the background."
If there's a lesson at all, it's simply about the complex mechanics (and, in some cases, blind luck) required to successfully target a terrorist.Yet despite a lack of explicit politics, "Zero Dark" may still carry a message — just a more ambiguous one.
"At the end Maya gets on a plane after the raid and is asked, 'Where do you want to go?' And she realizes she has no idea," Chastain said. "This is about more than Maya," she said after a pause. "It's about where we want to go as a country now that Bin Laden has been killed."