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Letter from Director Kathryn Bigelow

[Screenwriter Christopher Kyle and I] flew to Moscow together to conduct an interview of our own with this aging Russian hero, Captain Zateyev—only to learn shortly after we arrived that he had died just two weeks earlier. We were, however, welcome to meet with the captain’s widow, and so the next day we drove to the small apartment that she had shared with him an hour and a half outside of Moscow. ...

Antonina Zateyev was a beautiful, petite elderly woman with a face like a heart, her eyes still swollen from having cried for days. Despite the appearance of the rest of the building, her apartment was impeccably clean and orderly. In a position of honor was the armchair that had clearly once been his: The captain’s empty chair.

At first, like many of the people we met in Russia, Antonina was understandably suspicious. Like most Americans, ordinary Russians had been accustomed for years to thinking of anyone connected with the other superpower as a deadly enemy. Just the thought of an American coming into her home, much less a person who was going to turn the life of her late husband into a movie, was a bit much for her to absorb at first. So we began slowly, talking about her life. She and her husband had kept birds, which was a rarity in Russia. One little parakeet was flying around freely in the apartment as we talked, perching on the furniture.

Antonina told us many stories about the captain and about their life together that helped us to form a clearer mental picture of the man: about their deep love and respect for each other, but also about his severe self-discipline and his unyielding sense of duty. “He was like an honored guest in his own home,” she said, with a sad smile. And as a parting gesture she removed the black ribbons of mourning from a large framed portrait photograph of the captain and handed it to me. It was an astonishing gift and a profound symbol of the trust she had decided to place in us.

As I was leaving Antonina’s apartment, still trying to reassure her that I really did want to capture the reality of this man, she just took me into her arms and started sobbing: “You must tell his story, you must tell his story.” From that moment on, all bets were off. Nothing could stop us. Not even the vagaries of Hollywood.