Art of the Real 728x90 Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

Women in War: Revisiting Zero Dark Thirty

By Richard Combs on April 22, 2013

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Zero Dark Thirty Maya

1. “Washington says she’s a killer”

So declares the CIA Station Head in Pakistan about a new arrival in 2003, a “CIA targeter and subject-matter expert,” Maya (Jessica Chastain). Maya is young and delicate-looking, with flowing red hair that is only seen when she pulls off the hood she wears during the brutal interrogation of a “detainee” in the film’s first scene (Chastain’s features have often been described as pre-Raphaelite). The drive of Zero Dark Thirty is to play for a while on this slightly unnerving contrast: that such a woman should have the steel and determination to pursue the hunt for Osama bin Laden more ruthlessly than her male colleagues, until the dispatch of a team of Navy SEALs in 2011 to the hideout she has done most to locate. “You’re going to kill him for me,” she tells the SEALs.

To be sure, Maya’s initiation into this dirty war, when she arrives “just off the plane from Washington,” in her “best suit” for her first interrogation in the filthy room where the detainee is manacled to the ceiling prior to being waterboarded, requires some adjustment. She may be dismayed by the brutality, but when she and the CIA’s head interrogator, Daniel (Jason Clarke), leave after the first fruitless questioning, it’s she who says they should go right back in, and declines to watch what follows on a monitor. She gingerly takes part in the waterboarding, but when the detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), gasps out one denial, she comments: “That’s not credible.”

Is it part of the horror of these scenes—nobody protests at the torture, but just allowing it to sit there on screen is more horrifying—that this apparently gentle creature is made a party to it? But Maya does adjust, and afterward the film will show her spending days—implicitly, years—hunched at her computer watching videos of similar interrogations for the clues that will lead to the al-Qaeda go-between who will lead to bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow has said she was surprised when research revealed that so many female operatives proved obstinately dedicated in the hunt for bin Laden, and that one in particular was so central (who in another account of the raid has been named as “Jen,” and who may even have been a male agent).

But Maya isn’t just the protagonist of a “deadlier than the male” political thriller. Or to put it another way, although the point seems to be that she’s a woman who can act like a man, and become a killer, her role throughout is screened through “the female.” She exists in a female context, which the film treats as part of this war (if that’s what the “war on terror” is), and which reveals what the meaning of Zero Dark Thirty might be if it’s not just a gung-ho celebration of military adventure—a fairly general wrongheaded assessment that stems from a wrongheaded take on the torture scenes.

The context begins with what might be called notations. The film opens with a medley of voices against a dark screen, phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center and American Airlines Flight 11 on 9/11—a medley that gradually resolves into the voices of two women: one, terrified, inside the Center, the other an emergency worker on the phone trying to be reassuring before she subsides into helplessness. (The direct cut from this to the torture scenes doesn’t mean, as some have said, that the latter is being justified by the former.) The film’s climax, the attack on bin Laden’s hideout, includes more anonymous women, wives of the al-Qaeda men, and one of them is shot.

In the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, after the first interrogation of Ammar, Maya is shown to her cubicle and desk. This she gives a quick, automatic dust. Then she joins a conference with other CIA staff trying to find the trail to bin Laden; and soon she is disagreeing with the only other woman on the team, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Their relationship will change, but it is here that the published version of Mark Boal’s script notes “And so the rivalry begins.”

They must be rivals, evidently, to establish themselves in an otherwise all-male world. But something darker is intimated in the scene that follows when Daniel and Maya resume the interrogation of Ammar. Here humiliation is used in a way that involves Maya more intimately in the torture than through physical brutality alone. As they enter the room, she recoils from the smell (“Dude, you shit your pants,” Daniel tells Ammar). But when his questioning again gets nowhere, he rips down Ammar’s pants—“You don’t mind if my female colleague sees your junk, do you?”—and leaves the two together.

There are two other points, two scenes at which Maya’s look is directed. After bin Laden’s hideout is located in Abbottabad, and the SEALs wait to launch their attack, they are shown relaxing, playing horseshoes, while Maya stands to one side, watching them through dark glasses. A number of reviews took this as the clinching moment of gung-ho military adventure—Maya has finally become one of the boys. But it depends on how you interpret her look.

It might be admiring—Boal’s script grants the SEALs “the grace of young guys in their prime.” But on first meeting the SEALs, Maya dismisses “your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit.” And as the helicopters take off for the raid, several shots isolate her as a seemingly abandoned figure, buffeted by clouds of dust. She has directed the killers, but she can’t be in at the kill. Except when they return, Maya is taken to lay eyes on the corpse they have in a body bag: only she, apparently, can confirm that it is Osama bin Laden. From the naked man to the armored men to the dead man: a thesis on the female gaze could well begin with this film.

Zero Dark Thirty

2. Home Is the Hunter

And if Maya does become one of the boys, she asserts it quite dramatically—if ironically—earlier in the film. At CIA headquarters in Langley, all the surveillance material and evidence of bin Laden’s presence in the Abbottabad house is assembled at a conference of senior officers and the agency’s director (James Gandolfini). Maya is told to sit not at the main table but in a row of chairs along the back wall. But when she corrects an estimate of the house’s location, and the director asks who she is, she replies: “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.”

Ammar’s interrogator Daniel has now migrated to being one of the anonymous CIA suits in the room. Before leaving Pakistan, he told Maya, “I’ve just seen too many guys naked”—if exposing Ammar was a test of Maya as well as a humiliation of the detainee, it’s one that Daniel no longer wants to undergo (Maya refuses his offer to join him in Washington as his “number two”). After another conference, Maya is eating alone in the Langley cafeteria when the director plops into the seat in front of her, to her evident discomfort. He learns that she was recruited for the CIA out of high school, and has done nothing but look for bin Laden. He also asks: “How is the food down here?”—a nice addition to the notations of hierarchy (of gender, of who sits where). But the line isn’t in Boal’s published script—was it improvised?

Maya’s dedication to her work, her loneliness, is amplified when her frosty relationship in Pakistan with Jessica warms sufficiently for a social meeting in the Islamabad Marriott—just before it is blown up. Jessica asks if Maya is “hooked up” with one of their team, but draws a blank to all personal questions: “So no boyfriend. Do you have any friends at all?” Based on these negative issues, Maya is inevitably a somewhat remote, even abstract figure. But about halfway through the film, that is all about to change—with a dramatic wrench, in fact—as Maya’s dedication to finding Osama bin Laden takes on another quality: the charge of personal revenge, and even of religious crusade.

Jessica becomes the motivating figure here, when she sets up a meeting with an apparent mole within al-Qaeda. The meeting turns out to be a trap and Jessica and her team are massacred by a suicide bomber. Maya’s response is her first declaration of a personal intent behind her dedicated detective work: “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.” Later, when she is told there are no resources for tracking the courier, Abu Ahmed, who she believes will lead them to bin Laden, she declares: “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

When the detective work becomes a quest for revenge and the revenge becomes a sanctified mission, then it also becomes a quest for recuperation—an attempt to replace what was lost, a loss which has left behind a void and made of the revenger something of an empty, voided soul. Here Zero Dark Thirty could be compared to revenge Westerns, specifically those where the hero has lost a wife or family. And where the wife is dead—and thus never seen—before the film even begins, in Seven Men from Now or The Bravados, or is barely glimpsed before being killed, in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the main business of the film becomes to replace her, to fill the void.

The revenge motive withers away. The disposal of the “seven men” in Budd Boetticher’s film becomes rather incidental, and the four men ruthlessly hunted by Gregory Peck in The Bravados turn out not to be guilty of the crime. The last of the four, with a wife and child, is something of a mirror image of the hero, and can turn the quest back on him: “I have no reason to kill you. Why do you hunt me?” Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) re-creates not just a wife but a community, by rescuing it from a Western ghost town, and turns away from his final act of revenge. But for Maya, who at the end seems more emptied than fulfilled by her quest, what is gained in revenging friends we’ve been told she didn’t have? Jessica’s loss alone has a further suggestive element: apart from being a CIA agent, the report of her death says, she was also “a mother of three.”

The sense of emptiness may be because Maya and her motivation remain somewhat abstract to the end. But there’s also the problem that, in the female context, the terms of the male Western scenario can’t be worked through in the same way. Which ultimately leaves Maya placeless. After identifying bin Laden’s corpse, she is airlifted out, alone, in a giant cargo plane, and the pilot asks: “Where do you want to go?” The hero of any of the Westerns named above would have no trouble answering “Home.” But the end of Maya’s story is silence.

Zero Dark Thirty Maya

3. In the Belly of the Beast

One complicating—and abstracting—aspect of Maya’s quest for revenge is that it’s not just personal. She is also acting out of a national need. This pre-Raphaelite avenging angel is born out of the darkness of those desperate voices on 9/11. Therefore she may never have any home beyond the cavernous belly of the C-17 cargo plane—the belly of war itself. Is this because war is endless, or because war maintained as a cycle of revenge is both endless and—as revenge Westerns tell us—fruitless? Politicians attest that the “war on terror” might be a millennial affair. Maya does win one battle, however. The C-17 pilot tells her she must be pretty important because she has the whole plane to herself, so “You can sit wherever you want.” That settles the hierarchical shuffle of who-sits-where.

Out of the belly of a transport aircraft at the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker (08), Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) returns to Baghdad. A quick cut transfers him from army fatigues to the special armor he wears as an IED disposal expert—the only home he’s happy in. This is a grunt’s-eye view of the chaos of war, with no larger statements about its conduct, necessity, or the hellishness of war in general. Such statements, perhaps, can only proceed from the settled issues of a “just war.” Modern wars produce films that are just about doing the job in a context of absurdity or madness. One scene in The Hurt Locker—a colonel congratulates James on a particularly tricky job, asks how many devices he’s defused, and when James is vague, makes him produce a number (873)—might have come from Full Metal Jacket.

Stylistically, the two films also have something in common. The Hurt Locker, shot on Super-16 with multiple cameras, constructs its sequence of bomb-defusing scenes as a hurt locker for the audience as well, with a blizzard of point-of-view shots, quick shaky pans, zooms into faces, and sudden disorienting extreme close-ups. Amy Taubin has called this a “structuralist war movie”; visually, it might also be called a cubist one. Zero Dark Thirty often has the same unsettled, jumpy, on-the-ground approach. But it doesn’t box the viewer into the jigsaw of POV shots, the sense of threat on all sides. The busy look here could represent what another female agent—a slightly younger, less hardened version of Maya—calls the “white noise” of information since 9/11, out of which she has finally extracted the real identity of the courier Abu Ahmed.

His name first comes up during the “enhanced interrogation” of the detainee Ammar, which has brought the film some of its harshest criticism for suggesting that torture produced useful information. The film tries to slide around this by having Ammar tricked into revealing the name subsequent to the brutal questioning; Bigelow and Boal have inadvertently created the problem by insisting that torture had to be shown as part of the “detainee program.” But Maya rejects the name as incomplete—Abu Ahmed is a familiarity, meaning “father of Ahmed.” It’s a kunya, which can also be a nom de guerre, a war name. Is the same true—another mirror image—of “Maya”? 

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