by Hannah Green
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty claims a “journalistic” approach- this claim has been rightfully skewered from a number of angles. The film, some say, inaccurately portrays torture as leading to actionable information vital to Bin Laden’s discovery. It also shows only one perspective- the CIA’s- on the hunt for Bin Laden and the War on Terror itself. For me, though, one of the most problematic aspects of this film that claims not to judge is its main character. Maya, a fresh CIA agent, righteously pursues her goal of killing Bin Laden against all odds. Her conviction to the unlikely exists only in film. It is Maya and her conviction that leave viewers only one correct reaction to the hunt for Bin Laden and all the methods it involves- support.
I am willing to believe that there was one CIA agent who had an especially large role in finding Bin Laden, and I even think it’s possible that she was particularly committed to a lead that other people were ready to drop. But no person exists like Maya, who is portrayed as single handedly making the decisions that lead to Bin Laden’s assassination. Real people have doubts unless they are insane, and real people have lives outside their jobs. In a conversation with a colleague Maya admits to having no boyfriend, maybe no friends at all. Where others have feelings of uncertainty, Maya hints that she is receiving divine guidance. In one scene, she suggests God without invoking religion- she believes that she was spared from an attack that killed her colleagues because she was meant to finish her job. Her ability to see important links that others let slip adds credence to this belief.
Maya stands out from her colleagues in many ways. Others get exhausted from torturing people. She does not. Others have doubts about successfully finding Bin Laden- she does not. She is disconnected, in a way, from all those working with her, and even more so from the landscapes where she is doing the work. Some of her fellow agents appear to be familiar with a few Middle Eastern languages, but she isn’t. She has no interest in the countries where she lives and works. “Don’t eat out,” she warns a newcomer, “It’s too dangerous.” Everything about their job is dangerous, but in her eyes one risk that there’s no use taking is familiarity with the territory she’s fighting in.
Her appearance also sets her apart. Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, has classically delicate looks. Paper white skin, softly curling strawberry blonde hair. If you gave her a halo and some flowy clothes to wear, she’d look like the angel in a nativity set. This casting choice was obviously made to highlight the contrast between a delicate exterior and a tough, convicted interior. Since she has no personal history or conflicting drives, these kinds of surface contrasts are what make Maya’s character interesting. She looks soft but she is a killer inside. She calls herself a “motherfucker” but is as sanctimonious as a schoolteacher when addressing her enemy. After Maya witnesses her first torture, her colleague leaves her alone with a half naked witness who is suspended between two chains. “Help me,” he begs. Her response: “You can help yourself by being truthful,”. She sounds like Jiminy Cricket.
In many ways, these contrasts are meant to symbolize contrasts that exist within the US. Maybe some things that the US does appear morally shady, maybe some people are too cowardly to do what needs to be done, but the core American spirit will always lead to moral (and military) victory in the end. Maya represents this core. Because she does not entangle herself, she comes across as the soul that cannot be compromised. This movie was, obviously, written in hindsight, and this gave the filmmakers the luxury of giving Maya what appeared to be divine insight into Bin Laden’s whereabouts. She sticks to the lead that ultimately brings them to Bin Laden, even when he appears to have died. Because we know all along that she is right, other controversial statements are given authority when they come out of Maya’s mouth. For example, she says that Bin Laden is still powerful in the Taliban. This comes off as truth in the film, whereas in reality we don’t really know if Bin Laden had any relevance at all by the time he died.
Throughout the movie, we are supposed to be with her. From reading the news, we all know before watching what the ending will be. From familiarity with Hollywood, we know both that Maya will be the one to bring this conclusion about, and that she is the one we are supposed to come to know and identify with. This is where the movie loses any claims of objectivity. Maya winces at torture at first, but soon enough is able to unflinchingly order it herself. We watch the process of her overcoming her aversion to it, and we are supposed to be with her as she does it. By portraying the hunt for Bin Laden as a single person’s righteous and epic mission, Bigelow and Boal take this story out of the complicated realm of the real world, even as they portray unseemly techniques.
Hannah Green is a writer and student living in Lucknow, India studying Urdu and Hindi. She received her BA from Northwestern University in 2012. Her work has appeared on the blog ThinkProgress as well as on 3 Quarks Daily. As she waits in suspense to find out what will happen after this language program, she likes to do things like listen to podcasts about Pakistan and find pictures of graffiti in Iran. Follow her on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/green_ji