Zero Dark Thirty’s lone-wolf protagonist makes it more conventional than it seems

Zero Dark Thirty’s lone-wolf protagonist makes it more conventional than it seems

No film has been analyzed and scrutinized more thoroughly over the past few months than Zero Dark Thirty. Before it was even released, outraged political journalists accused it of endorsing torture: “It propagandizes the public to favorably view war crimes by the U.S. government,” charged Glenn Greenwald, who hadn’t yet seen it at the time. Indignant film critics quickly manned the barricades in defense of art, insisting that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal merely depict what happened, objectively, without any insidious agenda. The debate has been heated, to put it mildly, dominating discussion so completely that Sony might as well just change the title to The Torture Movie. Depending on your view of how the film handles that one issue, it’s either magnificent or deplorable.

Consequently, nobody has noticed that Zero Dark Thirty, in spite of its grim seriousness of purpose and its compulsively modern preoccupation with pure data, is essentially the same film as Good Morning, Vietnam

Okay, not really. That’s just the first example that happened to spring to mind; I probably won't mention Robin Williams again. (Relax.) But while I consider Zero Dark Thirty a good, solid docudrama, I’m much less impressed with it than most other critics have been, and my reservations have nothing whatsoever to do with its depiction of torture. What troubles me, instead, is the way the movie purports to be a blow-by-blow account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, with heavy emphasis on investigative and political minutiae, while it keeps sneaking a conventional, almost patronizing lone-hero narrative through the back door. It’s a brainy art film that’s secretly terrified of alienating audiences, struggling to appease groundlings and sophisticates simultaneously, so it winds up a half-assed character study and a compromised procedural.

This is a recurring problem with movies that strive to process historical events through the prism of the Information Age. United 93, for example, is neatly divided in two, depicting the doomed flight both from the bewildered perspective of those on the ground (air-traffic controllers, the military, etc.) and from the heroic perspective of the passengers who fought back. The former is a nearly avant-garde masterpiece, the docudrama equivalent of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead; the latter is a glorified TV movie, hitting the exact expected rah-rah beats. Likewise, while fans of David Fincher’s Zodiac rave about its portrait of obsession and marvel at its inconclusiveness, that film devotes its final half hour to solving the case, at least in the mind of Jake Gyllenhaal’s dogged amateur sleuth. Arguably, these concessions to the mainstream were necessary to get the movies made at all—my preferred version of United 93 would have grossed about $93, and Zodiac probably couldn’t afford to recreate 1970’s San Francisco without at least feigning some sort of resolution. As much as I like both of them, though, it feels like they chickened out.

For about an hour, Zero Dark Thirty sticks to its guns. It isn’t even clear right away that Maya, the CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain, is the protagonist—Jason Clarke’s stoic punisher dominates the early, controversial torture scenes, and later, the film introduces an ensemble that includes Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, and various others. Maya does buck conventional wisdom at her first group meeting, noting that her colleagues are thinking in terms of “pre-9/11 behavior,” but otherwise she’s portrayed, both by the script and in Chastain’s steely performance, as a notable cog in an enormous machine. In fact, the only thing conveyed about her is that the audience knows nothing whatsoever about her. “You got any friends at all?” Ehle asks her over drinks at the Islamabad Marriott, and her silence confirms that that’s a big negatory—for now. Maya is a cipher, driven by motives and feelings viewers can only guess at; the movie I desperately wanted to see would have kept her a cipher to the very end.

Instead, here’s what happens. (Warning: To the extent that real-life events can be spoiled, spoilers follow.) Maya the friendless drone quickly becomes chummy with Ehle, to the point where the two of them have GChat conversations in the middle of crucial operations. No sooner have they bonded, however, then Ehle is killed at the Camp Chapman suicide bombing. Maya is devastated, though this is conveyed solely through shots of her sitting on the floor, breathing heavily, and staring into space. Very much in character. Perrineau shows up to commiserate about the tragedy, and asks Maya what she’s going to do. Her reply, delivered in close-up: “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op. And then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

This was the point in the film at which I first thought: Uh-oh. This time, it’s personal. Suddenly, our cipher has a specific, immediately comprehensible motivation for her refusal to give up the hunt for UBL (as they all call him). Mind you, it’s done with relative subtlety—the line I quoted above is the only direct reference. Only on a second viewing did I notice that the wallpaper on Maya’s computer is a photograph of herself and Ehle, their happy faces pressed close together; far from drawing our attention to it, Bigelow deliberately makes it difficult to see the one time it appears onscreen. You have to look fast. Still, it’s there, and it’s there for a reason. With as little fanfare as humanly possible, so as not to appear crass, Maya has been transformed into the protagonist of a revenge movie. 

In truth, I think Bigelow and Boal would have loved to have Maya take bin Laden out herself. There’s no way they could get away with that, and I don’t mean to suggest they ever considered it. But it’s significant that when Maya first meets the members of SEAL Team Six to brief them on their mission, her final words are “Bin Laden is there. And you’re gonna kill him for me.” That’s a remarkable statement, and had it been uttered by a genuinely complex character—if Zero Dark Thirty in any way suggested that Maya suffers from delusions of grandeur, or is a raging narcissist—I’d feel okay about the way it makes me recoil. Instead, it seems literal: The SEALs are proxies for Maya, killing UBL on her behalf. That allows Bigelow to show us the raid on the Abbottabad compound, which audiences would surely feel cheated by not seeing, without abandoning the cathartic personal-revenge narrative. (As if the national-revenge narrative wouldn’t be plenty cathartic on its own.)

Then there are the Clueless Authority Figures, who further dampen my enthusiasm. It was during the scene in which Maya yells at the CIA’s directr (played by Kyle Chandler), demanding that he give her the surveillance teams she needs or be called before a Congressional committee for subverting the national interest, that Good Morning, Vietnam unwillingly popped into my head. That’s the sort of grandstanding bullshit you expect in cheesy Hollywood movies about mavericks fighting an uncomprehending bureaucracy. Again, Bigelow does it more subtly than most; there’s a nice visual touch at the end of the scene, after Maya storms off, when Chandler walks into his meeting and we see everyone in the room stand up the moment he opens the door. But even that’s really just a means of valorizing Maya, painting her as badass enough to face down a man who commands complete deference from the rest of the building. At this point, she’s becoming an entirely different kind of cipher, something closer to Eastwood’s Man With No Name.

And there’s more. We get repeated shots of Maya using a marker to scrawl, on her boss’ office window, the number of days that have elapsed without progress since she discovered the compound. Even if this really happened, onscreen, it plays like generic, pandering lone-voice-of-reason stuff, with its clear but ludicrous implication that nobody apart from Maya truly cared about getting bin Laden. I also winced at her much-quoted line “I’m the motherfucker who found this place,” in part because what initially attracts the attention of Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) is her Rain Man-like specificity. When Gandolfini asks how close the Pakistani Military Academy is to the compound, someone tells him “about a mile”—which is all he needs to know—and then Maya jumps in to note that in fact the distance is precisely 4,221 feet, which is closer to 8/10 of a mile. Gee, thanks for that. Again, if this moment was intended to portray Maya as something of an arrogant ass, that’d be fine. But it isn’t. It’s meant to demonstrate her superior knowledge. It’s another means of making her not a complicated, fallible human being but a conventional (albeit armchair) action hero.

Granted, American movies are littered with larger-than-life protagonists like Maya. And they’re so rarely female that it’s tempting to give it a pass in this instance. Context matters, though. Nothing in Zero Dark Thirty is even remotely as full of shit as the climactic sequence of Argo, which invents an airport-runway chase scene that never happened in real life. Argo, however, in spite of its “based on a true story” preface, more or less admits, through its Robert McKee-approved three-act structure and exaggerated performances and traditional suspense cues, that it’s entertaining nonsense. Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, wants us to believe. It yearns for credibility. And so it does its best to disguise the various ways in which it resembles a fairy tale. The final shot, in which Maya responds to the ostensibly innocuous question “Where do you wanna go?” (asked by her plane’s pilot) with tears of distress, recalls the post-traumatic ending of Bigelow and Boal’s The Hurt Locker, with Jeremy Renner’s bomb expert unable to cope with all the cereal options at the grocery store. But the gesture feels empty this time, because Maya is neither an icon nor a person. She’s whatever the movie needs her to be at any given moment. 

If you’re thinking that formulation might also apply to the film’s views on torture, here’s a cigar.