“Zero Dark Thirty,” A Heroine’s Tale

Jessica Chastain as Maya. [Publicity shot provided by Columbia Pictures.]

WASHINGTON – It’s the big story so many are missing in all the reviews tumbling out about Zero Dark Thirty. The hero in Zero Dark Thirty is “the girl.” Played by Jessica Chastain, who won the Golden Globe Sunday night for Best Actress in a Drama, what plays out on the screen is being overshadowed by high pitched squeals from critics whose fervor misses the movie’s genius and ultimate message completely. The American movie industry has never had a female so fierce; a woman who crashes a party where men have reigned almost exclusively. A female leader whom everyone is inspired to follow because of the force of nature that she is.

Why is it that whenever fierce females step up to take history by the reins and tell the story in which a woman has proven to be a leader beyond parallel in her field, which applies to Bigelow and Chastain, there are always individuals, particularly on the left, who feel it necessary to strip what the woman is doing to the bone? Something is always wrong with the intent of the woman involved. She’s never sufficiently cognizant of progressive sensibilities, as both Bigelow and Chastain are being charged, even at a time when women are still trying to prove we can be members of male dominated clubs or even lead them.

If Kathryn Bigelow’s stunningly crafted war movie, thriller and epic historical storytelling by Mark Boal was being seen without the blinders of agenda and ideological myopia, the first thing you’d have to say is this is a feminist tour de force and a partnership of epic magnitude. Having a woman at the helm of the greatest war story of modern time is no small thing, but to have her at the helm in a story whose driving force is a female is nothing short of a history making moment.

Instead of taking the film as a whole, the caterwauling critiques have centered on the “enhanced interrogation,” otherwise known as torture, that appears at the top of the film. Bigelow’s unflinching bravery, combined with her unblinking ability to depict the savagery of the time, which occurred during the Bush era, has been subjected to heinous allegations. The worst of which is Naomi Wolf comparing Kathryn Bigelow’s direction to Nazi Propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. The critics who have latched on to the torture scenes and see them as the whole film have worked to take all the oxygen out of the discussion in order to sabotage the film’s success. It’s their right to do so, but they are wrong in their assessments. It also didn’t work, as the film opens wide number one. [Also see this piece over at Huffington Post.]

The film has stirred so much controversy over the opening scenes that McClatchy reported that the Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain have written a letter demanding to know details to Acting CIA Director Michael Morell demanding details on what the C.I.A. told the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty.

The film not only isn’t about torture, but it in no way glorifies or implies that torture led to the capture of Osama bin Laden, UBL as he’s called in the film. The bulk of the film centers around the agonizing tedium of intelligence work that takes place well beyond the enhanced interrogation, aka torture, that was sanctioned during the Bush era.

More importantly, at the very beginning of the film the torture they’re conducting proves futile from the start. The first detainee tortured in the film refuses to help his C.I.A. interrogators, the result being a terrorist attack happens while agents continue to try to get information out of the detainees.

Maya’s dogged belief that the key to finding Osama bin Laden revolved around Abu Ahmed, believed to be bin Laden’s courier, took 10 years of painstaking work to confirm, which is compressed in the film. She believes the importance of Abu Ahmed’s is given credence, not by what the detainees are saying about him, but by their refusal to mention him at all. Meanwhile, Maya’s C.I.A. colleagues remain very skeptical. [Also see this Huffington Post piece by an assistant law professor at Drexel.]

It can be argued that the editing of the torture scenes confuses the specific lineage of what happened, even the manner in which torture was done, but there is never one “aha!” moment in the film from torture that leads to bin Laden, quite the contrary.

Instead, the opening intense torture sequences seem meant to throw the audience back in time. When President Bush and V.P. Dick Cheney and the administration made the “war on terror” revolve around “enhanced interrogations,” because they didn’t want to admit outright what they were doing was torture. The filmgoer is thrown into the room where torture is being conducted in all manner of ways, going beyond what even the Administration documented happened, reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, with the Bush administration’s account of the torture done one of detail, doctors and due process. We’ve suspected this is false and in Zero Dark Thirty what you see is detainees being subjected to haphazard treatment and torture, pulling the viewer back to a time when it seemed we’d all gone mad and when confusion and ambiguity ruled.

Kathryn Bigelow’s brazen treatment of the audience through the opening torture scenes slaps us into submission. That Sam Pekinpah is reportedly a director Bigelow admires becomes obvious here. It forces us to watch what the U.S. did, at a time when few Americans protested and in fact our country reelected George W. Bush to a second term in spite of it.

And nothing could be clearer in the film about how UBL was caught. It’s the “trade-craft” of intelligence work that leads Maya and her team to UBL. The reason by the end of the film that torture seems so far away is my design. It’s a turn of directorial purpose, because torture was a faraway crime by the time President Obama gave the word for SEAL Team Six to go.

The order by President Obama is what hovers invisibly over the entire film at the end, when Maya leads the UBL team to keep going, while no one had her certainty. But yet this boys’ club not only ended up trusting her implicitly, but followed her lead. This went all the way up to President Obama, who obviously had to be told that the leader behind the manhunt was Maya. The woman who had been following every piece of evidence and never let go, even when the best in the C.I.A., with more experience, still weren’t 100% committed, but only a “soft 60%.” Yet she stood firm. Bigelow and Boal only let Maya back down to 95% to make the guys happy, because surety made them uncomfortable.

The change that you see in the film in Maya through Jessica Chastain’s gritty performance is the guts of serious acting, as she relentlessly and ruthlessly trudges on day after day, evolving from novice to seasoned UBL hunter, the only thing she’s done since coming to the Agency straight from high school. It’s a heroine’s tale in a film that depicts American sadism when it was codified in policy by President Bush’s lawyers, which took a toll on the agents who administered it.

This is a spectacular ride, without the red, white and blue bravura, because Bigelow keeps the drama clamped down and brewing, the film’s score haunting us as we watch. Delivering a haunting requiem to the murdered on 9/11, as we are reminded of who we became after the terrorist attack. There are plenty of questions to ask of ourselves, but none of them can be answered by filmmakers.

The oddest critique of the film comes in the wondering about Maya’s reaction at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, some speculating that she looks alone and empty, while attempting to imply a deadness to her.

When she gets on a military cargo plane the pilot comes out as she boards. “You must be pretty important,” the pilot says to her. “You got the plane to yourself. Where do you want to go?” They take off, with the area behind where Maya is seated, the webbing of the plane, having coloration that mimics the American flag.

Maybe it’s not just exhaustion you see on her face. Perhaps it’s relief. Or perhaps it’s gratefulness that all the work paid off. That after 10 years she can finally rest because the deaths on 9/11 have been avenged. Her eyes fill with tears and she begins to cry.

It’s not hard for your heart to break when Zero Dark Thirty ends. Shedding a tear for America, because in hunting Osama bin Laden we changed and our country changed, too.

Taylor Marsh, is a veteran political analyst, a former Huffington Post contributor, Broadway babe and talk radio dabbler, and is the author of The Hillary Effect, available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. Her new-media magazine www.taylormarsh.com covers national politics, women, foreign policy, and culture.

  • zusa1

    This was a great article.

    “there are always individuals, particularly on the left, who feel it necessary to strip what the woman is doing to the bone? Something is always wrong with the intent of the woman involved. She’s never sufficiently cognizant of progressive sensibilities, as both Bigelow and Chastain are being charged, even at a time when women are still trying to prove we can be members of male dominated clubs or even lead them.”

    There’s a lot talk about the Rep war on women. Often times it seems there is liberal women’s war on conservative women.

  • zephyr

    Kathryn Bigelow’s brazen treatment of the audience through the opening torture scenes slaps us into submission. That Sam Pekinpah is reportedly a director Bigelow admires becomes obvious here. It forces us to watch what the U.S. did, at a time when few Americans protested and in fact our country reelected George W. Bush to a second term in spite of it.

    I don’t need to be slapped “into submission”, the reality was more than bad enough. Maybe some people need to relive the experience or have it explained to them, but some of us were actually paying attention at the time. There are a great many of us who knew our involvement was wrong and who were horrified to see an electorate so incompetent it re-elected GWB. As for this imagined liberal war on women? Pu-leeze..

  • zusa1

    zephyr, A few examples:


    “Syndicated writer and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin listed such epithets in her March 7, 2012 column, including a Texas example: “It was feminist godmother Gloria Steinem who called Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison a ‘female impersonator.’ ”

    Did women’s rights icon Steinem really belittle the femininity of Texas’ first female U.S. senator?

    Yes. The comment made national news in 1993 as Hutchison, then state treasurer, ran for U.S. Senate in a special election runoff against interim Democratic appointee Bob Krueger. Hutchison won the seat and has held it ever since; she is expected to retire from Congress in January 2013.”


    “Or when Playboy published a list of the top 10 conservative women who deserved to be “hate-f**ked.” The article, which was promoted by Anne Schroeder Mullins at Politico.com, included Ingraham, “The View’s” Elisabeth Hasselbeck, former Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann and others. Yours truly topped the list with the following description: a “highly f**kable Filipina” and “a regular on Fox News, where her tight body and get-off-my-lawn stare just scream, ‘Do me!'””

  • dduck

    Nice to see a depiction of a woman hero for a change.

  • zusa1

    And liberal men like to join in on occasion: Rush Limbaugh isn’t the only talk show host to throw around the “s” word:


  • zephyr

    Sure zusai, examples can always be found, but most uses of the “both sides” reflex/defense give a very incomplete picture without proportion being considered. Cherry picking doesn’t change the fact that matters of degree matter. There is a good reason why more women identify themselves as democrats than republicans.

  • zusa1

    zephyr, I have to disagree with you. Those examples I listed are not just “one off’s”. Just because the women being denigrated are in the minority does not make it ok, especially when it comes from other women. I don’t see how this meshes with the reaction to Rush Limbaugh’s comment (which I surely won’t defend).

    “Conservative women are fair game”

    • “Ed Schultz said on his radio show that Sarah Palin set off a ‘bimbo alert.’ He called Laura Ingraham a ‘right-wing sl*t.’ (He later apologized.)”

    • Keith Olbermann said conservative commentator S.E. Cupp should have been aborted by her parents. He called Malkin a “mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick.”

    • “Left-wing darling Matt Taibbi wrote on his blog in 2009, ‘When I read [Malkin’s] stuff, I imagine her narrating her text, book-on-tape style, with a big, hairy set of balls in her mouth.'” Taibbi, in a profile of congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, called her “batsh*t crazy.”

    • Chris Matthews, who favored Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, called Clinton a “she-devil,” “Nurse Ratched,” “Madame Defarge, “witchy,” “anti-male” and “uppity.” He’s said worse things about Palin and Bachmann.

    • Bill Maher, who gave Obama $1 million, called Palin a “dumb tw*t” and the “C-word.”

    • As the reigning queen of double standards, Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasseman-Schultz said Limbaugh‘s apology was too little, too late. She said that calling a woman a “sl*t” isn’t funny in any context. This from a woman who appears on Bill “dumb tw*t” Maher’s show regularly.”


    “Mia Love Wikipedia page vandalized amid liberal racist attacks”

  • sheknows

    Zusai, the first mistake you made was to make the comment about “men on the left”. This issue isn’t about left or right…it’s about male vs female as the hero. Not everything is about politics.
    Think of it as the Alien trilogy, and later Prometheus. The strength and courage of the heroic female is the theme.
    All these political attacks have nothing to do with what this is about. It’s about the boys club…men and their attitudes toward women…left, right ,center, over, under…whatever.
    The role women play in war will always be suspect at best to men, and resented at worst.

  • zusa1

    “It’s about the boys club…men and their attitudes toward women…left, right ,center, over, under…whatever.”
    Conservative and liberal women should be banded together and are not.

  • sheknows

    I think we are Z. All women regardless of political affiliation can relate to discrimination by the boys club. The problem may not be so much political as it is upbringing and socialization.

  • zephyr

    Zusai, disagree all you like, the fact is that women are more likely to be democrat than republican by nearly a 15 point margin. This is because they know which party does a better job advocating for their interests. None of your example change this reality.

  • zusa1

    zephyr, Democrats are advocates for liberal women’s issues, and the misogynistic treatment of conservative women as exampled above is tolerated. There was a huge uproar over Rush Limbaugh using the “s” word regarding a liberal woman. Did you read any of that stuff above? It’s not even in the same league.

    “The Left Is Just Fine With Misogyny, As Long As It’s Against Conservative Women”

    Hustler has published an image—“a composite fantasy” in the magazine’s description—of conservative commentator S.E. Cupp with a phallus in her mouth. Hustler’s reasoning? “Cupp … is undeniably cute. But her hotness is diminished when she espouses dumb ideas like defunding Planned Parenthood.” So let’s shut her up. And, even better, use a penis to do it.

    “I have been most impressed by Cupp’s response. She commended Hustler for being honest: “They have uncomplicated this belief system that my political views, my being pro-life, my political views make this kind of behavior OK. It justifies it and I essentially deserve it. That is honesty and I have never seen it before.”

    Indeed, it’s tiresome to hear someone preach about tolerance while only being tolerant toward those with whom they agree. But that has become par for the course.”


  • http://taylormarsh.com TAYLOR MARSH, Guest Voice Columnist

    Thanks so much for your comments. Appreciate your kind words, zusai.

  • zephyr

    Zusai, your willingness to brush off the forest undermines your trees. Of course misogyny isn’t confined only to rightwing America, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a much greater problem for them. Mot of us understand this. Most women understand this. It’s why they vote the way they do.

  • KP

    Taylor, another brilliant review mixed with truth telling. Spot on!

  • zusa1

    zephyr, my point is that it is still ok to discount conservative women with names like “blond barbies”.

  • zusa1

    “Appreciate your kind words, zusai.”

    Taylor, I apologize if any of my comments were disrespectful to your article. KP is right on the money.