“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.