Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Zero Dark Thirty

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Zero Dark Thirty

Article excerpt

Director Kathryn Bigelow's riveting Zero Dark Thirty (2012), with a controversial screenplay by producer Mark Boal, spotlights a woman named "Maya": a CIA analyst (beautifully played by Jessica Chastain) whose life-focus is on terminating Osama bin Laden.

If Maya's intensity, youth and vulnerability, brass, brains, and kinetic sex appeal seem an unlikely mix, it's because, as the filmmakers admit, she's a "composite" anchoring a thousand events played out over nearly eight years. And as a fiery amalgam, the unsmiling Maya ("recruited...right out of high school") has freedom to do it all: we meet her at a CIA "black site", witnessing, with initial discomfort only, the torture of an al-Qaeda prisoner (Reda Kateb); soon she's in Islamabad under violent terrorist attack, then at a desk zeroing in on bin Laden's top courier (soon tracked to Abbottabad by an American-Kuwaiti surveillance team); next, Maya's behind Tom Clancy shades inspiring commandos at super-secret Area 51, and finally she's at Bagram Airfield to verify that the body the SEALs bring in is really bin Laden's. As writer-producer Boal has noted: "It's not a documentary. It's a movie."

Indeed. At Langley, Maya breaks sharply into top-level back-and-forth to specify the enigmatic Abbottabad compound's stone's-throw distance from the Pakistani Military Academy; when the male-chauvinist CIA Director (James Gandolfini) asks drily, "Who are you?" Maya, the only woman in the room, has the perfect comeback: "I'm the motherfucker who found the place!" (Female stars of war movies are obliged, at least once, to out-cuss any man on screen; the standard is Demi Moore's Lieutenant O'Neill, in 1997's G.I. Jane, snarling at her hectoring, derisive SEAL instructor, "Suck my dick!") Zero Dark Thirty is as much about feminist role modeling as it is about the CIA.

After seven CIA operatives are killed in a suicide double-cross at Camp Chapman, Afghanistan-including (in a move as old as Homer) her only near-friend (Jennifer Ehle)-it's not Vin Diesel but Maya who pledges, "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I'm going to kill bin Laden." CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), in the series Homeland, needs quirky neuroses to keep her gunning for terrorists; but Maya has just one crystal-clear motive: she's an American citizen who wants revenge on the mastermind of Nine-Eleven. And Maya-dangerous only when provoked-is a very tough customer.

The final segment recreates Operation Neptune Spear as the SEALs, in stealthy Air Force choppers, glide to their target in the dead of night ("zero-dark-thirty"). One chopper loses liftand crashes by the compound wall. The SEALs pile out nearly unfazed, even as the inmates of the house may be strapping on suicide vests or arming remote-controlled IEDs. The entire sequence shimmers through the green haze of night-vision goggles with as much combat immediacy as anything on screen since Saving Private Ryan (1998). When an entrance can't be breached, the SEALs know where there's another. An al-Qaeda firing a rifle is shot and killed. A man rushing toward the SEALs down the stairwell is shot and killed, as is a woman flying around the corner behind him. At the top of the stairs a SEAL whisper-calls bin Laden's name and Osama, a shadow in a doorway, bolts back, and is shot and killed. A woman rushing bin Laden's killer is shot in the foot. …

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