Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty is challenging, as it lays out, in an unflinching way, the sort of personal characteristics you would have to have to carry out the CIA’s dirty business of torturing detainees. And by telling the story for the ten year hunt for Osama Bin Laden through her female protagonist Maya, Bigelow challenges her audience to confront an unpleasant truth: that women are as capable of acts of torture as their male counterparts.
Mark Boal’s screenplay puts two female characters centre-stage of this action thriller. Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is the older of the two, a veteran CIA analyst who although devoted to her job and despite her gung-ho choice of occupation, is depicted as the only one who doesn’t seem unduly damaged by her experiences. That is one aspect of this challenging film that has so far been overlooked. Jessica is able to do other things besides work. Although we don’t find out this until later, Jessica had three kids waiting for her at home.
And it is perhaps in the character of Jessica that we have to confront the realisation that even women who come across as warm and personable, with functioning relationships and home lives, were complicit in the torture of detainees. Although the camera shows Maya, rather than Jessica taking part in the torture scenes, Jessica knows exactly what’s going on there in the backroom where the CIA carries out its dirty business. The very act of being there means she is complicit.
There is one particularly telling point in the film when Barack Obama comes on television to boast that in his new regime, ‘America doesn’t do torture.’ As Jessica and Maya react, in an exchange of incredulous glances, body language challenging the hypocrisy of the Commander-in-Chief’s statement, they seem to be saying, ‘perhaps you’d better come out here and take a look yourself.’
Amongst the other criticism of Zero Dark Thirty I have read recently, one came from fellow colleagues of the woman CIA officer whom Jennifer Ehle’s character is supposedly modelled upon. Jennifer Matthews was CIA Station Chief at Chapman Base in Afghanistan and like Jessica, she had a family, but was killed by a suicide bomber at the base. She was a serious-minded and formidable agent and her former colleagues, it has been widely reported in the press, found the portrayal of her as a lightweight in Zero Dark Thirty to be disrespectful.
However much a character may appear to be modelled upon a real person, a character in a dramatic screenplay can only ever be a composite. Jessica and Maya, for dramatic reasons have to be polar opposites. Jessica is old school, one of the guys, and even though she’s a CIA agent, she comes across as human – an older colleague trying to make a younger one feel at ease. In contrast, Maya is withdrawn and monosyllabic.
In the office Jessica turns to her new colleague and asks in a benevolent way, “you got any friends at all?” You can almost see Maya’s thought processes, clicking and whirring, until she concedes that she is in fact, friendless. At a later point Maya joins Jessica for a meal in a hotel and, as Maya launches into a discussion about work, Jessica stops her in her tracks and asks if they can’t talk about something else. Jessica is curious to know whether or not her new protégé has a boyfriend and asks Maya whether she’s “hooked up” yet with any of her colleagues. “A little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you,” she says. Maya replies, “I’m not that girl…. it’s unbecoming”.
This is pared back characterisation and storytelling, and one that makes demands of its audience. Mark Boal shows writers that contrary to the “rules”, you don’t have to show a character’s backstory. We meet Maya in the present – we don’t know where she’s from. She has no personal life, no family and is a free agent, able to travel for work at a moment’s notice. Work is what drives her and what self-belief she has is framed through her determination to find the world’s most dangerous man. Maya’s character is defined by what she does, not by who she is. All that we do know about Maya was recruited straight from high school into the CIA.
Mark Boal’s taut and fast-paced screenplay doesn’t patronise its audience: its up to you to fill in the gaps. You get the impression that Maya’s knowledge of world affairs is a one-sided, narrow one, based on working in a hermetically sealed bubble in Washington. Maya, like George W. Bush, before he came to power, probably didn’t even have a passport, before she went to work at Langley.
When Jessica puts her trust in an unknown source and is killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Maya is even more determined to find Osama bin Laden. We see Maya lead an ever more lonely existence: she sleeps in her office, she eats standing up in the kitchen eating white toast, licking food off a knife. For Maya food is fuel, to be eaten on the run. In what passes for downtime we see her slumped on her shabby sofa, eating junk food and drinking from a can while watching the TV news. Hers is a joyless existence.
The most powerful scene comes at the end when Maya’s assignment is over and she has an enormous transport plane all to herself to take her home. But just where is home? When the pilot asks her where she wants to go that we finally see that Maya is a human being, capable of empathy, after all. As the tears stream down her face we know that now the mission is over, that the only answer that Maya can give the pilot is: nowhere. She knows no other life. And although she got her man, at what cost?