Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

Everyone seems to have an opinion on this, so why shouldn't I?

The divide in opinion about this is pretty clear: whether it's CIA propaganda or the work of an "artist" (certainly a loose term for Bigelow). The latter seeming to be what the director herself wants you to think. It is a bit of both, if I can get away with that. But seeing through the CIA ethos of the film is not that hard.

First off: I'm not sure how this advocates torture. Because it works? Well, does it really? From all the interrogation sessions that we see, all they got out of it was a generic war name: Abu Ahmed, which later we find out is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwati, who was Osama bin Laden's courier at the time of his death. The rest is all connecting-the-dots detective work, mostly progressed through hunches, carried out by "Maya" (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent. Many of her superiors are not even impressed by her deductions. Her single-mindedness is key to her work though, as she persists even when the CIA is given information by Saudi Intelligence that Ahmed is dead. All of the grey areas involved in how intelligence is gathered and interpreted by torture doesn't make anything clear concerning any perspective, whether you think it's the CIA's or Bigelow's, behind the content of the film.

None of this is nearly as interesting to me as Maya herself, who, if anything can be said about her, is entirely defined by work. In terms of the CIA, she is a cypher throughout the film, which is important. Her character has been dismissed as one-dimensional by some crtics, but she grows from a rookie into a confident, and even arrogant, field agent seamlessly. That she falls into the pattern of CIA/espionage group-think is not strange. In fact it's expected of her (she is, after all, "a killer"), and of all agents for that matter. They wouldn't be agents if they started thinking differently. Her growth into the CIA ethos is telling. Maya has, in essence and thought, become the perfect agent. A little uppity and forward in the knowing-your-place hierarchy of the CIA, but motherfuckers have to get stuff done, and this sort of attitude separates the slackers from the go-getters.

The most important scene in the film is the very last one, which correlates back to a lot of little tidbits about about Maya herself. So let's back-track for a moment to the scene in Islamabad where the Marriott gets bombed. Maya and elder-statesman field agent "Jessica" are eating at the hotel while "socializing." Jessica tries to prod a bit into any kind of personal life that Maya might have, but the ever-vigilant Maya has nothing to give back. When asked if she even has any friends at all, she can't answer. She has no life outside her work. Maya says at a point later in the film that "...a lot of my friends have died trying to do this," but they are just other agents. Are they really her friends? Even earlier than this, she is asked by her partner, after some time of witnessing and participating in torture interrogations, if she'd like to take some time off in the States. She refuses. After all, it's hard to track terrorists from across the planet. What does she even have back there? In a scene at a cafeteria at CIA headquarters, Maya a a chat with the CIA director (James Gandolfini, who is clearly supposed to be Leon Panetta, now the Secretary of Defense). When asked how long she has worked at the CIA, she answers 12 years and that she had been recruited right out of high-school. She has done nothing else but hunt bin Laden.

So where does that leave Maya when the task is done? Alone, in a military plane, left to ponder where she'd like to go. This could be anywhere. But again, she has no answer. What are the tears? Relief? Happiness? Despair even? Maya, and the CIA, have to think about the reality of their new situation: Osama bin Laden as existential crisis. Maya is back to zero. She needs a new identity, but that can be imprinted easily enough. That's what she is trained to do. The CIA (and America) needs a new boogeyman. I'm sure there will be one soon enough (besides just "Muslims"). What triumph can there be in this never ending cycle? No bombastic fanfare. No real victory. Because Osama was just another muslim killed in the Middle East by a system that told us to think otherwise. That system created an identity for Maya around that myth, and then they blew it away.