A big thanks to Jillian McKeown and Stacy Sandow for being such swell movie-going pals and conversationalists. This post was largely inspired by a post-screening discussion with them.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the “torture controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that, while the torture scenes obviously do play an important role in the movie, they are also only one small part of an ambitious film that ends up saying and doing a lot of other very interesting things. The torture-talk has unfortunately been so dominant in the media discourse surrounding the movie (including, I’m sorry to say, on this blog) that it has ended up overshadowing a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s other considerable achievements. Fortunately, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has perceptively analyzed the film as a fascinating portrait of 21st century warfare as an “elaborate technocracy” – where strategic moves are made only after data has been analyzed and probability calculated. But I would argue it isn’t just the content that makes Zero Dark Thirty a distinctly 21st-century work of art, it’s also the form: does this mark the first instance of the aesthetics of “Google Earth” being incorporated into a film’s visual design?
Even more surprisingly absent has been any discussion of the movie’s gender politics. What seems increasingly obvious with repeated viewings is the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty must have been highly personal for its female director, and it is tempting to read it as something like a personal testament. Jessica Chastain’s tenacious Maya (“Washington says she’s a killer”) and her position within the “boys’ club” of the CIA can be seen as analogous to Bigelow and her position within male-dominated Hollywood. There is a great moment early on, so subtle I didn’t catch it on first viewing, when “enhanced interrogation”-expert Dan (Jason Clark), a character whose fratboy mannerisms I described in an earlier post, first introduces Maya to their superior, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). Maya is visible to both men through a large glass window but remains out of earshot. Dan nudges Joseph and says, “Was I lyin’ or what?” Maya then emerges from the room and greets both men before Joseph can answer the question or Dan can elaborate on what exactly he means. We can only surmise that Dan means he wasn’t lying about Maya being, you know, hot. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a similar phrase must have been uttered either just before or after – or, heaven forbid, during – a meeting between Bigelow and Hollywood studio executives.
Joseph, with his Donald Trump-hair and steely demeanor, is in many ways the real “villain” of Zero Dark Thirty because he is such a concrete obstacle in Maya’s path – unlike the Al Qaeda terrorists who remain an abstract, largely faceless blob and thus come across more like some mythological force. If, next month, Jessica Chastain wins the Best Actress Oscar that she so richly deserves, it will likely be because of the hallway screaming match scene between Maya and Joseph – the most dramatic moment in the film. The relationship between Dan and Joseph is also intriguing; there’s a sense that, as archetypal characters, Joseph-the-successful-suit is who Dan-the-fratboy is destined to become – and this is even before we see Dan’s physical transformation from tattooed, wavy-haired beardo to clean-shaven executive-type. We are left to wonder if Maya will ever rise to a comparably lofty position in the CIA or if there’s a glass ceiling in her way. The fact that this thirty-something woman is referred to as “the girl,” even as the agency expert who identifies Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the end, and the manner in which she’s banished from the main table during a meeting with James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta (who, to carry my Hollywood analogy to its logical conclusion, can be seen as representing a studio mogul), suggests the latter.
But perhaps a silver lining can be found in the dialogue scene between Maya and Debbie, an even younger female agent who makes the crucial discovery that the courier they’ve been looking for was in their files under a different name all along. (This scene, plus several more between Maya and a character played by Jennifer Ehle, make Zero Dark Thirty one of the few American films in recent years to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Debbie clearly looks up to Maya as a role model just as surely as up-and-coming female filmmakers look up to Kathryn Bigelow, who may be unfairly shut out of this year’s Best Director race at the Oscars but who will forever be known as the motherfucker who directed this masterpiece. Sir.