Zero Dark Thirty: Female Heroism and the Futility of War

*Spoiler Alert*

I did not want to see Zero Dark Thirty. Generally, Hollywood depictions of war efforts strike me as propaganda. If I’m going to sit through two hours of indoctrination, I want it to be because I’ve been given the truth or at least a view of reality in the terms that I hold true. That is, not the one-sided story of war heroes and national victory. The truth is, soldiers are used and abused when they’re not committing the abuses themselves, and the final act is never truly victorious for anyone.

Also, typically, war is about men. Men leading, men saving. Men, men, men. I agree that men can be heroes and have been heroes, but in cinema they’re always the heroes, and that feels a little sad for me, as a woman. A little like I’m less likely to be a hero, because I’m a woman. (You know, and probably am just in the way, or crying rape back at base camp.) Alas, I personally will never, ever be a war hero. But that’s because I have no desire to be a soldier or a CIA agent or a leader in the Pentagon. However, if I wanted to, I could be. So I’d like more widespread acknowledgement of the fact that women are smart enough and tough enough to be the hero and just as likely to be the hero as a man is; war movies have just barely stepped in line for that plot and have a long way to go. Case in point: “Courage under Fire” was one of the first films to depict a female war hero, but was less about her and more about the male star. Though female lead Walden (Meg Ryan) is awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, the story is really about male lead Serling (Denzel Washington). We follow Serling as he struggles with his own post-war guilt while investigating the contradictory eye-witness accounts to Walden’s battlefield death. One witness depicts her as a weepy coward, while another paints her as a hero. In the end, we don’t actually know what kind of person Walden was, but it doesn’t matter because Serling makes a heroic personal decision and the movie ends on a high note.

I didn’t want to see Zero Dark Thirty, but I did and now I’m thankful that I did because I’m excited to report that this war film speaks with a feminist voice. In Zero Dark Thirty, female lead Maya (Jessica Chastain) plays the persistent and determined CIA officer who repeatedly demonstrates to her colleagues and superiors that she will not give up the hunt for Bin Ladin until she succeeds in finding him. Maya is singularly focused. She does not go out with friends, travel home to family, have sex with any of her readily available coworkers, or leave her job site at all unless it’s to meet with a potential informant. For five years, she analyzes information on the whereabouts of Bin Ladin and his couriers, concentrating on Abu Ahmed, the man whom she believes will lead her directly to Bin Ladin.

We do not learn anything about Maya’s past, other than that she was recruited directly out of high school by the CIA and that she is doggedly committed to her mission. We believe that she will get it done, too, because she never wavers in her belief in herself. When she says: “I’m the mother fucker who found him!” to Leon Panetti (James Gandolfini) in a conference room with all the men who must decide whether or not her lead on Bin Ladin’s location is worth risking lives and military reputation on, I smiled really big in the theater. I’m pretty sure I heard other lips cracking along with mine.

The film isn’t all lady roses and glory. On the contrary, in spite of Maya’s superior intelligence and the respect she garners from most of the men around her, they never refrain from referring to her as “the girl.” For example, when Maya is providing visual confirmation that the corpse is indeed Bin Ladin, the male officer standing by on his cell phone refers to her as “the girl.” (Ever heard a male officer referred to as “the boy?”) The use of the diminutive label throughout the course of the film brings attention to the fact that in spite of a woman’s achievements – beyond those of the men in the mix, dare I say – her sex is still first and foremost her identity, and must be brought down to size (i.e. from a woman to a girl). Sure, they seem to be saying, she may have found Bin Ladin, but she’s still just a girl. (Which instantly recalls No Doubt’s hit: “Just a girl.”) I appreciate the overt and constant reference to the salutational disparity between male and female officers, because it underscores how much work we still have to do. It’s important to recognize that even Maya, successful as she is, cannot rid herself of  this label of subjugation.

Of course, one cannot discuss Zero Dark Thirty without discussing the role of torture in the narrative. A lot of people in the media have been upset and argumentative: Is the film advocating for torture or isn’t it? To be honest, this was one of the reasons I felt hesitant about seeing it initially. I love a good horror film, but I’m not into torture porn. Influential folks in the industry seem to have denied director Kathryn Bigelow an Academy Award nomination due to what they’re calling a defense of torture in the film. My opinion is that A) art should not be criticized for portraying truth, and the truth is: we tortured (or, as the CIA prefers, used “enhanced interrogation technique” on) terrorists and suspected terrorists during the hunt for Bin Ladin. Shouldn’t come as a surprise — during the Republican Party’s presidential primary in 2012, more than one candidate endorsed the use of torture for the purpose of gaining intelligence; and B) the film does not exactly defend torture. In its narrative, the captured are clearly tortured on a regular basis under the Bush Administration. But the scenes of torture are not romanticized. We are forced to watch a man live in his own feces. I’m quite sure that’s not an endorsement. After Obama takes office, protagonist Maya is warned that torture will no longer be a politically acceptable method for intelligence gathering. So she plays a mental trick on the prisoner that results in the information that leads to the capture of Bin Ladin. Granted, she is able to more easily trick the dude because he’s been sleep deprived and isolated from the outside world for so long; but nonetheless, no useful information is gathered during torture scenes. It is only after the torture ends and the prisoner is bathed, fed, and let out into the sun that the best information is acquired. By the way, I find it particularly satisfying that Maya, our wonder woman, is the one who comes up with the clever mind game that immediately works. Back to the torture debate though, would it have worked had the prisoner not been tortured in the preceding months? That’s the question, I believe, that has engaged the ongoing debate over the film’s pro- or anti-torture message. I, for one, don’t think the film defends torture; it simply depicts torture based on true events. The truth hurts. Sorry to burst bubbles, but America engages in the same violent tactics we criticize in other countries.

And now to the moment that clinched my admiration: the ending. As Zero Dark Thirty approaches the moment it has been building toward all along, namely the killing of Bin Ladin, we are forced through a labyrinth of hallways where too many children are screaming and several women and men are shot dead. By the time we find Bin Ladin, who has been hiding on the third floor while his children and grandchildren act as his shield, the emotion goes from one of triumph to one of despair. The killing feels both brutal and pointless. Our troops have barreled murderously up a stairwell that in the darkness and confusion sounds eerily like the sounds of the twin tower stairwells on 9-11. Then Bin Ladin is dead and we realize that under such violent circumstances, victory is a disillusion; it is ever unattainable.

In the penultimate act, the soldiers who have carried out the mission behave ecstatically upon returning to base camp, high-fiving and hugging as if they’ve just won the Superbowl. Maya stands aside, over the corpse, alone. And then, alone again inside an empty, cavernous military airplane, a few tears fall for the hollowness of such a mission accomplished. It is only now, after she has fought both allies and enemies to achieve the United States’ objective, that she allows herself to mourn the losses of the past five years. This is a strong, determined, intelligent woman and she is as heroic as a war hero can be. Effectively, the film tells us that a woman can do anything, but war, ultimately, is a defeat of all sides.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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