Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow's Yin-Yang Death Squad story

Last night I saw Kathryn Bigelow ’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty and found it a powerful movie. Her style brings you objectively into intense situations, subtly builds suspense, and then… BOOM!–wide-angle explosion. This is an excellent procedural drama, with realistic dialogue (written by her partner on The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal) and settings. Though the film has gotten attention as the first Hollywood treatment of Osama Bin-laden’s killing, as well as for bolstering the argument for torture as a valid instrument of war, it is also, simply, a compelling story of one young woman’s global struggles.

Anyone watching will find Jessica Chastain’s Maya an intriguing heroine, small, smart, and monomaniacaI–a “killer,” she’s called by one of the male spies early on. In fact she is a new American female type–a kind of information-age Nikita. Just as 9/11 took the USA into a new era in warfare (asymetrical, non-traditional, high-tech–in fact, the association most people have with the word “technology” now is to the kind on which the new warfare is based–informational technology), Maya has been cultivated by the CIA from high school. This frail, red-headed wunderkind is entirely dedicated to her job, where she is an innovator, a Wonder Woman for our age. Maya is also the perfect foil to her target–the old, entirely traditional, and (one might argue) irrationally violent Osama Bin-Laden.

Although Maya threatens her male superiors at CIA (her scene yelling at her boss is one for the highlight reel), this mighty American warrior-woman poses no threat to the male soldiers with whom she ultimately partners, the famous Seal Team 6.  That is because these men (who in the film all rather resemble each other–no accident: like Maya they’ve been cultivated) are a new, post-9/11 kind of American male soldier–able to kill with impunity, as ever, but now with computer-aided precision, data-driven and “wired,” they are.  The cybernetic-looking hyperspectral imagers the Seals wear in the climax symbolize a new man, as does the Seal who listens to Tony Robbins on his iPod as they helicopter in to their black op. Much of the 38-minute raid is shot through what appears to be digital lenses, giving the viewer an eery, immersive sense of what of riding with the billion-dollar death squad US citizens have paid for. (In the lobby outside the movie, I noticed many satisfied smiles on the faces of many older Americans, who to my eyes looked pleased at what they’d seen–a return on their post 9/11 investment in national security. 

Probably my favorite scenes of the movie are those between Maya and Seal Team 6. I totally did not expect them–the way their relationship starts with male-female friction but hits an almost rom-com-like stride. Yes, near its climax, Zero Dark Thirty has a sort of militaristic love story, a romantic, dancing yin-yang in khaki.. Once the Seals recognize Maya as a frosty specialist like them, data-driven and singularly-focused, and they hear her tell them that if it were up to her, she wouldn’t choose to use the Seals with their “dip and velcro,” they respect her.  When she tells them “you are going to kill him for me,” they agree, just like that, and the rest of the movie is about their relationship’s pay-off. After the procedures and acronyms, beyond all the ideology and international law, the story of a death plot turns out to be an ancient tale:  a group of manly men in the service to a queen.

Finally, I liked the way the film had a motif of contrasting opposites that points up the moral ambiguity of our current wars. There is: Dan, the personable torturer; the Seal team killers’ compassion for the children of the terrorists, right next to their parents’ dead bodies, which they’ve shot; and then the last scene with a successful Maya, the individual most responsible for a monumental victory, cries alone as she contemplates her isolation and lack of purpose, now that her mission is accomplished.

So while the film does imply that torture (a yin) is necessary for security (yang) (and according to some critics, Bigelow is being used as propaganda tool–Naomi Wolf compares Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, a cinematic artist similarly seduced into amoral irresponsibility by powerful militarists), the film is very well made, and leaves one with plenty to discuss regarding our nation’s “War on Terror.”

images responsibly sourced from Dover Press Decolletage book (Lady Justice) Wikimedia (Wonder Woman), and 

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