Directed by the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow, and focusing on the work of a real, anonymous young woman currently working for the CIA, “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the very recent story of the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden from the perspective of a woman.
This true story is one that has been told in a variety of forms—journalism, documentary, novel, broadcast news. So why is this story worth telling so many different ways? Each time someone new tells a story, it affects the way it is told and causes us to focus on different issues and have different discussions. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a particularly bold version of this story that has caused a great amount of controversy concerning everything from its portrayal of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to its factual accuracy.
Even though the film focuses on a single woman who played a pivotal role in the assassination of bin Laden, Bigelow chose not to explicitly highlight any feminist issues, which in a way further glorifies the woman portrayed. The film doesn’t dwell on Maya’s (as the real-life, anonymous protagonist portrayed by Jessica Chastain is called in the movie) struggles to be taken seriously in a predominately male work force, her lack of a personal life, or even her lifestyle changes to accommodate a culture in which females are considered inferior.
Instead, Bigelow, much like Maya, focuses intently on what needs to be done without being afraid to let things get messy or controversial.
Some of the biggest controversies surrounding this film were in regards to the film’s depiction of alleged torture techniques, including waterboarding, used by the CIA to gain information. Several of the film’s critics accused the film of being pro-torture, portraying it as an effective method for acquiring valuable information, whereas many others say quite the opposite. In fact, one could even say that the female protagonist’s perspective and development over the course of the film condemns it. In the beginning, as a novice, Maya is noticeably disturbed by the torture she witnesses, but over the years becomes unmoved by its continued use. By the end of the film, after having accomplished the mission that had for ten years been her life’s sole focus, the hardened veteran breaks down in tears while alone. We see no celebration and begin to question what this ‘success’ actually means for our country. Have we truly won the battle against terrorism? What kind of people have we become or come to understand ourselves as due to this battle?
While many experts have criticized the film’s inaccuracy, especially in regards to torture, there are others who have made accusations about the filmmakers’ improper access to classified information. Some prefer to claim that torture did not play a vital role in the capture of bin Laden, whereas others claim the CIA’s immoral use of torture was not emphasized enough. Given the general population’s strong reliance on the word of journalists, politicians, and clandestine services it is hard to know the truth. Bigelow and former investigative journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal have relentlessly claimed that the information used for the film was based on firsthand accounts and that the allegations of enhanced interrogation techniques were too significant to overlook when attempting to tell a story about the truth. Whether the film is entirely accurate, however, is not wholly relevant. In the end it is not a factual record or documentary but a dramatized film, a medium in which truth is stretched to mean not merely what is literally real but what feels real, what deeply affects us. We are guided through the events and reports by Maya, a fictional character merely based on an actual person, who shows us how to feel or think about them in ways that have been interpreted very differently by everyone who watches the film.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the many accounts of one of our country’s darkest decades. It pays tribute to the work of not only Maya but the many people whose work, sacrifice, and focused dedication cannot be personally commended. And the personal relationship we develop with our female protagonist forces us to carefully reflect on our most recent history. When presented as a film this story becomes a way of telling us truths we do or do not want to hear, depending on how we interpret them, stirring up immense controversy and provoking the discussions we need to have as a united country and people.