Some say the Academy overlooked Zero Dark Thirty
, and some say for good reason. Featuring deplorable activities like torture and focusing on the questionably moral story of killing Osama bin Laden, many film-goers found the movie neither their idea of entertainment nor a valuable story.
But for those who thought Zero Dark Thirty
was primarily a story about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I think they missed the point. I would submit the movie was not about the death of the 9/11 mastermind and not about national security—not even about torture. (In fact, when it came to what helped find bin Laden, in the end it was the heroine’s skilled eye following clues that found him, not the savage torture we saw earlier in the film.)
All these aspects were there, sure, but they were the backdrop of the story Bigelow was telling. I would submit the story was about something different—something arguably larger—the story was about a woman’s triumph against the odds.
“It’s her against the world.” So summarizes the story, in one CIA staffer’s line, toward the end of the film.
It’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) against the puzzle of finding the missing al Qaeda leader. It’s Maya against the web of terrorists. But it’s also Maya against the male-dominated CIA. Maya against her peers and superiors who doubt her work. Maya against the bureaucracy of her field. Maya against, dare I say it, sexism.
“I think she’s smart,” said one CIA superior to the chief, toward the end of the movie when they were assessing whether to take military action on her findings. “We’re all smart,” he replied. And just a scene later, we see her in the cafeteria with the chief who asks what else she’s done since being at the CIA—”nothing”—to which he replied, “well you certainly have a flair for it.”
Lest she be seen as weak by her male colleagues, it’s not until the very end that she allows herself a tear—breathing in her hard-fought victory.
Yet, despite the resistance she met among the CIA staff, she triumphed, and Zero Dark Thirty
tells that story. It’s the triumph of a women’s genius, her unique persistence when all those around her lost momentum, and despite years of what her colleagues would consider incessant nagging; her confidence, her sureness, her intuition even. There’s a difference between a man’s and a woman’s approach to things, and I’d argue that’s what this story is about. And that’s what makes it so good.
That a woman’s work led to the death of the villain whose world values women’s rights as slim to none—this was just the cherry on top of the larger story.
But just as Maya’s work was belittled by her colleagues, many have belittled the story itself, based as it was on a real-life CIA agent who allegedly has a chip on her shoulder. The Washington Post
reported that, far from heroic, her real story is “more complicated,” since the real-life CIA agent the story is based on recently sent a mass-email message to the CIA saying that she and no one else deserves recognition for the work in finding bin Laden.
“You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award,” she wrote in the email. Though the Post
seems to be criticizing her tone in its piece, it would do well to ask: Might she be right? The agent whose ingenious work led to finding the most unfindable man in the world—do her words mean nothing?
I’m reminded here of Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty
. The lone female among a sea of male directors at the Academy Awards on Sunday might have been just as misunderstood as our CIA heroine, played brilliantly by Chastain in the film.Mary Rose Somarriba is the managing editor of Altcatholicah. This piece originally appeared at Acculturated.