Here it is ya’ll, my first review post in 2013. I saw the flick during one of my late night double-features at the cinema. You would think I would want a break after the three-hour war epic, but no, I needed to hit up Silver Linings Playbook in order to feel normal again. Ok, so the film is obviously not a genre film, but it surely has horrific elements. The female protagonist (as you’ll see me explain) is interesting in her representation, hence, I feel this is appropriate to place here…
In a scene most descriptive of the female lead, CIA director Leon Panette (James Gandolfini), walks out of a meeting with a fellow agent and asks, “What do you think of the girl?” the agent quickly replies, “I think she’s fucking smart,” Gandolfini quips back, “We’re all fucking smart”. The “girl” in question is Maya (Jennifer Chastain), a CIA officer who has spent the last decade of her career towards finding Osama Bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty raises plenty of tough questions concerning the dramatization of recent history, the film’s supposed pro-torture stance, and moral obligations of both the film and filmmaker. At the heart of it all, Chastain’s role as protagonist is integral to approaching the aforementioned topics, and Maya alone is an engrossing figure in her elusiveness.
The film opens in Pakistan in 2003, where Maya is assigned to work at a U.S. embassy, and the narrative follows her until 2011 when the raid on Bin Laden takes place. In this broad timeframe, many key historical moments are highlighted, such as the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, attacks on the London Underground, and the Camp Chapman attack. Considering the duration of the film at a nearly three hour run time, it never lulls, and Bigelow does not allow the audience to detach themselves in any way. In this regard, Chastian was a perfect casting for her subdued and antagonist depiction of Maya. Her background information is never disclosed, and yet the viewers of Zero Dark Thirty will feel sympathetic towards her character when there is little reason to do so.
As time progresses, Maya evolves. A once uncomfortable officer in the interrogation (torture) room, Maya quickly becomes an aggressor. Attraction to this character is in part due to her strength; she is never undermined because of her sex. Even among a group of US Navy SEALs, where one may expect Bigelow to touch on the apparent sexism in such groups, she is never harassed, belittled, or spoken down to. She rarely shows emotion, and is constantly seen as worn down, in unglamorous attire. Most baffling of all, she never divulges any information about her backstory. She is a ghost of a protagonist, so perhaps the reason she is so appealing has little to do with the character and much to do with Chastain’s striking features. Maya is reflective of the film as a whole; she is as concealed as the operation to capture Bin Laden was. And despite her pro-torture standpoint, viewers will feel a tendency to side with her. For these reasons, viewers of Zero Dark Thirty may find themselves grappling with conflicting emotions: the film is beautifully shot and absolutely watchable, but enjoyable in a problematic way. What little we know of Maya, and the Bin Laden’s assassination, is what will continue to intrigue and fascinate viewers who will find themselves watching her in the timeline of a decade, on one of the most drawn-out and anticipated moments in recent US history.