…in which we chat about “Zero Dark Thirty,” torture, surprise, and post-9/11 trauma

14 January 2013

When film blogger JustMeMike and I agreed back in November to have a conversation about Zero Dark Thirty (which we’ll abbreviate to ZD30 for ease – and which is, of course, the dramatic tale of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden), I had no idea that it would receive as many raves, nor so many political criticisms.Jessica-Chastain-in-Zero-Dark-Thirty-2012

My main concern (which I voiced to JMM beforehand): that I’d be disappointed by Kathryn Bigelow’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won Best Picture and Best Director prizes at the 2009 Academy Awards.

High expectations, attacks from both sides of the political spectrum (from the left over the film’s depiction of torture; from the right over whether the filmmakers gained access to state secrets), and then the Academy failed to nominate Bigelow for Best Director this year – how does one watch a film fairly given all this chatter?

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No worries about spoilers for the first half of this long conversation – we’ll warn you when we switch over to spoiling big plot points.

JMM: Hi Didion. I’ve been really looking forward to this just as you have. So let’s get this thing going. You mentioned that you were afraid that your expectations for ZD30 were high. Now that we’ve both seen the film, I’ll lay my cards on the table first to say that I was not disappointed at all. Just the opposite — I felt the film was great. What about you?

Didion: I so agree with you. I left the theater in tears, due to a rush of conflicting emotions. I can’t quite believe Bigelow was able to convey these so effectively. I think it’s a really major film — better than anything I’ve seen this year.

Yes: fear of high expectations due to the threat of disappointment. But I’d also read relatively little about the film itself beforehand, so I didn’t realize quite where it would take me.

Can I just start by saying that the opening 1-2 minutes of the film were possibly the most amazing way to get a film started?

JMM: You mean the WTC audio?

Didion: Yes!

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JMM: The WTC voices over a blank screen led to a CIA black site was a seriously affecting jump. Especially since we have no idea of what we will see. Were you amazed because of the unexpected transition or just the impact of the voices taking us back to 9/11?

Didion: Yes: what was so amazing for me made me relive a bit of 9/11. The voices we hear are not ones we heard that day. But you find yourself lost in thought, remembering where you were. And, hence (in my case at least), realizing the extent to which that one day caused a cultural trauma for so many of us. It put me in mind of sitting in a room at school where someone had set up a TV from the A/V room so we could gather and watch the events unfolding. Surrounded by my colleagues and students, all helplessly watching something unthinkable. And then I went home and didn’t stop crying for, what, 24 hours? 48 hours? a week? two weeks?

Now, I don’t quite know how Bigelow knew to do this, or knew how it might affect people in theaters. Or how she chose the voices she did. But it was an amazing way to frame this film, because I think ultimately its tense action scenes are subsumed under its attempt to tell us something about the big wound we’ve all had for the last 11+ years.SUB-24ZERO-articleLarge

JMM: Some have questioned the legitimacy of using those voices — after all, someone could recognize them. I’ll leave that for others to decide. For me the framing was totally unexpected. I even wondered if this was a malfunction in the theater. You know — a gray screen — but I moved past it. As for me, I was crossing the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey, and we were able to see the smoke and flames while on board the ferry. Later we watched on TV and from our own office windows. Yes, we were helpless as well.

Didion: Yikes!

JMM: I find the comment you make about the wound we’ve lived with these many years interesting. It will never leave us — either as individuals or as a nation….

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Didion: Can I ask you something about the film as a whole that’s been debated publicly? Torture. I was prepared to arrive here today and dismiss the charge that the film advocates for torture as a means of getting information. I could certainly develop an argument that falls in line with what Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said: that it represents the perspectives of CIA figures without endorsing those views.

But honestly, I believe the film gets as close as possible to arguing that torture leads to information — even as it also says that torture helps to procure a bunch of misleading, incorrect, and distracting information as well. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.tumblr_mbr76hqEr21qjaa1to1_1280

JMM: I think the crux of the matter about the film’s position on torture in indeed ambivalent. Those who have decried the film claim that film glorifies torture and that the film misleads by implying that torture led directly to discovery of enough information to mount the Seal Team operation. I don’t agree with that at all, and here’s why.

The first torture scene is two years after 9/11. Not much was gleaned from this particular detainee. The film hardly glorified torture because both Dan and Maya were shown to suffer from being participants, and finally the reality of the process was that it was a combination of dogged detective work which included the sifting through mountains of paperwork, intercepted phone calls, and the development of information provided by informers. That’s why the mission wasn’t mounted until 2011.

So yes, torture was a part of it — but not the only part nor the most important part.

Didion: Really nicely put, JMM. I agree with everything you’ve said; indeed, this is a film that celebrates the dogged pursuit of reasoned, intelligent analysis of masses of information. Too right.

This film also makes it clear that this work is hard on its analysts. Not just because they’re in danger while they live abroad, but because they are so determined, so single-minded, that they lose track of other things in their lives.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let's just say the end result of my research doesn't exactly seem as important.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let’s just say the end result of my research doesn’t exactly seem as important as Maya’s.

In saying that, I don’t want you to think this is one of those films that pathologizes Maya’s determination, or suggests she’s a pathetic example of a woman with no love interest, no family back home (a tired movie trope if ever there was one). Those things are true, but I thought the film was good at saying thank god she threw herself into her work.

JMM: She certainly did throw herself into her work. By the way, have you any reactions to the way she was perceived first by Dan, then by the CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley, and finally by the CIA Director?

Didion: Right you are to note that I am sometimes prickly about these portrayals!

The film doesn’t milk it, but it shows that her male colleagues call Maya “the girl.” They do so perhaps in part because, as played by Jessica Chastain — with her tiny frame and enormous blue eyes — she doesn’t look nearly as focused/steely as she really is. At an early point, some of her male colleagues have a conversation about her in which they wonder whether she can take it (witnessing the torture, living in hot zones like Pakistan, etc) — and the scene goes like this:

Dan: Don’t you think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?
Bradley: Washington says she’s a killer.

What does all this mean? I think Bigelow chose a frail-looking, wide-eyed actor like Chastain precisely because she’s capable of provoking conflicted emotions in people. The jolt of realizing that someone as innocent-looking as she could be relentlessly single-minded is brilliant.

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Does this jibe with you? And what did you think of Chastain more broadly in the role?

JMM: It wasn’t her physical stature — the other woman analyst, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), was a bigger woman — it was the fact that they chose this work and lived it 24/7 with such an amazing devotion to it. Some have said Maya was obsessed to the point of being psychotic, I don’t agree with that. But yes — the choice of Chastain as the focal point was not something you might have foreseen. It was a great decision, and I’ll give Boal the credit for writing the screenplay that way. From another perspective — I read that Rooney Mara was also considered — but then we would have had the same physical type (tiny woman, big eyes) anyway.

So using Chastain was definitely a major plus. Which leads to another question. Which male character did you think had the biggest impact on you?

Didion: I’d like to say one quick thing about Chastain: she didn’t always work for me. I almost feel like a traitor for saying it, because by the end of the film I saw so clearly why she was a perfect choice for the filmmakers. I believe it’s because there’s something just so jarring about her waves of great hair, no matter where she’s stationed. And there are a couple of scenes early on when I had to fight to believe she really was a CIA analyst. But as I say, by the end of the film it all worked for me.

Damn you, Chastain, and your awesome hair.

Damn you Chastain and your awesome hair.

I love your question about the most effective male character, and it’s hard for me to answer. I think it was Patrick, the squadron leader played by Joel Edgerton — from late in the film when the team finally gets permission to go ahead with the capture/kill plan. He’s the member of the squad who seems most anxious about the plan. His trepidation is so beautifully portrayed.

How about you?

JMM: Let’s back up a bit — you held Chastain’s looks against her earlier in the film? I wouldn’t have expected that from you. This very fact that she wasn’t a plain Jane with dull clothes and whatever to play down her looks seems to me that you would have objected to that….

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Didion: Not held her looks against her — that’s too strong. We’re all used to having gorgeous people in Hollywood films. But her hair was so perfect in every single scene — it stretches credulity for a woman as single-minded as she was. Especially because that particular ‘do of hers takes time. It’s a problem less with Chastain than with the hair & makeup people. (Dan’s hair, in contrast, was absolutely believable.)

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

In retrospect I think Bigelow made choices early in the film to create doubts from the audience about Maya. Can she handle a suspect being tortured? Can she get the higher-ups to buy her theories? All of this is important to see Maya’s development over the course of the film (and the many years intervening).

But as I watched those early scenes (the first hour, even?) I wasn’t sure Chastain was the right choice. This is what I meant to say.

JMM:  Okay. I have it in focus now. Staying with Chastain’s development — I think very early in the initial torture scene, Dan and Maya go out, then return but before they return, he asks her if she wants the black balaclava mask, and she says no. That established her toughness for me right then and there. But that’s not the actress — that’s the script.

Back to the male actors. Just so I know we are talking about. There’s the scene with one guy sitting on a couch and the other tossing the horseshoes. The one tossing them says, “You really believe this story?  Osama Bin Laden? Which part convinced you?” The other indicates Maya and says, “Her confidence.” Which one of those was Edgerton?

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

Didion: The non-horseshoe throwing guy with the trust in Maya. The horseshoe guy is Chris Pratt, who plays a real moron on Parks and Recreation — so much so, in fact, that I just couldn’t buy him as a serious character in this film. My reaction against him was so profound simply because he’s so good as a goober on TV. (He is excellent on TV, BTW.)

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

One other very tiny complaint: Bigelow stacked this film with recognizable actors. Here I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s Mark Duplass and Édgar Ramírez!”

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

And: “Oh, I’d forgotten James Gandolfini would be in this! Hey, that’s Elizabeth Bennet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice!” Very tiny complaints, but it did distract me a bit. Especially because I found the discoveries of no-name actors like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker to be so wonderful.

JMM:   I recognized Mark Strong, and Duplass, Gandolfini of course — but I didn’t have a problem with them. They were identifiable actors in roles we didn’t have names for. Gandolfini was the CIA director — but I don’t think he brought anything to the role — so yes — you’re right to take Bigelow’s to task for the use of those actors.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Didion: A couple more questions before we cut to the latter part of the film (and warn people about spoilers). First, was there anything about the early part of the film that didn’t work for you?

JMM:  Not really. I went in knowing how the story would end, but not the film. Likewise I didn’t know how the film would begin — but I thought it would be a slow start and gain speed as it went on. So I won’t say that the early part didn’t work — instead I’ll say that I liked the latter parts better. Do you have something in mind that didn’t work for you early on?

Didion: Not at all. In fact, I realized after about an hour: that Bigelow has done something truly wonderful in showcasing the work of all these lower-level, on-the-ground individuals working so hard to figure out problems. To focus on them rather than the politicians or the generals isn’t just refreshing; I actually want to say it’s democratic.

Another question: which male character proved most vivid/important for you?

JMM: That’s an easy one. Has to be Jason Clark as Dan, the enhanced interrogation expert which was nothing like what he might have been doing in Langley, Second was that he ultimately decided to return to Langley, as he put it — to a “normal job.” It was good to see him make that career change. It was so difficult watching him do those things to detainees:

Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I am not your friend. I am not going to help you. I’m going to break you.

So his character arc was very rewarding for me. In fact he was one of the few characters who really changed within the context of the film. Do you agree?Jason-Clarke-Zero-Dark-Thirty

Didion: He was great. A very appealing person — you can see how he was able to play the good guy during his interrogations but also capable of jarring brutality. I also liked the fact that you saw him age by the near-end of the film. It showed what this work does to people.

Okay, shall we switch to the film’s last hour or so? SPOILERS AHEAD!

Zero-Dark-Thirty002-730x365Once Maya gets her suspicions confirmed and the CIA commits to an operation to attack the compound in Abbottabad, the film shifts into overdrive. And I don’t mean it becomes a Tom Cruise-like action film. I thought the methodical, terrifying, and nerve-wracking preparation and detail of the compound scenes were some of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen on film. What do you think, JMM — did that work as well for you as it did for me?

JMM:  Did it work for me? Absolutely. In fact, this was easily the highlight of the film. Since we all knew the outcome of the mission, could Bigelow and Boal still make it exciting, and scary, and filled with tension and even fear? I think they easily hit a homerun with that. The fact that nearly all of the mission was viewed through the night vision goggles — gave the scene an otherworldly feel to it. The creeping around corners, or up the stairs…. We were placed in their shoes and we didn’t know who or what would behind the next doorway — this was just a brilliantly planned, conceived and executed piece of film.Zero_Dark_Thirty_-_still

What was it that you felt about it. Was it the feelings the scene created for you, or was it the technical visuals that made it work for you?

Didion: Exactly. The night vision goggles, interspersed with shots from the helicopter — absolutely gripping. But not in a typical action movie way — for maybe three big reasons, as I see it.

First, there’s a moment before the operation when one of the squadron figures (is it Patrick?) warns her that he has lost men in previous missions. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: the film somehow manages to emphasize the real risk of the operation in a way that seems both gentle and devastating.

Second, the scenes of the entire mission are lengthy and fraught, almost as if it was done in real time. If there’s one thing Bigelow is a true master of, it’s developing a highly detailed and realistic military scenario that doesn’t glorify its characters, but rather emphasizes the true danger. Is there any other director who can do this?

And finally, when was the last time you saw a film that relegated its star to the sidelines for such a crucial sequence? I’m blown away by the fact that this entire part of the film hardly shows much of Maya at all. There’s something about the fact that she, like us, had to experience it vicariously.

I keep emphasizing that this isn’t an action movie kind of sequence. And yet perhaps I’m not quite putting that right. It made me so nervous I almost had the shakes!1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

JMM: Great point: the star is absent from the encounter. I thought so at the time but hadn’t thought of it since. Marvelous way of setting her aside and relegating her to watching it as we did.

The second point is also quite telling — in most previous Bigelow films, I also thought that action was handled not only masterfully, but also in a way that marked it as quite different that the kinds we were used to seeing..

Your first remark — about reinforcing the elements of danger and high risk — Bigelow outfoxed me on that one too. I expected a shooting casualty — not that a whole chopper would go down.

I wondered about the final accounting of the body. We knew from the news reports and Pentagon briefings that the body had been disposed of at sea. How did you react about the fact that Boal and Bigelow decided to NOT include this?zero-dark-thirty-torture-chastain-12172012-144412

Didion: Isn’t it strange — I didn’t think about the issue of the body at all. But I was so moved by the fact that they showed very little of the body. Again: what kind of Hollywood film doesn’t show a bloodied body? We saw more of the other bodies in the house than we did of OBL’s.

JMM: I figured since we never saw an actor portraying Bin Laden — there was no need to show any material views of the corpse.

Didion: And let me say I think this was an extraordinary choice to make. There is no grandstanding. I loved the moment when one of the SEALs says to the shooter, “You killed the 3rd-deck person” in a way that seemed incredulous. None of them can quite absorb the moment. The fact that it’s surreal for them makes it all the more surreal for us.

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

JMM: I’m with you on that. No grandstanding or flag waving. No one could use the term jingoistic to describe it.

There was one scene that caught me completely by surprise. In the sense of I didn’t see it coming: the hotel in Islamabad blown up by a car bomb down on the street. That really shocked me. And it solidified for us exactly how dangerous being in country really was.

Didion: Too right! NO idea that was coming. No wonder I was such a nervous wreck by the end.

The scene that really floored me — and the one that wound up presenting me with so many conflicting emotions: when Maya gets on the aircraft carrier. JMM, tell me why you think that scene is so powerful.

JMM:  I didn’t quite leave in tears but I thought the last few moments with Maya on the big air transport plane, totally alone — with nothing to do — no place to go — and no one to see was a supremely difficult moment for all of us. I think that particular image was deeply affecting.la-zero-dark-thirty-20121219

It spoke of the desolation one might have facing the unknown, or the sense of completion of a difficult task which means you are now facing an emptiness There was no other way to convey the moment — it was Bigelow’s point to temper the success of the mission by showing us that for Maya it might be the forerunner of hollowness or depression.

If people want to talk about torture in the negative sense, then when you look at this — what Maya is left with — this is really horrifying to contemplate.

Didion: I’m so with you. What that scene conveys is that the killing of OBL is almost an anti-climax. The best analogy I can think of is that this must be what it’s like to have a family member murdered, and one dedicates all one’s emotional energy toward catching, convicting, and imprisoning the murderer — only to realize that one still has a lot of grieving to do afterward. We place a lot of emphasis on retribution, but ultimately this film shows that Maya still just has a big hole in her soul the way the rest of us do. It amounts to a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. An amazing achievement.

JMM: Early on I said that the film has been controversial and polarizing. I’d like to talk about a part of that now. A few members of the Actors community have expressed negative perspectives. Chief among those was that they believe Bigelow and Boal were all too comfortable in portraying the torture. While they may have been comfortable about it — I don’t think there was too much of it or too much emphasis placed on the role of torture by the filmmakers. Obviously Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and David Clennon have the right to express their opinions, but do you believe they are making a fair judgment about Bigelow and Boal’s intent?

Didion: Like I said earlier, this is a tough one for me. If I were the judge in this case, I’d insist that we look at the entire film — and the film as a whole emphasizes such humanity that I would be forced to argue the scenes of torture do not constitute an endorsement. But it’s tricky because the film takes for granted — and does not editorialize about — the fact that agents used torture on detainees, and that it helped them get information. I think Asner, Sheen et al are wrong in emphasis but perhaps close to being right about the slippery nature of those early scenes.

You?ZerodarkthirtyMaya480

JMM: Before I answer, I really don’t want to throw the actors under the bus — but I do think it is interesting that none of them spoke up after President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed. Was there anyone, anywhere, that rose up and asked how did you get this info. Was torture involved? I don’t think a small Pakistani child called up and said you might be interested to know who lives across the street.

Didion: I think you’ve nailed something important: this film is agonizingly clear about the fact that one cannot trust the information you gain by torture. It simply amounts to yet more information, much of which might be false. Rather, this film advocates for the trained analysts whose job it is to think intelligently and in educated ways about the masses of conflicting information — indeed, about the sheer vast bulk of information.

JMM: I want to ask about a particular scene that did trouble me. And this might have been a bit of the Hollywood in the film — or make that a small bit of overriding luck. They are able to get their hands on a phone — clone it, and then with their sophisticated tools — somehow they end up driving right NEXT to the car with the courier. Did you find that believable? Talk about your needles in a haystack….

Didion: In such a long, methodical film it DID seem improbable (and quite fuzzy on the details), didn’t it?

JMM: I’ll give them time compression — it might have been many long months — but how did they get the phone — I’m a bit unclear on that.

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

Didion: So one of the things I said at the beginning of this conversation — a big, sloppy, grand statement — is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Is that too grand for you, JMM? You’ve seen a lot more films than I have — and have written about them wonderfully, so I imagine you have a strong opinion on this subject.

JMM: I’ll go you one better. I think this was the best film of the year and I think that I have to go all the way back to All the President’s Men to find a film based on real events that I liked as much as ZD30.

I think I measure a film by a number of standards but ultimately always ask whether I was engrossed by the film. Did it captivate me to the extent that I wasn’t bothered by the folks chomping popcorn a few seats away. I was fully and totally invested in this one — and for me, that’s a prime indicator of its excellence.

Didion: Let’s keep slathering on the superlatives, shall we?

As an academic I often find myself squirming when I think real-life events are portrayed in ways that don’t fly. So even though I have no idea what torture looks like, how a black site works, or how CIA operatives figure stuff out, I do know that absolutely none of those depictions onscreen felt phony or Hollywood-ized. For examples, see virtually every Hollywood film made about a historic event.

But I’ll go ya one further: this film is somehow also about us, about we who experienced 9/11 and have not learned to grieve. It leads us through a process of killing the architect of that attack and mass murder, but it does so such that we can get someplace beyond the drive for retribution.zerodarkthirty-2

I don’t know what to say beyond the fact that this is an amazing film — I’ve never seen anything like it. Even All the President’s Men didn’t deal with such subjects like the importance of figuring out who we are once our primary bad guy is dead. Or the fact that once he was dead, he just looked like an ordinary old man.

I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with superlatives. But I’m tempted to say it’s the most amazing film achievement of the last ten years.

JMM: Well if that isn’t the grandaddy of superlatives than I don’t know what is. But I very much liked the reference you made about “who we are”. We are the ones who created the terms Enhanced Interrogation. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil (which ties in with your remark about OBL being “like an ordinary old man”). In the Bourne film, David Straithairn says that the CIA is now ‘‘the sharp end of the stick”.

Didion: Tell me, JMM, have you seen anything else since watching ZD30, and are you now ruined for the rest of the films available in theaters at this time of year?

JMM: Like the detective said to Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Forget it Didion — it’s January — there won’t be anything good coming out for a while. Or at least until April.

Didion: Sigh. I have a long list of things to see in the theater, but I just can’t imagine I’ll be able to see them without being disappointed. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ZD30?44692000001_1896977864001_Zero-Dark-Thirty-rev2-t

JMM: You got that right Professor! —

Didion: Many, many thanks, JMM — what a pleasure to talk about this film. Such a stunning piece of work. [Tips her glass in the air]

JMM: My pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you once more. I’ll raise my glass to that too!

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18 Responses to “…in which we chat about “Zero Dark Thirty,” torture, surprise, and post-9/11 trauma”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    It was fun. It’s always fun working with you. I love many of the images you found that I didn’t – I might make use of the night vision perspective shot. Can you remind which role Ramirez played? Thanks.

    • Didion Says:

      Ramirez was the on-the-ground guy chasing the courier through the streets using the phone.

      Feel free to steal anything, as I stole a number of yours! I’m still envious that you found some I didn’t see elsewhere.

  2. FD Says:

    I posted a lengthy ZD30 comment on the JustMe Mike site earlier, but I have some additional questions/observations I’ll direct your way.

    1) I thought the torture victim at the start of the film gave the most believable performance in the whole movie. Do you know the actor’s name?

    2) Whoever Maya is, I’m pretty sure she is more complicated than the way she was portrayed in the movie. As I said to JMM, she’s like Ahab, but she has both her legs. Boal said somwhere “I’m not a huge Freudian. When I meet somebody, I’m not interested in what they were doing when they were 6. I like characters that are defined in the very existential present tense.” Agreed that movies reveal character best by their actions, and that Maya’s childhood is probably not essential to tell the story. But as good as this film is, imagine how much richer it might have been, if Maya had any doubt about her analysis, her handlers, or the objective of the mission. Writing the day count on the glass is not only simplistic, it emaciates one of cinema’s best female characters. Are we really going to sit through another generation watching a female John Wayne stereotype?

    3) I thought the best lines actually appeared on the title card at the end of the movie. They summarize the story in two lines that I can’t quote because they aren’t even in the screenplay. But, they read something like: “The hunt for bin Laden cost one trillion dollars. Osama bin Laden’s son is now twenty-one years old.” If you saw the end of The Hurt Locker, these closing lines should have a familar ring.

    • JustMeMike Says:

      FD – the actor who played Ammar was Reda Kateb. Since he was in the opening visual scene, he appeared second in the credits list for the film on IMDB. He’s been in a number of French films and TV shows.

      2) Not sure I agree with calling the day count simplistic. After all it was a public statement, and a reminder to the Station Chief, Joseph Bradley of the number of days that had been wasted. She made this statement in full view of Bradley as well as others on-station. In that context, ’emaciates’ is not really fair.

      3) There was a line made by Gandolfini’s CIA Chief to someone in the elevator. It encapsulates Maya’s work environment as well as the challenges she faced in her own particular assignment. The man in the elevator says to the head of the CIA – [about Maya} ‘She’s smart.’

      Gandolfini replies – ‘We’re all smart’ – which was his way of saying that he wasn’t impressed with her. I thought that was a powerful line

      One last point – I’m thinking that calling the Maya character – a John Wayne stereotype – strong, silent, laconic doesnt quite work for me either unless you are thinking also of heroic, driven, and courageous

      • Didion Says:

        Great points, JMM. Love that line from Gandolfini, which is an amazing way of summarizing Agency skepticism.

    • Didion Says:

      Wasn’t that actor the best? JMM has already found Kateb’s name for you, but honestly, that dude should win an acting prize too.

      I didn’t find her to be a John Wayne stereotype; I found her to be partly so interesting because she buried so much of her energy and emotion behind her workaholism. I’m a bit tempted to say that a female John Wayne is not a workable possibility … except maybe Lara Croft, Tomb Raider! The closest we ever come is Erin Brokovitch types.

      You draw attention to her writing the day count on the glass … I think you’re exactly right to note that there was some serious narrative shorthand there. The filmmakers doubtless opted to do that to 1) avoid portraying her as a bitch, and 2) to show the stunning delays in acting on her intelligence, without really offering a serious critique of Maya’s higher-ups. More could be said about this.

  3. FD Says:

    As a followup to my previous point about Maya’s portrayal in Zero Dark Thirty, here’s a previously published article about the real woman.

    ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Heroine’s Real-Life Inspiration Under Scrutiny
    Published: December 10, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

    By Alexander C. Kaufman

    The heroine in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” spearheaded one of the CIA’s most successful missions, the hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden.
    But the real-life agent’s record of service has been less than exemplary since the mission, according to the Washington Post.

    Though she remains undercover, the operative was passed over for promotion, openly sparred with colleagues over credit for the bin Laden raid and came under scrutiny for her interactions with Bigelow and her filmmakers.

    The female officer in her 30s — the agent portrayed by Jessica Chastain’s character Maya– is combative and temperamental, the Post wrote citing unidentified agency sources.

    Maya, which is not the real operative’s name, is at times depicted as having near-messianic vigor for her work: When a female colleague is killed in an attack in Afghanistan, she says, “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

    “She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,” a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of jealousy through the agency’s ranks, told the Post.

    Earlier this year, when she and a handful of employees were awarded the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the officer criticized her fellow recipients.

    “She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a former CIA official told the Post. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”

    • Didion Says:

      Despite the nasty tone of this article, it sounds to me as if this could have been a far more feminist film. And also that, given certain restraints of filmmaking, they got the character right on many levels.

  4. Servetus Says:

    I will admit with typical heresy that I didn’t feel myself wounded by 9/11. However, I do now want to see this film.

    • Didion Says:

      It’s more of a cultural wound, I think — and you might be surprised to find how much it affects you. God, how I’d love to talk with you after seeing it.

  5. FD Says:

    I think you’re exactly right too. If Maya had been male, his character might have been more layered, more crazy, more unpredictably human. As written, she seems more like a female stand-in for John Wayne.

    Unlike Brockovich, it seems they sterilized Maya to be more acceptable to a mass audience. And so I’m left to imagine what this movie might have been beside a simplistic pat of self congratulation.

    • Didion Says:

      Why would being male have made her character more layered, etc.? I don’t see that at all. Neither do I see her as sterilized.

      Again, I’m so sorry to learn that you found the film simplistic and boosteristic. I don’t know what to say except that this was not my take on it.

  6. FD Says:

    I appreciate your viewpoint. I think you and JMM posted a great discussion. I also think that Kathryn Bigelow is one of our best film directors. But, she had CIA cooperation that may have affected the substance of her film.

    The comment about how the Maya character was cleaned up actually came from my wife. She says moviegoers still won’t buy a realistic female lead like the hostile, email-crazy credit grabber described in the article I sent to you earlier. Compared to the intelligence service female characters on cable TV shows like Rubicon and Homeland, Maya is an all-american cheerleader.

    We both liked the movie, but it was less penetrating than we expected. Terrorism is a worldwide tragedy. ZD30 is a well-made adventure story. Bigelow can do much better than action/adventure if she puts her mind to it.

  7. M.E. Says:

    Like the photo of Gandolfini. What does he play? A Supreme Court justice? And no, I’m not gonna see this flick. No way.

    • Didion Says:

      He’s the director of the CIA. The “buck stops here” kind of guy.

      I’m sorry to hear you’re not going to see it! it’s terrific, really.


  8. […] Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it […]


  9. […] All the more reason for a new interpretation. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire in the three core roles, does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film achieve what Clayton’s could not? I sat down for a chat about the film with film critic and blogger JustMeMike, with whom I’ve analyzed films in the past — most recently Zero Dark Thirty. […]


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