(This piece should only be read by people who have either a, seen the movie, or b, don’t particularly care. It will cover the plot from beginning to end, so be forewarned.)
“Do you think I’m just anybody, Ali? Do you?” – T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
“I’m the motherfucker who found this place.” – Maya (Jessica Chastain), Zero Dark Thirty, 2012
Zero Dark Thirty is a film at once thoroughly of its time and promising an enduring timelessness, the sort of picture which will be taught in colleges and universities for decades to come as a model to aspire to, but will also be enjoyed and remembered by those who see it. “Enjoy” may not be the right word, for the level of positive feeling in the film is minimal and even when it comes carries with it a sense of uncertainty over whether we the audience should be unequivocally happy by the events. Zero Dark Thirty is riveting…it holds attention from the very first sounds we hear and keeps one gripped until the concluding image, an almost terrifying calmness over two and a half hours of storm.
In saying Zero Dark Thirty is a film of its time, it is a movie situated very thoroughly in this moment of world history, of post-9/11 politics, espionage, and warfare, of the technological advances in shooting movies, and of the expectations of an audience accustomed to advanced and unconventional storytelling. Mark Boal has a respect for the audience which very few screenwriters convey, presenting the action in a series of short scenes with minimal exposition, getting into them late and leaving as early as possible with help from rapid-fire editing, confident that we can keep the multitude of characters and actions straight as one location and conflict rapidly give way to the next, waves of information and deduction punctuated by occasional and genuinely startling explosions and deaths…this is a giant thriller for a generation raised on CSI and other procedurals. Kathryn Bigelow, she of the greatest Oscar slight in decades, directs with an eye for finely observed details to create the most documentary-like atmosphere possible, culminating in the climactic raid sequence filmed with ingenuity, precision, and artistic flair as Bigelow frames one shot after another in a way which soaks up the atmospheres, leaves one wondering what will be around the next corner or up the staircase, creating more excitement than many pure action movies do. In short, there is no way this film could be mistaken for an earlier war or suspense movie. Even Alexander Desplat’s music eschews melody and theme until the very end, sticking to a minimalist drone that echoes the hum of computers, the whirr of rotors, the ticking in the head of the prisoner being agonizingly bored to death.
But Zero Dark Thirty is also a film which, like Casablanca, will transcend circumstances. Bigelow and Boal hold to the classical three-act principles of film storytelling to craft a satisfying and straightforward narrative out of all their massive number of scenes, and more importantly, they tell a story which makes one think long and hard about humanity, who we are, where we’ve been, where we are going. Those who loudly slam the film for its depiction of torture miss the point: Bigelow does not glorify torture, does not show it in any favorable light, but simply presents it as being what it is as if to say, this happened, and our country did this, and was it worth it? If anything, her unflinching realism is a supremely effective argument against torture, at the very least something which will make those watch the movie think long and hard about it. And in showing the many layers of people—soldiers, intelligence officers, technicians, governmental bureaucrats—involved in the anti-terrorism activities, with their bickering, their aloofness towards the dangers of their work, their attitudes regarding America, its enemies, and the roles we all play within the grand picture, Bigelow and Boal further make us ponder how society should be organized and run in a shrinking and sometimes very threatening planet, and how far our government, military, and security network should go—how far ANY such systems should go to achieve their goals. (As displayed in the film, it’s messy and frustrating but it can get the job done.)
In short, a masterfully made movie with action, suspense, and deep ideas worth pondering.
But that wasn’t what made me want to see Zero Dark Thirty when all is said and done. The tipping point, which pushed me into catching it on opening weekend, were three sentences from the review by David Poland, my go-to figure for what’s worthy of my celluloid attention. Specifically, Poland said this:
“Bigelow & Boal are in a kind of sync that is rare in the history of cinema.Boal has raised the bar on the output of Bigelow’s master-level visual skill by giving her material to work with that is seriously challenging and meaningful. … This is the stuff of Lean and Bolt.”
For those who don’t know me, Sir David Lean and Robert Bolt are my great film heroes, Bolt the model for most of what I do in my creative writing. I firmly believe they delivered the greatest one-two punch in movie history by creating Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago back to back. So this made me curious…for despite the Arabian setting, Zero Dark Thirty did not come across as an epic production. I toyed with the idea that maybe it was an epic, an epic for the information age in which fighting against piles of data and the aforementioned tedium-punctuated-by-blood-guts-and-action takes the place of grand battles and ice palaces and trains blowing up set to stirring music, a cerebral, modern epic for modern history and warfare. But as my erstwhile fellow Recorder of cultural opinion Travis pointed out, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t have the scope of an epic. It’s not about a shifting epoch, but a manhunt, for a man of admitted power who made his presence felt through the world, but a man whose true role in events will always be a little shrouded in mystery.
So I had to look elsewhere for the comparison, and found some things. This time (The Hurt Locker has a bit of this style.) Bigelow isn’t interested in the sweeping and magnificent as Lean was, but they both share a superb ability for intimate moments, for how to perfectly capture conversations and exchanges of great importance (see Brief Encounter). And Boal and Bolt, they of the similar names, have similar gifts as screenwriters, the ability to write dialogue which serves the film by conveying needed information in an efficient manner so as not to get too talky, but still echoes the rhythm of normal conversation. This is a damned hard trick for those who have never tried it.
Yet the biggest similarity lies in the two characters quoted at the beginning of this piece: Maya may be a composite, a creation drawn from several real life intelligence agents, while T. E. Lawrence was as flesh and blood as they come. Yet their own variations of a hero’s journey in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawrence of Arabia can be played in harmony. Indeed, in many ways, Maya’s story reflects Lawrence’s for a new century, a century full of new ways of living with new challenges in the world, but emotional, personal conflicts and crises which remain unchanged by time, intrinsic to human nature.
Travis points out the one great surface quality Lawrence and Maya share: they are driven figures, pursuing goals that seem all but impossible and letting no enemies, superiors, or the like get in their way. But beyond their relentlessness, Bolt, Lean, and Michael Wilson’s conception of Lawrence and Boal and Bigelow’s construction of Maya have a lot in common. And within these similarities there is room for contrast, which shows how Zero Dark Thirty,without copying Lawrence of Arabia,achieves similar thematic and emotional effects for our age.
Origin Stories: Many by now have commented on how Lawrence, at least the cinema’s Lawrence, is best defined as an enigma: the scene of his funeral at the beginning finds the English characters all unable to grasp who he was, the Arabians, except for the perceptive Feisal, can never predict what he’ll do next, and Lawrence himself is most surprised at all that happens to him. But Maya is just as much an enigma as Lawrence. This stands out less in Zero Dark Thirty because she never gets the self-reflective moments Lawrence occasionally has (“I enjoyed it” being the key example). We only see Maya at work, with even her half-hearted attempt to socialize being a grand failure. Lawrence and Maya are defined by what they do: lead a revolution against Turkey and crack the mystery of the greatest American manhunt of them all. Their characters and emotional lives don’t seem to count, except the perceptive audience member should be intrigued by HOW they came to do what they do in the first place.
Just why Lawrence gets plucked from the cartography unit and sent into Arabia is never fully explained. Murray mentions a facility with languages acquired in an Oxbridge education, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Most tweedy scholars wouldn’t know the first thing about being in an alien combat zone. But it is in mentioning this background that one of the great clues to Lawrence is revealed–the only time in the film he discusses his life in Britain is when he admits to being an upper-class bastard, the illegitimate son of a man of property. Born without a proper identity, he has a natural desire to claim one, and this desire arguably increases his natural gifts, gives him a need to excel at what he does in hopes of defining himself.
But if Lawrence has no self-definition, Maya’s character comes from having too much self-definition, a picture too closely circumscribed. Like Lawrence, Maya has only one brief moment to reveal her past, when she tells the CIA Director that she was recruited straight out of high school. Clearly, Maya had some sort of exceptional capacity of her own, yet this also means that her life is limited. In all likelihood, she grew up with the regimentation of childhood under parental authority and school, and then gets shuttled right into the regimentation of government service. Maya’s whole life is one of following rules and achieving directives: she never has a chance to expand as a human or grow in any way but along the occupational lines she travels. There are signs in the movie of her being stuck between adolescence and adulthood, especially when she calls out Bradley: there are undertones of a know-it-all teen who can back it up deliberately rebelling against the figure in charge.
Masters of the World: Lawrence’s boundless ambitions and Maya’s limited existence paradoxically lead to a similar result; they become dominating figures in a foreign world, succeeding and earning respect from others. This doesn’t just happen for either of them. Lawrence and Maya may be gifted, but they need their own periods of education to reach the heights they achieve. Lawrence gets his education mostly offscreen, on his first journeys into the desert, journeys which introduce the ways and means of desert life, and also insight into the different Arabian tribes. Once Lawrence has this knowledge to combine with his skills, his success is assured. All of his adventures come to relatively successful conclusions because he knows exactly what limits to test, what he can say and do to fulfill the peculiar wants and needs of those he deals with. He lives in the desert, as signified by his dress and weather-beaten features, in a way Allenby and the others do not, and this is why he succeeds. We do not see Lawrence fully gain this knowledge, since Bolt and Lean telescope the educational process into Lawrence’s travels to link up with Brighton and Feisal, but we are shown enough to accept and believe in his mastery.
Maya’s education, on the other hand, takes place fully on-screen, from the moment we are introduced to her, as she observes her first interrogation and attends her first intelligence meetings. At first quiet and hesitant, especially in her hesitation over taking the bucket for water boarding, she gradually acquires confidence to spare, progressing from being a confident assistant in interrogations to enthusiastically running her own, from confidently offering her theories to arguing them with the highest levels of national security. And because Bigelow and Boal pile on the detail in these scenes, we feel much more than with Lawrence just how much Maya grows in stature and acquires the knowledge needed to fulfill her quest. She even, in one scene in her apartment, looks completely at ease in headscarf and local clothing; a very Lawrencian touch. (Though she never dances as he does.)
The great difference between Lawrence and Maya in their educations is their ages. Lawrence discovers everything on his own, like an explorer, every scene offering something alien to the upper-class World War I jingoistic Englishman, and his genius is in putting these discoveries to practical effect. Maya lives in an age of globalization and information, unparalleled resources Lawrence never would have imagined at her fingertips. Her genius is in interpreting this overload and drawing the right conclusions from it. But their geniuses mask flaws: Lawrence is so entranced by continual adventure that he takes bigger and grander risks and assumes his own fatal sense of importance and indestructibility, while Maya is so caught up in her gathering information that she never seems to think of how it was acquired in the first place, especially with the torture.
Sex and Tension: The desert, Lawrence says when describing why he likes it, is clean. Lawrence and Maya both like the idea of living clean, uncluttered lives. In their attainment of mastery and triumph, they offer no signs of a personal life, and certainly none of a romantic existence. Significantly, both live in worlds dominated by English-speaking men and feel most comfortable with an “other,” Lawrence with the Arab men, Maya with women.
Lawrence shares a provocative closeness with several Arabs. He journeys across a perilous sandstorm to save the life of a young man left behind, his feelings when his closest friends are killed touch on insane madness, and his relationship with Ali most resembles that of violent lovers who quarrel over many things but cannot stay away from each other; Ali comes to detest Lawrence but will not turn away from his magnetic aura, while Lawrence is at his most desperate, most eager to prove himself, around Ali. It is Ali who shelters Lawrence after his rape by the Turkish Bey and his allies, a scene which brings out most frenzied side of this warrior still in the process of self-discovery. Placed in an unimaginable situation, one which may have brought out a side of his character he could not deal with, Lawrence responds with savage violence in the “No prisoners!” massacre. Sex for Lawrence is a non-factor at best and a terrifying possibility at worst…
While for Maya sex is non-existent. A beautiful woman* surrounded by unattached men, she seems to never even consider the possibility of a relationship, let alone casual sex. There is only one moment of a heterosexual connection, when Dan, Maya’s ruggedly handsome mentor figure, decides to return to Washington and asks Maya to come with him and help him make strides for the intelligence community. It is an offer made with genuine respect and feeling, and a hint of possibly more. Maya, after a single flicker, turns it down emphatically so she can continue her search for Bin Laden, and when she reunites with Dan later in the film, she barely gives him a moment’s notice.
The person Maya is closest to is her colleague Jessica, who in many ways is everything Maya is not: a mother, a person gifted with a sense of humor, a person of equal ability who doesn’t always choose to make waves. But Jessica can coax Maya out of her shell to socialize, can share in Maya’s ambition, and in one of the film’s most noticeable touches, after Jessica dies in an explosive trap, Maya, who has no personal effects, keeps a picture of her and Jessica, both smiling in delight, on her desktop. Nothing sexual is ever implied in their closeness, but an “opposites” attraction is not out of the realm of possibility between Maya and the only person she shows any feeling for beyond the respect of one member of the team for another.
Defeated in Victory: Lawrence helps the Arabs drive out the Turks. Maya is there to identify Bin Laden’s corpse. But the final image of both films is eerily the same: Lean and Bigelow show their protagonists being transported away from the desert and towards civilization, laurels, the promise of new ventures. But Lawrence simply looks defeated, his eyes gazing with longing at the landscape passing by him, while Maya, as the music finally breaks into a melody, lets her tightly controlled body collapse and bursts into tears. The films fade to black on these downbeat notes for two victorious people.
Lawrence has spent the film in a world full of the unknown and the possible, the biggest unknown being himself, but he leaves Arabia unsatisfied, for nothing he has done has brought him the unqualified fulfillment he craves. He has been used by his superiors, been devastated by his enemies, failed to realize his vision for his ideal Arabia, lost his best friends, and fallen in love with a land he hates at the same time. No wonder he is defeated; he has lived more in a short time than many do their whole lives and comes out still having failed to achieve what he needs.
Maya’s problem is different: she has taken advantage of the information age to pile all of her efforts to interpreting certain data, chasing its conclusions, and reaching her goal. But like Lawrence, she has not achieved what she needed: instead, her accomplishment also takes away her reason for being. Her entire adult life is focused on the pursuit of Bin Laden, and now she must not only find something else–but what else, considering she has spoken with disdain of smaller missions, is a great unknown–but also must now in her repose face the magnitude of her actions and their consequences, the torture, the deaths, everything. An audience is fascinated by Lawrence as Ali is, but the ideal audience empathizes with Maya, for in her wordless sobs, she asks the question we have been brought to ask: was this worth it?
One movie this writer is surprised more people have not compared Zero Dark Thirty to is Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal, a dispassionate but spellbinding tale of two obsessive figures, the assassin for hire and the detective trying to catch him, told with all the same meticulousness. But Jackal does not offer moral conundrums or uncertainty as Lean and Bigelow’s films did…the thematic ties run deepest here.
Perhaps Bigelow’s next film will continue in this vein, or perhaps her and Boal will pull a Lean and Bolt and tell a grand love story in a different but no less historical climate. It would be a fascinating change of pace.
*Also deserves to be mentioned how the Greek god Peter O’Toole and the pre-Raphaelite model Jessica Chastain are so incredibly beautiful amidst the war, squalor, and terror that surrounds them in a way which comforts an audience. Even more importantly, they’re outstanding actors with few peers.