Zero Dark Thirty: War Baby, War

In a lot of ways America experienced a rebirth on September 11, 2011, when terrorists attacked our major military and financial symbols, killing some 3,497 in the bargain.


The new film Zero Dark Thirty begins in incubation, darkness, the familiar mumbles of shock, terror and later awe as the United States began to become aware of its own vulnerability in the world. A call comes in to 911 from a woman slowly burning to death in one of the towers. The operator can do nothing – as we could do nothing – but listen to her utter her last words.


This is the world Maya (Jessica Chastain) inherits. Recruited straight from high school and sent into the heart of action in a CIA enclave in Pakistan, Maya is a war baby, created out of the ashes of the American flag. Led into a dark room by Dan (Jason Clarke), an experienced CIA agent turned torturer, Maya hasn’t got time for small talk, dorm-room gossip or lectures on Cold War politics.


Zero Dark Thirty is as taut a film as we’re likely to see about September 11, and it looks unflinchingly at the means of torture that led us to bin Laden’s not-so-secret bunker. But the film is also curiously quiet about its subject – the mind capable of torturing for its glorious ideal.


The body hanging from the rafters by chains is only part of the story. It’s the pool of blood collecting at his feet that tells the real story and it’s this same trail that will eventually lead Maya – not to illusion, despite her namesake – but to her ultimate goal: bin Laden. Dan may have seen too much (he says later that he’s seen too many naked men, but what he really means is he’s seen too many broken bodies) but Maya hasn’t seen anything other than post-9/11 war.


And her sacred obsession (bin Laden’s body) drives her for 10 years, from one brown-skinned tortured body to the next. The experience of 9/11 flattens her, desensitizes her to violence, pain and moral certitude. It’s not just that the ends justify the means for Maya. It’s that no amount of pain and suffering can erase her memory of 9/11. What she desires isn’t simply justice or even retribution: it’s the impossible, symbolic return to the America she vaguely remembers in which there was no Osama bin Laden.


If you think that the story of Bin Laden’s eventual murder is really the story of American’s return to glory, Zero Dark Thirty is not for you. This is not a film about a bunch of he-men Navy Seals recapturing the American dream by showing us that, shit yes, we can still get the job done. This is the story of a broken generation’s need, not to win the war on terror (whatever that might mean), but to see the body of the man who took away their illusions.


Maya is Generation Y and in many ways Zero Dark Thirty is a film about one young person’s frustrations with older bureaucratic forms. In an early scene, fellow analyst Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) discusses a lead during a briefing only to be cut off by Maya who says in a frustrated tone, “That is pre-9/11 behavior.” In a world where everything has changed, only those new to the game have the intel to understand the new rules.


The station chief in Islamabad (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t have the vision to see what is painfully obvious to Maya: the blood trail leading back to bin Laden’s compound. He lacks her drive, and is easily distracted by other concerns (New attacks on London and New York? How would stopping these atrocities make up for allowing the tragedy of 91/1?), and ultimately is as much an obstacle to her as the terrorists.


President Barack Obama and his advisers lack the political will to “get ‘er done” or the steely reserve to sanction what is necessary (torture), according to the film. They attempt to arbitrarily change the rules of the game and eliminate some of the brutality of the war on terror, punishing (in effect), not those responsible for 9/11, but young warriors like Maya, who have learned to live by new rules.


Dan warns Maya that “you don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar” when the moral rules once again are reversed, but the girl scarcely remembers a time when torture was seen as a morally reprehensible act. It is just one more tool – along with wiretapping, blackmailing, and bribery – the young CIA agent has leaned to use to get her closer to bin Laden.


The politicians, bureaucrats and middle managers are, in many ways, more problematic to her than the broken bodies Maya leaves behind her in search of the truth. Because, let’s face it, although some bodies can be wrung out like a wet dish rag and still not give up an e-mail or phone number, you can calculate out deceit in the privacy of a dark, unnamed Guantanamo-like cage. “Everybody breaks,” Dan says congenially to one detainee as he water boards him. “It’s biology.”


Truth is biological, which is why the story begins and ends in torture. (Not since Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has so much vivid torture appeared in a major film release.) This also explains the need to reveal bin Laden’s body. The ubiquitous body bag the Seals present to Maya could be filled with anybody or nobody at all, but it must be bin Laden. The soldiers surround her as she unzips it, waiting for her sacred confirmation, because she is the only one fully capable of knowing the beast.


It wouldn’t satisfy her (or us) to hear about the terrorist’s death second hand. It needs to be revealed to her as a sort of religious object, the grail that has the power to revitalize the world, and yet she is unable to move beyond it, unable to put her knight’s quest behind her.


Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that the world is still bin Laden’s and the person Maya has become – hard, friendless, driven to the exclusion of everything else, accustomed to torture, murder and mayhem – is the ultimate time bomb the terrorist has left us.


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