Zero Dark Thirty‘s Female Powerhouse
3:00 pm, December 30th | by Meredith Lepore
Friday afternoon I saw Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a smart drama about the behind-the-scenes, decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. But it is also a gruesome, tough film to watch. The first half hour of the film shows different torture tactics used by CIA agents (which has drawn quite a lot of criticism) to get information from prisoners after 9/11. I haven’t been this uncomfortable watching a film since the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. But if you can make it through this, it is worth the wait.
At the center of this film is a strong woman who will not stop until her journey is finished. Zero Dark Thirty presents a new kind of female protagonist – one who doesn’t need a man to save her and doesn’t need to seek revenge on one who victimized her (although bin Laden victimized the world at large). And, of course, the woman that directs this movie, featuring such a strong female lead, is another female pioneer — Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow.
Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya or “the girl who got Bin Laden”, said when she read the script she was shocked that there was a woman at the center of all this, but then she was disgusted that she was shocked by that fact. Most of us tend to think of the CIA as one of the oldest boys’ clubs in the world, but there has been a major shift in recent years. Shows like Homeland and this film make it seem like women aren’t exactly running the place, but are making a big impact. From CNN:
“From the founding of the bin Laden unit at CIA in December 1995 onward, female analysts played a key role in the hunt for al Qaeda’s leaders.
The founder of that unit, Michael Scheuer, explains, “(Female analysts) seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting and going outside for cigarettes than the boys. If I could have put up a sign saying, ‘No boys need apply,’ I would’ve done it.”"
But this doesn’t mean they still don’t have to be tough, which is what we see in Maya. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, in which a model of Osama’s compound has been brought to some CIA higher-ups, petite Maya pipes up to interrupt in a board room full of men in suits. James Gandolfini, who may even be more intimidating than Tony Soprano in this role, asks who she is. “I’m the motherf*cker that found this place, sir” she says. The men are shocked. Veteran CIA operative Glenn Carle, who is retired, told CNN “When I started, there were to my knowledge four senior operation officers who were females, and they had to be the toughest SOBs in the universe to survive. And the rest of the women were treated as sexual toys.”
“[Maya] is intelligent, capable and I think she can stand on her own. And making this film with Kathryn Bigelow, I think it represents this generation of women that we really don’t see. I’m excited to see a character that Hollywood doesn’t change and say yes she’s a hero but she needs to take medication also. She’s not really….she is also a mess,” said Jessica Chastain.
But at the same time, the film doesn’t shove its feminism down your throat, which is very much a trademark of Bigelow. The character of Maya is ambiguously gendered. We really don’t see any of her personal life in the ten years she is on this journey. She only distinguishes herself as a woman that is different from other women when asked about sleeping with a coworker: “I’m not that girl that fucks.”And as Inkoo Kang pointed out in MovieLine, the great “motherf*cker line” is also gender ambigious. After all, anyone can be a motherf*cker.
Maya has many flaws (she’s a workaholic and obsessive, to say the least) but she is refreshing and a new kind of hero for women. Though we need Katniss Everdeen and Hannah from Girls as well, this character is extra special because she is based on the work of a real woman who saved the day. Chastain told MTV News, “I think the whole point is that I’m playing a true person and this is exactly what she did. She didn’t have a boyfriend. She didn’t have the guy at home after she had a hard day, who is like ‘Hey, babe. Let me make you dinner.’ That didn’t exist for Maya,” Chastain said. “She, over a decade, kind of went down the rabbit hole, getting lost in her work, until finally at the end of the movie, [the pilot] says ‘Where do you want to go?’ She has no idea where she goes now. Who is she now?”"