Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty. Strong Female Character, But Dangerous Messages

Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst, Maya
So I started writing this piece yesterday. I came home all amped up from having enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty and I wanted to blog about how awesome I felt the female character was in it. In the process of researching what other people were saying to bolster my views, I came across some very legitimate concerns of the film's depictions of torture (details later.)

It changed how I felt about the film in general, and I decided to go back and think about things with this new found information. Below are my reworked thoughts. (What an important reminder that your own personal interpretation of things, while valid and important, can often be incomplete without interacting with others and listening to what's out there.)

I'll try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but no guarantees. But, let's be honest...this one of those pre-spoiled movies. It's called history.

Anyway, I had the chance to see Zero Dark Thirty last night at an advanced screening. I went in interested, but skeptical. I like Kathryn Bigelow. I liked The Hurt Locker. And I was excited when she became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director. But I wasn't surprised that the honor went to woman who had just directed a film that was so deeply male centric. So when I heard that Bigelow's next feature was another war film, I kind of rolled my eyes. But then I saw the trailer and I became really intrigued. It had something which The Hurt Locker lacked...a prominent female character.

Ok, Bigelow, you have my attention.

Before I go on, I want to be perfectly blunt about this: there's nothing I like about the war film genre. It's not my jam in a general way, but it also philosophically bothers me. I see it as just a bunch of hyper-masculine posturing and senseless violence which is glorified because of "patriotism" and "honor." And this feeling goes beyond my movie preferences. For example, while I believe he was a deeply evil person, I didn't cheer when Osama Bin Laden's death was announced. (I don't celebrate death in a general way.) And I similarly didn't feel an urge to cheer when this occurred in the film.

I'm sure there are many people who will be drawn in by this war based, violent, proud-to-be-an-American subject matter, but I just want to make it crystal clear that's not what *I* liked about it and I find it problematic content. But within this same film exists a story about a very strong woman, created by women.

Bigelow is a master of suspense. That is what she got right with The Hurt Locker and her eye for creating it carries on into Zero Dark Thirty. Beyond that, Bigelow and Jessica Chastain (who plays the lead, Maya) tell a story about a woman who is extremely compelling and quite strong. Maya is serious about her job. She pushes through even when it becomes too much for many of her male colleagues. Chastain recently shared some excellent insights about Maya:
When I read the script, from the very beginning I was shocked that there was a woman at the centre of it. Then I was disgusted with myself that I was shocked by it. Why would I be so shocked? Of course, a woman could have done this. You start looking at lead female characters in film, they're usually defined by the men in their lives. They're either the victim of the man or the love interest of the man. Maya is not. She's not protected or mentored really...She's intelligent, capable, and she can stand on her own.
I agree. I was really impressed with this character. She's a leader. She's disciplined. She's determined and strong willed. Maya is really the central focus of the film, and that's a tale that could have gone untold. We could have continued to hear the story involving a bunch of Navy Seal dudes, without any mention of a woman behind it all. But here Bigelow and Chastain bring to life a very real woman (who is still currently undercover.) Throughout the film Maya is mostly interacting with male colleagues and detainees, but there are a few other female characters and it does pass the Brechdel test. Bigelow herself made some very feminist comments recently, saying how Zero Dark Thirty is "a real tribute to three or four very, very strong women."

I couldn't help but like Maya and be appreciative that Bigelow's first film post-Oscar win at least has somewhat of a feminist spin.

However, like I mentioned, in researching for this post, I came across so many concerns about the torture content in the film. Critics feel that the film depicts torture as a necessary evil instead of just evil. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the criticism is well founded. While screenwriter Mark Boal's narrative doesn't explicitly say, "tortue gave us Bin Laden!" the story certainly does cloud the sequence of events and sends an inaccurate implication that torture led to raid on Bin Laden's compound. As Alex Gibney wrote:
Senators Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of misrepresenting the facts and “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective,” and asking for the studio to correct the false impression created by the film. The film conveys the unmistakable conclusion that torture led to the death of bin Laden. That’s wrong and dangerously so, precisely because the film is so well made.
The more I read on the subject the less excited I began to feel about the film. I mean, what I liked about it (rich suspense, captivating story line, and strong women) could have been maintained without creating the illusion that torture was effective (and therefore, perhaps, justified.) And the more I contemplated it, the more frustrated I became that this amazing female character (Maya) occurred within the context of all this violence.  Where are the characters like Maya in female centric settings and stories? It just rang true with my previous concerns of Bigelow winning the Oscar because she was appealing to stereotypically masculine audiences. And it made me think of what I wrote previously in regards to moms in the militaryI feel strongly that you can't achieve real equality through expecting women to behave and think like men in order to be seen as legitimate, to get ahead, and be successful. 

So in taking a second look at the film, I've come to the ultimate conclusion that I can't really call Zero Dark Thirty a "feminist film." Yes, it contains a strong female character, but to me, a feminist film wouldn't send such a potentially dangerous and flat out inaccurate message about torture and the justified use of violence. I'm not saying that it would sugar coat the realities of the world, but it certainly wouldn't take liberties to re-tell the story in this manner. 

All of this isn't to say that Zero Dark Thirty isn't a fantastic film. It is, from a cinematic/storytelling/entertainment perspective. But it is also one which can't be taken as truth and and I hope that its viewers take this into consideration. I suppose that could be said about everything. As I often say, it's so important to be a critical consumer of media, for these very reasons. 


  1. Let me preface this by saying I have not read any of your previous posts, and so I may not have your same definition of feminism.

    I just saw ZDT the previous night and concur with a lot of what you said about how impressive it was that Maya's gender was barely a factor. She maintained her presence in the operation, even speaking up to a CIA analyst to make sure he was aware of her skills, and he never mentioned her gender or how impressive it was that a women had done all this.
    That said, I do not believe it is necessarily a feminist movie, but I ALSO do not believe it is a legitimizing torture. My reasons for both are as follows.
    I feel that based on my definition of feminism that film does not meet this criteria due to not directly addressing the issues of patriarchal influence on an individual's life, rather it is a film which is an EXAMPLE of gender equality. I too, do not believe that making a film with a female protagonist, even a strong one, is automatically feminist; rather such a film is evidence of a widening acceptance for the diversity of female roles. ZDT goes further to achieving equal treatment of men and women not NOT being solely about female roles. I would argue that the violence in the film is essential to emphasize how the task force is victimized in some way, be it physical danger, or the mental cost.

    Now, onto the less savory aspects of the film.
    Torture is of course, abhorrent. It dehumanizes us yet the normalization of it can create the sense that it is acceptable when we "Have no choice"
    But you misread a key aspect of ZDT, and that is that the prisoner at the beginning refuses to give them any usable information and it is only when they trick him by pretending that he'd help stop the terrorist attack that he gives up the name which Maya pursues for the duration of the film. There's no indication that torturing him led to him finally breaking, and if anything it seems to imply that treating him like a hero (An altogether different tactic) led him to abandon his cause.
    While the events depicted do not show torture to be entirely successful, it also does not suggest that what they are doing is wrong (The only exception being Maya's look of discomfort as she watches the prisoner in the first scene), and so I would move to say that ZDT occupies a neutral stance on the subject, opposite "24" whose cartoonish version of this is always shown to be successful.

    If anything, the events in the film seem to indicate that without people like Maya, devoted, resourceful, and smart, no one would have followed the trail to it's very end; regardless of what they got through their interrogations. But the film is not simply about Maya as a hero, but what this heroism cost her.

    I want propose that the most important message of the film is the cost of this manhunt on Maya herself. The various actions she takes are all in the name of finding this lone target, yet you'll notice that it is almost never elaborated WHY he must be found (With the exception of the idea that he influences other terrorists) and even more troubling, WHAT she or anyone will do once he has been brought to justice. This is a classic case of showing the dangerous of obsession with retribution, and rather than showing her triumphant, that final scene show her realizing how achieving her goal has done nothing visible. Though bringing him to justice may have made a symbol of U.S. power and perhaps gave the government and people hope, all we see in that scene is how the obsession with killing him had blinded her from any thoughts of the future.

    Stephen Spielgerg's film Munich asked; "Did we ever really accomplish anything?" and watching Maya in that final scene, I can't help but imagine that she is thinking the same question.

    I thank you for reading this, and hope you respond.

    1. Hello,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I'll tackle the part about does the film take a stance on torture first. Like I mentioned, when I first watched the film, I didn't walk away thinking, "Damn that movie was pro torture!" I think it is ambiguous but that means there's legitimacy to the interpretation that it does endorse torture.

      You said: "But you misread a key aspect of ZDT, and that is that the prisoner at the beginning refuses to give them any usable information and it is only when they trick him by pretending that he'd help stop the terrorist attack that he gives up the name which Maya pursues for the duration of the film. There's no indication that torturing him led to him finally breaking, and if anything it seems to imply that treating him like a hero (An altogether different tactic) led him to abandon his cause."

      That's true, and I get what you mean. But to me, the problem here is that the prisoner character isn't based on a real person or a true series of events. He represents a composite of MANY actual detainees and by collapsing all those people down to just him, it can make it appear like his fear of further torture inspires him to tell them the truth. You say that the dinner setting is them tricking him, while that plays a critical role. But let's be honest, when the audience see that they previously beat the shit out of him, suffocated him, and left him locked in a box, etc., it's hard to believe that he wouldn't approach the situation without all of that in his mind. So the chosen story arch of using that ONE character who was tortured and then treated w/ kindness, a meal, etc. makes it look like the torture at least played a role.

      Here's the thing...the FACT is that the torture never led to actionable evidence, but the FICTION of the film makes it at least look like it was an important factor. I think there was unnecessary ambiguity pumped into the story. It was probably done to keep the cast down to a smaller number of character for simplicity, but the fact remains that it's a pretty big issue to simplify and leave open to this interpretation when we know the reality of the true life situation. It feels like they're playing loose and fast with it for no good reason. If they had created a totally fictional psychological thriller, I'd get it, but this is supposed to be grounded in reality.

      As for Maya's role and whether or not the film is feminist--I think, we see eye to eye on that one. I was going to add in some extra thoughts about how the movie doesn't really directly confront gender issues in high level defense related government work (and there are many!) but I thought I had already rambled on yes, I agree with you about that. While Maya is strong, her character and the film don't necessarily take that next step to ask the viewed to think critically about her gender or societal structures.


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