We never find out the last name of Maya, the CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, but that’s not entirely surprising. Thrown into the search for Osama Bin Laden in the turbulent times after September 11th, Maya is a woman who puts her work ahead of everything else.
She’s chummy with some of her co-workers, but doesn’t seem to have any real friends, much less a romantic relationship. If she has any family, she doesn’t seem to be close to them. Maya was recruited to join the CIA right out of high school, and after 12 years with the organization her first and only priority is her mission: As she tells one of her associates, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”
In their first film since the 2008 Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have created a drama that’s both provocative and frequently disturbing on a number of levels. In The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner’s character was a devil-may-care member of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq. He had completely cut himself off from his life back home in order to allow himself to be reckless enough to do what he had to do.
In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya takes risks of a different sort, frequently putting her credibility and reputation on the line while trying to convince her superiors that they should trust her theories about bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Time is always her enemy: The longer the search goes on, the higher the body count climbs.
Zero Dark Thirty is equally concerned with the toll the quest for bin Laden takes on Maya, who becomes increasingly determined and frostier as various failures and fake leads pile up. She becomes obsessive and obstinate, and Chastain is brave enough to show the unsettling and often ugly tactics Maya uses to express herself. She charges right over the line between feistiness and obnoxiousness. In many ways, Maya becomes a stand-in for America in the years between 2001 and 2010: She’s hell-bent on settling scores and sometimes puts her conscience on the sidelines in order to get the job done.
Very early on in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow stages a thoroughly convincing sequence in which a suspected terrorist is water boarded, forced to strip in front of Maya and then crammed into a cabinet. Presiding over the procedure is Maya’s associate Dan, played by Jason Clarke, who handles the entire situation as casually as if he were a salesman entering the latest monthly results into a spreadsheet.
The episode is as hard to watch as the most gruesome moments of any horror movie, and there will be many who’ll charge that by putting it on the screen Bigelow and Boal are endorsing the use of torture as a way to squeeze information out of prisoners. But merely portraying something does not necessarily indicate the filmmaker is saying it’s acceptable. For instance, would anyone have accused Steven Spielberg of glorifying the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, or worried that Darren Aronofsky was making psychotic behavior look cool in Black Swan?
One of the many strong points of Zero Dark Thirty is the way Bigelow opens the door to debate. She wants us to ask ourselves exactly how far we should go to get what we want and what kinds of extreme measures are justifiable in achieving our goals. Bigelow isn’t afraid of ambiguity and unanswered questions and so even though you know how her movie will end, you may not be prepared for how you feel about it afterward.