Zero Dark Thirty: An “Heroic” Narrative?

Structurally, Zero Dark Thirty rigorously follows the heroic fable pattern. It begins by replaying, over a dark screen, voices of people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and it ends with a real-time reenactment of the moment of vengeance, the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But it takes a path that lacks the triumphalism of an equally recent movie about the CIA, Argo (2012), or a somewhat less recent movie, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).

Zero Dark Thirty is ironic in the same way that “The Social Network” is ironic. The latter ends with the originator of Facebook alone, obsessing over the Facebook page of the woman who rejected him. Zero Dark Thirty departs from the archetypal heroic fable in several ways. It graphically presents the use of torture by the CIA and implies that torture contributed useful information, while also incorporating President Obama’s decision to order a cessation to torture. It is unsparing in its depiction of reversals along the way to victory, most notably a suicide bombing engineered by a false lead that wipes out a dozen key CIA agents in Pakistan. Finally, the key protagonist, a front line agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, shows, at best, relief at the outcome.

Zero Dark Thirty, in its desire to be topical, is based on what is necessarily incomplete information. It lacks historical perspective. Again, there is a contrast with both Argo (2012), which recreates the 1979-80 “Canadian Caper” and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), which, based on George Crile’s magisterial history, recreates the CIA’s initiative supporting the Mujahideen who drove the Soviets out of Aghanistan in the Eighties.

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain as well as a faction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for implying that torture was effective in ascertaining valuable intelligence. It has also been criticized by the CIA for exaggerating the importance of the front-line agent Maya and downplaying collaborative teamwork. These are claims that cannot be evaluated until more evidence emerges. The filmmakers, as is often the case, want to have it both ways: claiming the validity of their anonymous sources while also arguing that they have created a docu-drama, rather than a history, and so should not be judged on the basis of historical accuracy.

The aspect of the movie that fascinated me most was the bureaucratic work of following sources that ultimately led to military action. Ann Hornaday, in the Washington Post, wrote “In many ways [director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are] paying tribute to the kind of career officials and government bureaucrats that are so often ridiculed and scorned outside Washington. Zero Dark Thirty celebrates process, professionalism, and continuity of government that transcends partisan bickering and policy changes.” That statement would certainly appeal to the Post’s particular readership, but begs the question of how accurate the movie is about what it celebrates.

In focusing on the agent Maya, Zero Dark Thirty has followed a particular trope, namely that of the dedicated front-line officer who strongly holds a theory and ultimately convinces her initially skeptical colleagues that the theory is correct (comparable to reporters Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men). The CIA’s tradition of giving front-line officers of the Clandestine Service wide latitude, reinforces the trope.

Having myself celebrated front-line innovators (in Innovating with Integrity: How Local Heroes are Transforming American Government), I am particularly partial to that trope, but as someone who respects accuracy, I am troubled to read reviews mentioning that Maya remains under cover and that “Maya” was actually a male or a composite or a number of people. Obviously the choice of trope and actress – the talented and attractive Jessica Chastain – heightens the appeal of the movie. When more well-researched accounts of the hunt for Bin Laden emerge, we will have a better sense of the movie’s historical accuracy. In the meantime, we can ponder the moral questions it raises about the use of torture and appreciate the narrative it constructs about the efforts of a smart, dedicated, and compelling local hero.


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