[Spoilers for Zero Dark Thirty and Aguirre, the Wrath of God ahead, folks]
Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about Osama Bin Laden. Okay,okay, it is and it isn’t. The film tackles the rather touchy subject of the manhunt for public enemy number one in a way reminiscent of Herzog (and Kinski’s) portrayal of Don Lope de Aguirre, a sadistic conquistador who executed his commanding officer and took control of an expedition for El Dorado. Eventually, Aguirre was killed when he rebelled against the rule of Philip II.
Herzog, as he did with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, twists history to fit the allegorical narrative of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which maintains historical accuracy up until Aguirre’s takeover of the expedition. In Herzog’s version, instead of being put down like a traitorous dog, Aguirre’s obsession with finding the mysterious city (as well as his newly assumed position of power) leads to his downfall. Aguirre ends with the eponymous protagonist, a crazed man refusing to admit that he’s been defeated, defiantly screaming in the face of the world whilst surrounded by the corpses of his followers and daughter. Aguirre’s obsession brings him nothing but misery and death.
Zero Dark Thirty is a quasi-retreading of Herzog’s story, set in a new age and under a new flag. On the surface, yes, there’s no getting past the fact that Bin Laden is a central part of the plot. But this isn’t his story, really. Instead, ZDT is a compelling narrative about the agony of obsession, set in post-9/11 culture and the age of information. It’s a story that we see through eyes of pale-skinned Maya, a stranger in a strange land—our contemporary Aguirre, as it were. There are obvious differences between the two characters: namely, the sex of each and manner of their respective breakdowns. Kinski, being Kinski, is pretty theatrical when it comes to acting out Aguirre’s backslide into nuttiness: he stamps his feet, yells at everyone around him, grits his teeth, and flings some monkeys about.
In stark contrast, Maya’s crumbling is quiet. That doesn’t mean she’s quiet herself; she aggressively pursues information about Bin Laden, berates her superiors, and risks her life on several occasions. But Maya suffers silently, rarely betraying any sign of weakness to her cohorts. Jessica Chastain does a brilliant job of cluing us in on the cracks in the foundations of Maya’s sanity. Quiet moments, such as when she returns to her almost bare apartment to watch television, are punctuated by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. The “the world’s greatest manhunt” is, to Maya, her sole purpose, not just her occupation. She lives for the hunt. It is what defines her existence, especially after the one true friend she has is killed by a suicide bombing.
Unlike Aguirre, she succeeds in her task—but perhaps it’s a hollow victory. For all the critical acclaim lavished on the compound raid sequence, Zero Dark Thirty’s best scenes are the final two: the quietest, most devastating sections in the entire movie. The first is when, after years of agony, Maya finally sees the corpse of the man she’s been hunting. Chastain adeptly captures Maya’s shocked, numb reaction as the realization of what she’s been doing for those eight years slams into her. This leads almost directly into the film’s final scene when Maya boards a massive C-130 as the ship’s only passenger, the massive interior swallowing her and the only other person aboard, the pilot. “You must be pretty important,” the pilot says, trying to make friendly conversation. The film ends with a close up of tears slowly making their way down her cheeks as she stares into the camera. A fantastic final shot that is simplistic but still loaded with a plethora of emotions.
It would be easy to state that Maya’s breakdown at the end of the film, when she finally sheds tears, is symbolic of her being overwhelmed by the morally questionable aspects of the hunt and her lonesomeness; the majority of her friends—at the least the ones she makes during the course of the movie—are dead, after all. Also, within her inability to answer the pilot’s question (a variant of “Where to?”) is the implication that her life now lacks purpose and direction. There’s some validity to all of these points, but ultimately it’s a disservice to the character to say that that’s all she’s dealing with. Instead, she is more than likely experiencing the full spectrum of emotions that would be connected with successfully completing mission: a pileup of guilt, pride, regret, longing, and utter confusion. But just as Aguirre owns his defeat by pursuing his obsession to the bitter, stupid end, Maya owns both her successes (tracking down Bin Laden, winning the grudging respect of her predominantly male co-workers in a patriarchal organization) and failures (her loneliness, psychological damage, the years lost to the hunt) due to her obsession and unwavering pursuit.
Of course, there’s no escaping questions about what she represents. In a film that tackles so many hot topics—torture, women in the military, terrorism, world policing—viewers will attach some symbolic meaning to Maya, one that’s constructed by their respective world views. Such a dissection isn’t really necessary for Aguirre, a violent man who becomes even more violent and corrupt because of his thirst for power. However, the timeliness of Zero Dark Thirty and its touchy subject matter make it much more difficult to try and see Maya just as a character rather than a walking, talking symbol. She has more depth than that, though. There’s enough ambiguity and misgivings woven into her character to avoid (logical) accusations of partisan sympathy on the filmmakers’ part. “We did invade Afghanistan,” she asserts on the first day on the job during a conversation with her co-workers, clearly irritating and flabbergasting them by showing sympathy to “the enemy.” These little instances—coupled with her commitment to the hunt—allow her to rise above the level of a liberal or conservative caricature, no matter how badly pundits from either side want to make the desired label stick.
We could sit around a table and talk all day about how she’s some representation of American perspective X or American perspective Y, but that’s missing the point. This is only a critique of America or nationalist propaganda if one lets political ideologies get in the way of seeing the story Bigelow and Boal are actually telling. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying: this is certainly a film that tackles those aforementioned America-centric topics. But those topics don’t constitute Zero Dark Thirty’s story.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God isn’t really about Spanish expeditions, and Zero Dark Thirty isn’t really about America. Those are just settings and plot devices. Both films are about where our obsessions lead us and our inability to save ourselves once caught in the grip of an obsession, which are really just traps we construct for ourselves.
To be blunt, my intention in writing this isn’t to compare two films set forty years apart that happen to kinda, sort of tackle the same theme and make you think “Well, gee wilikers, that’s kind of interesting.” Anybody with the right kind of eye and in the right frame of mind can point out intriguing connections between two films. Instead, I feel that a case should be made for Zero Dark Thirty, especially given the colossal tide of backlash the film’s inspired over its portrayal of torture. Zero Dark Thirty is a special movie in that it manages to hold the audience in suspense for nearly three hours, though most will know the ending before they see it. It’s a movie that’s telling—not necessarily the context in which we, the audience, sit down to watch the movie—is unblemished by jingoism or immersion-killing critiques. Bigelow and Boal spin a morally grey, surprisingly ambiguous story and are content to leave whatever judgment that needs to be done to the minds of those viewing the film. It’s because of these qualities, its handling of obsession, its “journalistic” approach (I have some semantic quibbles with that phrase, but it’s apt enough to serve the needs of marketing departments and critics, I suppose), that I believe the movie will break free of the constraints of its time period and become a full-fledged classic, much in the same way that Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers can be understood and appreciated with little to no background information on the Algerian War before watching.
I have my doubts that the movie will win any of the major Oscar awards this year, except maybe Sound Editing, Writing O.S., and Best Actress, but none of that really matters. The Oscars are, after all, good, frivolous fun. The true value of Zero Dark Thirty will come not from the amount of awards it wins but instead—much like Django—with the political and cinematic conversation it’s inspired and will continue to inspire. It’s generated a conversation that has us asking the big, obvious questions—some of which are merely echoes of questions from earlier generations—like “What can we show on screen? How do we know when we’ve crossed the line?” and “Is historical accuracy important when it comes to adapting real life events for the screen?” But it’s also a conversation that has individual viewers asking themselves the little, deadlier questions we only direct to ourselves, like “What are my obsessions? What do they do to me? Can I escape them?” and so on and so forth.
Ultimately, there are only a handful of movies released in the last five years I’d say are must-sees (Nolan’s stuff, some Trier, McQueen, Refn), and Zero Dark Thirty is near the top of that list. It’ll be interesting, if nothing else, to witness how the reputation of Bigelow’s film changes in the coming years.
Javy Gwaltney is an aspiring author, screenwriter, and essayist from South Carolina. You can find his articles on those at Bitmob and Whatculture! If you like, you can follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/JavyIV
 Unless gratuitous amounts of alcohols have been consumed, obviously.