Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

The part in Zero Dark Thirty that most interested me was the infiltration of FOB Chapman, a CIA compound in Khowst, Afghanistan. If you remember, in December 2009 at FOB Chapman a Jordanian whom the agency thought would offer usable intelligence about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts instead blew himself up inside the compound, killing seven CIA personnel. Having left Khowst myself in June 2009, and having been on FOB Chapman enough to know what went on there, I was amazed at the lapse in security then and wondered how it might be portrayed in the film.

Whatever happened in December 2009, I was sure the Afghan security force personnel on Chapman had been left out of the planning. There is no way that those savvy, hardened fighters, survivors of two decades of absolutely treacherous warfare, would have been caught inside their own compound with their guard so far down. The movie version doesn’t portray the breach in that light, but it does suggest that a naïve CIA agent—a fetching young woman at that—ignored the advice of her American Special Forces advisors in letting the deadly double agent through the gates unsearched. The movie even highlights the essential girly-ness of the security lapse; while the CIA agent waits for the Jordanian to arrive, she engages in chatty text banter with her CIA BFF, complete with “whassups?” and “cools!”

So, within the context of the film, the scene serves nicely in terms of an overarching narrative about how the CIA learned many hard lessons along the way to a rousing finale. In this story, the fiasco at FOB Chapman isn’t even the agency’s biggest blunder. The film’s much ballyhooed torture scenes, for instance, don’t actually seem to produce much bang for their buck. Instead, they appear to be the flailing about of an organization that didn’t have a clue early on how to get what it wanted. By the film’s second half, and probably in the war’s late reaches, too, the CIA becomes much more adept at using signal intercepts and competent fieldcraft to find Bin Laden.

Within the film’s logic it’s a female agent named Maya whose smarts and determination energize the agency and lead directly to its success. Not an Erin Brockovich-like melodrama of a sexy, strong-minded woman triumphing over patriarchy, Zero Dark Thirty suggests that a soft–dare I say feminized?–American security apparatus could only be saved by a tough modern woman who makes a military virtue out of a stone-cold sense of her own rightness and entitlement. In the process of valorizing Maya, even when at times she seems nothing but a petulant child, the film actually misses what to me seems most important about her personality: her always already there ruthlessness not just in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but in her professional ambition. The poor male operative who presides over the torture scenes in the beginning of the film only thinks he is tougher and harder than Maya, but when the blood on his hands causes him to falter, she is more than willing to continue the brutality on her own. In other words, Maya is fine with torture if it seems to work, especially for her–and that’s the extent of her ethical contemplation of the matter.

Likewise with the CIA’s Pakistan station chief, so full of male bluster, whose surprise removal in part as a result of Maya’s organizational subterfuge reveals just how badly he misjudged the sharpness of her bite. Maya isn’t oppressed in the least by such men; rather, she quickly sizes them up and then vanquishes them as unworthy weaklings. Her sister CIA agent who screws up so badly in Khowst merits even less respect; it’s clear that Maya thinks from the start that she is a ditz. In a scene in which Maya and her middling peers in the CIA’s Bin Laden team are chewed out by their boss, Maya grates at being lumped with such a sad collection of obvious second-raters. As she stews, she plots her infiltration of the heavy hitters in the top echelon of CIA headquarters and the badass bubbas of SEAL Team 6: super-charged Alpha males whom she sees as her rightful consorts, even if she is given to withering insults of their competence and pretensions.

Maya to the SEAL Team 6 commander:  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if Bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But Bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.”

Pretty good crack, actually, that line about “dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit,” though Maya is a gear fiend herself, what with her Ray-bans, sports bras, and designer combat boots.  But I digress.

Ultimately, the film sends mixed messages whether the CIA becomes tougher or smarter as the war grinds on. I hope the real life answer is smarter, because in my experience most hard-ass rhetoric just seems to be an excuse for laziness and stupidity. Zero Dark Thirty is at its most Hollywoodish when Maya asserts that she is going to “smoke” everyone involved in the infiltration of FOB Chapman. The Army actually cans commanders who engage in such bravado-laden talk. Well it knows how dangerous such sentiments become as they trickle down through the ranks and settle in the minds of scared 19-year-old soldiers who must be relied upon to exercise restraint in their daily contact with locals. Similarly, Maya’s profanity-laden outburst in a meeting full of CIA big shots twenty years her senior is a subaltern bureaucrat’s pipedream. In real life such grandstand plays get people written off, if not fired.  My sentiments probably reflect the cautiousness the film finds problematic in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but I’m trying to suggest a complexity that undermines the easy answers the film promotes.

In contrast to the theatrics of Maya’s wrangle with bureaucracy, the scenes depicting SEAL Team 6’s raid to kill or capture Bin Laden seem preternaturally calm and understated, and all the better for it.  But that’s a subject for another post.  I’ll circle back to it when I write about the representation of special ops forces in literature and film.

Zero Dark Thirty was directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  It was written by Mark Boal.  Maya is played by Jessica Chastain.


2 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War”

  1. This film was a really interesting and sometimes problematic one for my husband, as a member of the Intel community. He was uncomfortable (as many people were) with its assumption that key intel can only come out of torture. I read several interviews with the filmmaker (whom I respect quite a bit) but she always seemed willfully obtuse about the movie’s portrayal of torture, instead wishing that the audience would focus on the brilliant acting and rapport between the key CIA operative you mentioned and his captive. Much as I liked this film, I couldn’t help but feel that it continues the notion that torture is something we should keep in our back pocket when we really need to get tough to protect Americans — when it’s not clear whether torture protects anyone, and seems indeed to degrade all parties involved.

    Anyway, love your reviews, as always. This one feels especially apt now!

  2. One of the astonishing things that’s happened to me as I approach late-late-middle-age is learning that I now live in a country that is, well, OK with torture. Leaders my own age approve and allow its use officially and the masses (most of them) younger than me don’t raise a fuss. And this after nearly three decades in the military, most of them spent as an infantry officer, who never heard in a dozen units, a dozen schools, and a thousand conversations the use of torture condoned or even suggested to be effective.

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