I have a friend with an obsession. It’s ok, we all have one or two. But my friend’s obsession is going to be examined here slightly because he called me just after I’d finally seen Zero Dark Thirty. He asked me how it was, but told me he wasn’t going to see it. He found the film’s existence offensive. He’d read a few reviews that confirmed his view and had put his foot down. And so after a brief skirmish, in what he imagined to be a complete change of subject, he started to tell me about his latest week’s worth of pouring over digital communications, piecing together criminal networks, and liaising with local law enforcement.
My friend is an animal welfare activist. Protecting animals was a slowly discovered passion that is presently a minor obsession for him. Unlike Jessica Chastain’s composited CIA agent Maya, my friend’s obsession has nothing to do with his day job, but rather like hers it can occasionally, and strangely, fall into the category of “Who gives a fuck?”. Depending on where you’ve been in life or what pets you have at home his work risks seeming trivial at times, or at worst a distraction from larger issues. Why focus on animal abuse while millions of farm animals are being slaughtered? Why care about one life when many are at stake? There’s no overarchingly rational answer to questions like that. But of course people do care.
Zero Dark Thirty is first and foremost a detective story. But while it goes into suitably deep and murky detail about how Bin Laden was located it plays a deeper game by resting this accomplishment on the shoulders of a character about whom we learn next to nothing. Why does Maya ultimately give a fuck about Usama Bin Laden? Many of us can remember the time when the answer to this sort of question seemed obvious, but the movie’s decade long search takes us well beyond those early days. I suspect we’ve all thought back to our first reactions, to our fear and rage, and gained some perspective. But we don’t see Maya’s moment of reflection. We see the pressures and tragedies of the job reshape her desire to capture UBL into an obsession, but we aren’t shown what nurtured that desire originally or how she relates to it. This choice denies the audience an insight which many seem to crave from the movie. How does she sooth her visceral reactions to the torture she’s expected to facilitate? How does she justify it?
No character in Maya’s story gives a moral condemnation of torture. However the movie’s visual depiction of torture is a conscientious choice. It places the history we didn’t see (The CIA’s black site torture program) within the all too familiar visual context of the past decade’s history of war. We know the wars have not been fought perfectly. I doubt many would even argue they’ve been fought well. Showing the torture program as a collection of scrounged plastic pitchers and athletic mats, rented cargo ships, and cells cobbled from 2x4s and barbed wire, marks it as a product of the same hasty desperate stumblings that produced those wars. Whatever anyone in the movie might think of torture we see it strongly depicted as a flawed tool.
Once this visual context is established the movie quickly makes clear that not only is it uninterested in dwelling on morality or on Maya’s backstory, but it’s not interested in dwelling on anything except the process of gathering and synthesizing the information used to capture UBL. In the course of this it suggests the CIA might have been able to locate him years earlier, perhaps without torture, and it portrays Maya’s singular drive and confidence as crucial to discovering and destroying his final hiding place. It casts its questions in relief. Why was any of it done? Why give a fuck? The notion that the county and its bureaucracy might have moved on to some extent is presented clearly and unremarkably as Maya’s obstacle.
To quote Bruce Sterling: “We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that”. Sterling was talking about computer derived aesthetics, but while watching Maya and her colleagues pour over petabytes of algorithmically gathered terrorist chatter, recordings of drone feeds and interrogations, and documents from around the globe, I couldn’t help but think it applied. In the midst of the deluge of information summoned up by the war on terror Maya finds it increasingly difficult to swim back to the source, and increasingly difficult to justify to why she needs to do so.
What keeps Maya on her trail is not justice for her country, or even vengeance for the voices heard in the opening’s black-screened audio-montage of first responders and victims (which, since Fahrenheit 9/11, seems to be emerging as the traditional device for representing the day). What ultimately motivates her is vengeance for the colleagues she lost during the search, and the certainty that her lead is the crucial piece to the mystery. But Maya can’t be seen as a superhuman protagonist whose certainty flows from total mastery of the case. It’s another younger agent who discovers the identity of the courier that leads to UBL. Maya’s is a less than rational certainty, intertwined with the obsession we watch developing but can’t ever fully see.
Zero Dark Thirty is part of a growing tradition of modern work using the investigation of murder to explore obsession (David Fincher’s Zodiac is a key example, as is Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell”). That this theme has such resonance in our ever increasingly info-dense society isn’t surprising. Mysteries may seem more solvable now, but as they move into the past and leave behind exponentially larger wakes of information to be tracked and indexed and reviewed the risk for any obsession with a mystery to become dangerously all consuming increases. We can all relate now.
The answers we find for ourselves about Maya’s motivations probably won’t be of much use in any political sparing matches, but anything that gives us insight into how we approach our own obsessions is worth caring about.