Set aside the debate about whether or not this film endorses the use of torture as an enhanced interrogation tool. There are other issues plaguing this film by director Kathryn Bigelow, and they primarily involve the curiously empty—or at least vaguely characterized—center of the action, a fledgling CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain).
I loved and admired Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a taut, bravura war film that packed an authentic emotional punch. And while I was mostly caught up in Zero Dark Thirty (the echo of many Vietnam vets’ favorite slang for “early,” as in “we had to get up at O dark thirty”), and riveted by its expert visual and verbal architecture—I didn’t love it. And I have puzzled since then over why I didn’t love it. Then it came to me: Jessica Chastain! Wrong. Utterly wrong! Too pretty, too fragile, too unbelievable—especially the voice, a voice lacking in anything like authority. A high-pitched voice in a masculine power context is clearly a cry for condescension.
My concern with this bracing story of the roughly ten-year “hunt” for Osama bin Laden has to do with the choice of lead actress — a choice, however, that might ruin the film’s believability in order to make a more subtle political point.
As Bigelow’s film dramatizes the race inside the CIA power structure to connect the dots leading to a nighttime mission by Navy SEALS in Pakistan, I had as much trouble with Chastain’s girlish, often shrill voice as I did with the depiction of CIA interrogation techniques. Nevermind the fact that we are given zero motivation for the dogged, almost geeky tenacity that keeps Maya listening in on interrogations, watching endless videos of various Al Qaeda operatives, and rankling the veteran hierarchy with her tantrums and hunches.
We are to believe that Chastain’s crafted-by-Botticelli eyes, skin, flowing red locks and pouty mouth would not create A) a distraction for her alpha male colleagues, or B) a torrent of insider jokes among career spies and agents, much less the special ops teams who actually storm bin Laden’s compound.
Is it actually possible, as Michael Moore has suggested, that Bigelow has given us a feminist challenge, packaged Trojan Horse-style inside a bad ass testosterone frenzy? Is the director critiquing a culture in which women are always ignored, will always be overlooked by taller, louder suits by whom the espionage demimonde was formed? And that Maya (well-acted by Chastain, as long as she doesn’t open her mouth) is the victim of a mind-set that doesn’t realize…..until the last minute….. that the female in their midst really does have the right answer all along?
Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, as written, and as portrayed by Chastain, this particular character is simply not credible as the “CIA expert” who tracks, locates and successfully identifies the body of one—but certainly not the only one—of Al Qaeda’s prime architects. It’s no mystery at all why her insistence on certain connections would be ignored by more veteran operatives, for better or worse.
Yes, that culture needs changing. But simply reinforcing some of the reasons for its prejudices doesn’t do the job. Not does it create a laser focus for a technically ambitious film.