It’s a formidable thing to watch a young female CIA investigator bring down the most notorious terrorist in history, as we do in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Especially since Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) does so with nary a flash of black lace — even the red manicure she flashes at her first interrogation has gone au naturel by her second. It’s especially thrilling in a season when macho intelligence films crowd multiplex marquees: the ladies of Argo are fearful secretaries, while in Skyfall, 007’s female field colleague takes a desk job. Few challenge Bigelow’s rep as what Dana Stevens at Slate calls “a feminist folk hero,” since she became the first female director to win an Oscar, for the Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker.
But what if the portrayal of her heroine as a lone warrior is as questionable as some say her depictions of torture are? Furthermore, what if it’s not even all that feminist? Bigelow’s selling of Maya’s solitude is dogged: a woman alone on an airfield (spot-lit, dusty), a woman alone in a plane (close-up, tear-streaked), a woman alone at a conference table of twenty-odd male officers (leaning forward, flame-haired). A seasoned female colleague lasts through the first act of the film, another presents key information and is coldly dismissed. Otherwise, Maya is a female mole in a boys club, a symbol of exceptionalism.
Such characterizing has already garnered accolades for its gender politics, if not its geo-politics. CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen calls the film “a feminist epic,” and Valerie Plame herself agrees; Andrew O’Hehir goes as far as to wonder, “Is Feminism Worth Defending With Torture?” But in reality, the unit that zealously tracked Bin Laden was mainly staffed by women — “a bunch of chicks,” as one veteran operative has noted. “The prominent role that women played in the hunt for bin Laden is reflective of the largest cultural shift at the CIA of the past two decades,” writes Bergen. As Michael Scheuer, who founded the Bin Laden unit, told Bergen, “if I could have put up a sign saying, ‘No boys need apply,’ I would’ve done it.”
Yet when Maya removes her black balaclava, giving us a first glimpse of Chastain’s famous red mane, we’re meant to be shocked — it’s a girl! Our assumption, despite reality, is that it’s a man’s world, which Bigelow does little to shatter by hammering Maya’s fictionalized isolation throughout her story. She’s not interested in letting us know that it’s become normative to staff top intelligence missions with a majority of women — such “feminist” reality gets in the way of her myth of machisma.
We are given almost no information about Maya, except that in Washington she wears liquid liner and in Pakistan she doesn’t. Screenwriter Mark Boal, who was permitted extensive access to CIA sources, says in the film’s production notes that he doesn’t go in for “Freudian back-story” (though I have no idea what backstory has to do with Freud). So it’s especially notable when Maya says that she’s “not the girl that fucks — it’s unbecoming,” after her female colleague Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle) suggests she might want to curl up in bed with something other than a briefing. Apparently this is who a woman needs to be to do this work, to be the last one standing: no friendships, no boyfriend, no intimacy.
It’s hard not to see this solitary boys club exceptionalism as a corollary to Bigelow’s own career. As the credits roll at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow is nearly the sole female name from the staff of her semper fi set — even her costume designer is a man. (A female producer, an executive at the studio, is credited as discovering the female agents who comprised the composite for Maya’s character.) Like Maya, she evidently draws her identity from being the only woman in the room, and like her heroine, proudly wears her denial of all pleasurable extracurriculars: When The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins asked Bigelow what she did other than work during filmmaking, the answer was “nothing, nothing, nothing.” But by applying such abnegation to her film’s heroine, she furthers the idea that in order for a woman to be a high achiever in these realms — CIA or CAA — she has to be a self-denying, last woman standing.
I have known women like Maya. When I reported in Baghdad in 2003, my colleague there, a “researcher,” was also an impossibly beautiful young woman with flawless skin in a black rayon suit. She would often joke that the way you could tell a CIA agent was that at dinners and parties, they’ll always be the one insisting they take the group picture — so they don’t appear in it. But she allowed herself intimacy, connection, reliance — she knew that her work depended on relationships. She’d form them, intensely. And then she’d be off on her next mission.
In his best-selling memoir about the Bin Laden mission, Navy SEAL Mark Owen describes “Jen,” one of the women who formed the composite for Maya, as prickly. But he lets us know that instead of marching up to Bin Laden’s body bag and unzipping it alone, as Bigelow has it, two SEALs put their arms around her, supporting her while she watches from the crowd. He tells us that her colleague, whom Owen calls “Ali,” the Pashtun-speaking CIA staffer integral to the mission, is by her side when she flies home after the hunt has ended. By contrast, in the final shot of the film, Maya sits in stunning solitude in the yawning berth of that plane.
We have seen this sexless, friendless lone female warrior before: It’s the much-praised signature of Aliens and Terminator, directed by the ex–Mr. Bigelow, James Cameron. But those characterizations are the stuff of sci-fi, not, as this film’s title card reads, “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Reality, for once, is more feminist than this based-on-real-life fiction: It’s not a lone badass woman marshalling wits against terror, but a whole damn battalion. That’s a true story I’d like to see told.